Both Biden and Trump face problems in the run-up to the 2024 election

Time is running out and the candidates have the US divided

US President Joe Biden speaks to the press at the White House rose garden, in Washington, on May 11. EPA
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There's a long way to go before the 2024 US presidential election, but as things stand a 2020 rematch – incumbent President Joe Biden versus former president Donald Trump – looks likely, though few Americans say they want either man to be their party's nominee. Democrats, overall, are somewhat more confident about their chances, based on the broader political landscape, the outcome of the 2022 midterms and a widespread belief, including among many Republicans, that Mr Trump may be practically unelectable.

However, both candidates face mounting and significant obstacles to regaining the White House. As with most sitting presidents, Mr Biden is virtually assured of his party’s nomination, and faces no plausible opposition. Mr Trump has a much broader range of potential rivals, but all of them are either slow off the mark and losing momentum (notably Florida Governor Ron DeSantis), have failed to make a coherent case for their candidacy (such as former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley) or just don't seem to be viable candidates in today's Republican Party (such as former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie).

Yet Mr Trump's own candidacy tends to provoke doom, gloom and even despair among mainstream Republican operatives. That's nothing new. Yet Mr Biden appears to be in considerably more trouble than many of his supporters would have imagined at the end of last year. He faces three obvious and significant obstacles in the short, medium and long terms.

The US president does not appear to have a viable strategy to resolve the rapidly approaching debt ceiling crisis. It's looking increasingly likely that his failure to do anything to forestall this potential catastrophe after the midterm results were known but before the new Congress came into session, when he held many more cards, was his biggest blunder thus far. If Mr Biden can pull a dramatic rabbit out of a hat in the coming weeks, and not only resolving the debt ceiling in this instance but even potentially taking the issue off the table for the long term, he will have produced one of the most stunning victories in modern presidential history and made a tremendous contribution to fiscal and political stability in the US.

What is the US debt ceiling?

What is the US debt ceiling?
What is the US debt ceiling?

But he doesn't seem to have any plan whatsoever. Mr Biden is refusing to negotiate with de facto hostage takers in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, who are threatening to force a default on existing US debts – all incurred by Congress in the past – if the White House won't commit to gigantic and unspecified budget cuts. It is a dangerous and contemptible gambit.

However, if enough Republicans are willing to compromise and give Mr Biden what Democrats several times gave Mr Trump and previous Republican presidents before that, there's no sign of it. Anyone who thinks the current batch of House right-wingers isn't capable of deliberately demolishing the national and, to some extent, global economies simply to damage a Democratic president hasn't been paying attention to their unprecedented radicalism and recklessness.

Mr Biden obviously thinks that when, as Barack Obama's vice president, he compromised with former House speaker John Boehner, only to see the whole agreement fall apart under pressure from the far-right, he made a huge mistake that he intends not to repeat.

Mr Trump's campaign is already a proverbial dumpster fire

But the White House plan cannot be to simply, no matter however accurately, blame Republicans for a devastating outcome. He is the sitting president, and the chances that he will have to shoulder most of the blame for a probable cascade of ensuing disasters are quite strong – it's a lot easier for the public to blame one person everyone has heard of rather than a couple of hundred, or even 20, that they have not. This is almost certainly what Republicans contemplating economic armageddon are counting on.

Time is running desperately short. The jig is likely to be up in as little as two weeks and, even if it can be postponed slightly, it will soon after have to be somehow resolved.

In the medium term, Mr Biden finds himself squeezed by a border crisis not of his own making. The US immigration system is badly broken, and a compromise between the parties on even the simplest aspects has proven maddeningly elusive.

A perfect storm of causal factors is driving increased waves of migration from devastated countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador. They are gathering on the Mexican border and, while the Biden administration is trying to keep them there, immigration remains one of the most potent Republican weapons, appealing even to core Democratic constituencies such as labour, African-American and even Latino groups.

Democrats tend to view immigration as a matter of fairness to migrants and Republicans as a cultural and racial invasion. Both get it wildly wrong: the country badly needs more workers and a rational migration system. But the anti-immigration case is politically much more potent.

Knowing this, Mr Trump has been vowing to restore the borderline-criminal policy of systematically separating children from their parents to deter migration. Unfortunately, there is a real mass political market for cruelty on this issue.

In the long run, Mr Biden is haunted by his age. If he runs against Mr Trump, it will be less of a problem because both men are showing their considerable years. But right-wing media has long ago made the issue a centrepiece and won't let it go.

Mr Trump's campaign is already a proverbial dumpster fire. His recent "town hall" on CNN was an unmitigated catastrophe for his chances. Mr Biden and his policies barely came up. Instead Mr Trump, spouting falsehoods in virtually every sentence, fixated on imaginary fraud in the 2020 election, the glories of the January 6 insurrection, and phony grievances involving the recent civil ruling against him in a sexual assault case and a set of probable looming criminal trials.

Of course it appealed to his diehard supporters. But if Mr Trump wanted to present a message ideally calibrated to convince crucial swing voters in evenly divided "purple" states, such as suburban women, to not even consider voting for him next year, he could hardly have done better.

Much of the country is looking at this emerging campaign with emotions ranging from disquiet to disgust. Most Republicans want to move on from Mr Trump and most Democrats would prefer another nominee than Mr Biden. But it appears the country is going to be facing this unpalatable choice, like it or not.

Published: May 16, 2023, 4:00 AM
Updated: May 19, 2023, 6:42 AM