As incumbent US president Joe Biden formally kicked off his re-election campaign at a rally in front of 2,000 union members in Philadelphia, last week the 2024 election campaign came more sharply into view – and most Americans appear decidedly underwhelmed. A rematch of the last election, pitting Mr Biden against his predecessor, Donald Trump, seems to be shaping up, though most Republicans and Democrats say they would prefer a different choice.
Mr Biden is effectively running unopposed. His only noteworthy challenger is Robert F Kennedy, Jr, noted for anti-scientific opposition to most vaccines. Were Mr Kennedy running as a Republican, he might be polling ahead of several well-established candidates, although surely not Mr Trump. However, as a Democrat, he really doesn't stand a chance.
Many Democrats are frustrated by Mr Biden's slow start. A major fundraising quarter went by with virtually no activity from his nascent campaign. Instead, Mr Biden was happy to leave matters to the Democratic National Committee. From his perspective, especially since he’s effectively unopposed, it makes sense. But many Democrats would have preferred a more vigorous and earlier re-election effort, if nothing else for party morale.
Moreover, there are growing doubts that Mr Biden still has the energy and physical wherewithal for a long and gruelling campaign against the likes of Mr Trump, who adores campaigning but profoundly dislikes governing, or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who has been focusing heavily on his youthful 44 years and three young children, all under age 6. That's now mainly aimed at Mr Trump, 77, but could be even more powerful against the 80-year-old Mr Biden should Mr DeSantis upend the current trajectory and secure the Republican nomination.
Mr Biden is clearly showing his age. He still speaks lucidly on policy matters, and journalists who have had extended lunch and other meetings with him privately report he’s alert, acute and on point. However, he has shown signs of confusion at times and, to take just one particularly odd recent example, he ended an otherwise unremarkable speech about the importance of greater gun control measures with the cryptic comment "God save the Queen, man".
The video of the moment suggests he knew perfectly well what he was saying and it was some kind of eccentric joke. Unfortunately, his aides were unable to explain just what it might have been about, and later suggested he was somehow referring to an audience member. But they were unable to successfully assuage doubts that, perhaps, Mr Biden had a spectacular and public "senior moment".
But even if it's true, as it would appear, that he remains mentally formidable, there are significant reasons to question whether he has the stamina for months of exhausting campaigning. In 2020, campaigning was remarkably light because of the coronavirus pandemic, but that will not be the case for the next 17 months before Americans return to the polls. And there is virtually no enthusiasm for his running mate, Vice President Kamala Harris, suddenly emerging as the Democratic presidential nominee.
There are numerous potentially impressive Democratic candidates who could credibly replace Mr Biden – mainly, governors including Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Gavin Newsom of California, JB Pritzker of Illinois, Roy Cooper of North Carolina and Jared Polis of Colorado, none of whom are elderly. But if Mr Biden cruises to an unopposed nomination only to find himself physically overwhelmed by the demands of an exhausting campaign, Ms Harris could end up inheriting the nomination by default.
Yet Mr Biden has been a figure of endless surprises since he roared back to the head of the pack after the South Carolina Democratic primary in February 2020. As President, he has secured a remarkable string of legislative achievements with very little leverage in Congress. And his administration's handling of the war in Ukraine is surely the best US foreign policy performance since the liberation of Kuwait in 1990-91. So, the millions of Democratic doubters may find themselves, yet again, pleasantly surprised by Uncle Joe.
The polls consistently suggest that Mr Trump, if not going from strength to strength in the Republican primaries, is at least maintaining a very healthy lead over Mr DeSantis and all other challengers. Yet he, too, is showing his 77 years, and more importantly, is facing severe legal and reputational peril that, although it may not threaten his ability to secure the Republican nomination, could very well render him effectively non-competitive in a general election.
The indictment brought against him in the federal Espionage Act case filed two weeks ago by special prosecutor Jack Smith cannot seriously be dismissed as a partisan vendetta or an exaggerated triviality. The indictment tells the story of a former president who, with apparent disregard for national security and the well-being of US troops around the world, treated the most sensitive military and intelligence documents as, at best, trophies or keepsakes, leaving them completely unsecured in open public places at his Florida hotel and displaying them to random individuals with no security clearances.
There is every reason to fear that the trial will drag on well past the general election, and possibly for many years. However, even some of Mr Trump's diehard supporters will be given pause if they ever actually read the damning charging papers, complete with photographs and other documentary evidence.
These days, presidential elections are effectively decided by a few hundred thousand Americans in five or six swing states. These voters, including many suburban women, turned decisively against Mr Trump in 2020, delivering the White House to Mr Biden. They appear to have moved even further from Mr Trump, his candidates and his brand of politics in the 2022 midterms. And since then, Mr Trump, with his threats of “retribution" against his adversaries – not to mention the civil judgment that he sexually assaulted a well-known writer in the 1990s – has, if anything, alienated them further still.
It may still be that the general public will get their way, and that neither Mr Trump nor Mr Biden will be their party's nominee. However, it's far more likely that most Americans will again face a distasteful binary choice between A and B. If so, Mr. Biden is very likely to secure a second term – or as much of it as he can complete.