Biden stands a good chance of getting re-elected given the robust state of the US economy

No major western economy has revived so thoroughly after the pandemic and Biden deserves credit for salvaging the situation he inherited from Trump

US President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One in Washington, on December 23. Bloomberg
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The past year was undoubtedly the most challenging of Joe Biden's presidency. Yet despite poor poll numbers in 2023, Mr Biden seems well positioned for re-election. The US has developed a solid tradition of re-electing most first-term presidents. And his likely opponent, former president Donald Trump, will surely be the most obvious flawed candidate ever nominated by a major party.

Mr Biden's strengths and weaknesses became much clearer last year, especially because Mr Trump appears to be running more against the Constitution and democratic political system than the incumbent and his party.

The best news 2023 provided Mr Biden is the strikingly robust state of the US economy. Many voters don't appear to have registered or fully experienced what a remarkable comeback the US has made from the global financial disaster produced by the coronavirus pandemic.

Arguably, no major western economy has staged such a thoroughgoing revival, and while there are limits to how much influence government policies have on the gigantic and overdetermined US economy, Mr Biden deserves more credit than usual because of the dire situation he inherited from Mr Trump and, especially, the pandemic.

Many voters don't appear to have registered what a remarkable comeback the US has made

Polls may well be reflecting a typical 6-8-month lag time in popular perceptions about economic conditions and the high inflation rates during Mr Biden's first two years. The President did himself no favours with terrible public messaging and is responsible for his administration's apparent underestimation of the potential for serious inflation caused by his wisely far-reaching stimulus and public investment spending.

Early in his presidency, he failed to bluntly tell Americans he was intentionally choosing policies geared towards maximising employment but that carried a significant risk of greater inflation. Rather than the typical implausibly rosy promises he relied on, he should have instead frankly told the country that he had to choose between prioritising jobs versus the cost of living, and he preferred to save and create jobs.

When, in his second year, inflation hit rates not seen in a generation but unemployment was virtually eliminated, he could have honestly said: "I told you I was going to save your jobs, and I've done that. Now we must work together to roll back inflation.” But especially because his administration seemed surprised and confused by sustained high inflation rates, his messaging was sorely lacking.

However, in 2023, inflation began to steadily drop. Mr Biden's target is a 2 per cent annual rate which hasn't been achieved yet, but inflation has been steadily falling and is now estimated at a manageable 3.1 per cent, down from a high of 9.1 in June 2022. Assuming the rate continues to dip or even holds steady, Mr Biden is likely to be a significant political beneficiary. Economic concerns are invariably the most important presidential-level political issue for Americans, as long as the country is not engaged in a major war.

But Mr Biden has been bedevilled by two wars in which the US is a major supporting player. His administration's superb performance in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been profoundly damaged by the refusal of Republicans in Congress to continue funding for that country's defence, placing it at extreme risk of being overrun by Moscow. The credibility of the Atlantic alliance, the US, and, of course, the President, are all at stake.

As I noted in these pages recently, Republicans have been holding Ukraine aid hostage to their preferred, and sometimes downright odious, immigration policies. But many of their voters have been convinced by relentless propaganda, especially on Fox News, that their country is being invaded by hordes of hostile, predatory vagabonds. To many right-wing American voters, it actually feels like a war, mainly because that's what they're being relentlessly told.

Official statistics do reflect a serious surge in unauthorised crossings, and there's no doubt that much of the border area is in crisis, with every aspect of the immigration system overstretched. Mr Biden needs to be seen by the public as acting decisively to at least try to do something about what is probably an irresolvable problem.

Mr Trump proved that even silly rhetoric about an impracticable "wall" along the US-Mexico border can be a political bonanza. Serious and effective policies would surely do at least as well, and even many, and probably most, Democrats would welcome them. This is the main issue that 2023 suggests can most leave Mr Biden vulnerable in 2024, even to an opponent as unprincipled, unfit and thoroughly tarnished as Mr Trump.

The second real war in which Mr Biden is implicated is Israel's rampage in Gaza, which has cost him a great deal of support on the "progressive" left. However, his bear hug of Israel remains widely popular among Democrats and provided no room for Republicans to criticise him as insufficiently pro-Israel. Washington has almost certainly injured its global standing by standing virtually alone against calls for a ceasefire, but it's been good politics for the President.

Mr Biden will want the conflict to end before major campaigning begins, but Israel may not oblige. Indeed, there are alarming signs that Israel may be hoping to expand the war, especially against Hezbollah, in hopes of ultimately compelling US attacks against Iranian nuclear targets.

Meanwhile, Republicans have been hoping to use congressional investigations and even a formal, albeit baseless, impeachment inquiry, to dig up dirt against the President and his wayward son, Hunter. But there just doesn't seem to be any. They've been frantically combing through all sorts of evidence and testimony but have found nothing to impugn the president.

Special counsel David Weiss, appointed by Mr Trump but retained and promoted by Mr Biden, recently added nine tax evasion charges to existing gun-related ones, leaving Hunter Biden facing up to 17 years in prison. But that will make it extremely difficult for Republicans to claim he's receiving favourable special treatment from the government. That's all the more important given the 91 felony counts and numerous criminal and civil trials facing Mr Trump.

Mr Trump's increasingly unhinged performance – he ended his 2023 holiday greeting to the nation with "May they rot in hell. Again, Merry Christmas!" – suggests that Mr Biden's greatest re-election strength is his likely opponent. He's already campaigning on representing the continuation of the US constitutional system against a promise of something far more authoritarian.

"I want to be a dictator for one day," Mr Trump recently vowed. If the economy remains robust, such brazen threats to US democracy ought to be enough to secure Mr Biden re-election this year.

Published: January 02, 2024, 4:00 AM
Updated: January 03, 2024, 12:25 PM