Biden will have to choose between his left-wing base and the Never Trumpers

It's a tough pick, as the President could risk losing support in his own party by trying to win over alienated Republicans

Biden wouldn’t have to tack very hard to the right to win over many of the voters, but he’s going to have to do more than he already has. Reuters
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US President Joe Biden finds himself squeezed between competing imperatives in the run-up to the November presidential election.

Neither he nor his presumptive Republican opponent, former president Donald Trump, have yet assembled a working coalition that can produce an electoral college majority, delivering either candidate a second presidential term. Mr Biden is in a far more advantageous position, but he faces a potent conundrum about how best to expand his current base: moving to the right and embracing former Trump voters or tacking to the left and trying to shore up the liberal coalition that secured him victory in 2020.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that Mr Biden has little to lose by making a concerted push to win over alienated Republicans. But such a move could be very risky.

The Gaza war has cast a huge shadow over Biden’s credibility with progressive left-wing groups

Traditional assumptions hold that Mr Biden’s former voters are unlikely to end up supporting Mr Trump, whose racist, violent and extreme rhetoric is far more radical now than in 2020 or 2016. The overwhelming majority, the thinking goes, will eventually come back to Mr Biden – even holding their noses – or, at the very least, will stay home.

But how many will really be won over by the current, highly radicalised, version of Mr Trump currently on offer? Apparently more than most Democrats would have anticipated.

Current polling suggests that Mr Trump is doing much better among Latinos and non-college-educated African Americans and other minorities, once bastions of the Democratic voter base and core parts of Mr Biden’s 2020 coalition, than many liberals would’ve thought possible.

Democrats have long suffered from an evident and lazy complacency, with the assumption that Latinos would be impelled by a mixture of immigration and economics, and African Americans by resentment of Republican racism and their own class concerns, to always return to their fold.

Many Latinos are socially conservative, religious Catholics or other Christians, and are therefore responsive to the traditionalist and even reactionary Republican agenda, especially on abortion. Immigration does not trump everything else, and Latinos are by no means united in wanting the US to be more welcoming at the border. Indeed, many working-class Latinos are as resentful of recent migrants using the asylum system to try to bypass formal immigration processes as other Americans.

Non-college-educated African-American men have proved to be particularly receptive to Mr Trump’s appeals in recent months. The extent to which they are aware of his new rhetoric about immigrants from Asia and Africa “poisoning the bloodstream” of the US population, or if they would care, is unclear. But his populist message, designed to appeal rhetorically to blue-collar constituents outside of the traditional unions, does seem to resonate with many young black men.

Both groups also appear to be receptive to his hyper-nationalism and isolationist rhetoric, wrongly assuming, along with many of their white rural counterparts, that international engagement and leadership are simply a burden on the American people and a boondoggle for wealthy corporations. Finally, both seem responsive to Mr Trump’s persona as a strongman outsider who can supposedly cut through traditional power structures and impose better and fairer policies on a corrupt and parasitical elite.

So, Mr Biden needs to be attentive to the drift of these groups away from his constituency, which in some cases could mean tacking to the populist left in order to counteract the populist right.

Moreover, the Gaza war has cast a huge shadow over Mr Biden’s credibility with progressive left-wing groups, many of them African-American social justice and religious constituencies, who are deeply angered about the carte blanche given to Israel in attacking not just Hamas but the whole of Gazan society. On the US left, there is a conviction that Israel has engaged in an exterminationist, even genocidal, war in Gaza with the strong backing of the President and his administration, and that this has been shameful and morally unacceptable.

Mr Biden needs to distance himself from this war, and therefore needs an end to major fighting in Gaza before campaigning gets fully under way by the early summer. But there is little sign that Israel views the timeline in a similar manner. Pushback from the progressive left is a key reason that the administration has been slowly ratcheting up pressure on Israel to ease the humanitarian crisis and prepare to end the war in the coming weeks.

But if Mr Biden attends to these groups, it could be at the expense of the most significant “gettable” group of voters, in addition to the suburban constituencies in swing states that are likely to determine the outcome. While Mr Biden has his Democratic critics, Mr Trump goes into the election with a striking number of Republicans who clearly don’t want him as their nominee. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley consistently got between 20-40 per cent of primary votes, and there is ample additional evidence that more Republicans than ever are fed up with his extremism and shenanigans.

Mr Biden has already attempted to reach out to these voters by embracing what amounts to a Republican agenda on border security in legislation that was killed by Republican House members, precisely to thwart such outreach. But there is much more he can and should do to make it clear to disaffected conservatives, especially those who once supported Mr Trump but no longer can, that he represents an acceptable, even desirable, alternative.

Mr Trump’s upcoming legal tribulations, especially the trial on hush money payments to an adult film star that is due to start next week, could well offer the President a devastating weapon. A felony conviction could provide a decisive opening to convince former Trump voters and other Republicans to at least stay home in November.

Mr Biden wouldn’t have to tack very hard to the right to win over many of them, but he’s going to have to do more than he already has. The problem is that if he reaches out to disaffected parts of his 2020 coalition among minorities and on the left, he may lose the opportunity to steal or silence decisive numbers of Republican votes.

Mr Biden’s conundrum is that he quite possibly cannot have both or simply rely on one group or the other coming back to him in November in despair. He’s probably going to have to choose between these outreach agendas. And, given what’s at stake in the 2024 election, that’s going to be a momentous strategic decision indeed.

Published: April 10, 2024, 2:00 PM