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Biden Is Still ‘Just Not Trump’ – He Had Better Hope That’s Enough

Biden and Trump debate 2020

Editor-in-Chief Fintan Hogan criticises the Biden administration for its failure to capture the imagination of the American people. At the last presidential election, he was swept to power by the categorical failures of Donald Trump – it’s looking increasingly likely that he’ll struggle to pull off the same trick twice.

‘Eh’, said the American people in 2020. ‘At least he isn’t the other guy.’ 

Bleach cures Covid-19. The far-right should “stand back and stand by”. Using emergency hurricane supplies to sink imaginary three-pointersCovfefe. Four years of Trump were four years too many. His public approval sunk to -11.2%. This was as close to a free run at the White House as you possibly hope for. Even the donkey that symbolises the Democratic Party would have had a fair shot at election, considering the elephant in the Oval Office.

In strolled Biden, their knight in shining armour. Having already run in 1988 and 2008, he’s the closest thing to a regular that we see in presidential primaries. It was third time lucky for Joe, despite a brief Sanders scare. Yet he never inspired any particular confidence in the American public. Democrats reluctantly backed him as an electable moderate, without much celebration or fanfare. Even before the main race, he profited from the ‘anyone but Trump’ mindset.

Facing a president who lost the popular vote four years before and then proceeded to butcher everything from North Korean relations to a global pandemic, it was unsurprising that the opposition won. Victory in 2020 was thanks to third-party voters reluctantly turning blue and liberal voters who rarely turn out finally deciding to get rid of Trump. But despite this being only the fifth failed presidential re-election in a century, that was not what made headlines. It was actually the slender margin of Biden’s success which shocked the public. Trump won over 10 million more votes in 2020 than 2016, as his percentage of the popular vote rose from 46% to 47%. Commentators asked why it was ‘too close for comfort’, a ‘near-catastrophe’ of an election.

The answer is polarisation. Since voters are less likely to abandon their team, ‘split ticketing’ is a declining phenomenon. This has two effects, neither of which look favourable for Biden in 2024. For one, winning the small share of independent voters becomes more important. These he won by only 9% in 2020, when his approval rating was 13% higher than Trump’s – it is now under 2% better. Secondly, motivating turnout among your side is becoming more important than trying to steal voters from the other. Not the best time for a wizened old centrist to represent the party of young people. Biden’s 2024 campaign opens with the message ‘Let’s Finish the Job’, but voters are more than entitled to ask – what job?

GDP growth has been relatively strong since Biden’s election and unemployment has fallen to historic lows. Yet in a country where citizens often vote with their wallet, perhaps this administration isn’t offering them bang for their buck – thanks to inflation of 8% in 2022 and around 5% in 2023. Republicans have been quick to accuse Biden of ‘boondongling’ (wasting money), thus worsening inflation, and even 16% of Democrats strongly agree. It remains to be seen if inflation will fall sufficiently by 2024, but Democrats have been running an overheated economy for too long for voters to forget entirely.

Is there anything which can excite and re-invigorate the Democratic base, even if the economy isn’t doing as well as it could be?

The environment? The Inflation Reduction Act (2022) was hailed by some as a “step change in America’s leadership in the global fight against climate change”. Almost $400 billion was earmarked for renewable energy and sustainable development, offering a suite of incentives for investors with green fingers. Yet Biden’s ‘no more drilling’ pledge has turned into ‘well, maybe just a bit more’. A huge new Alaskan development called the Willow Project has been approved by the White House. After the ‘big step forward’, the Biden administration decided to promptly shoot itself in the foot, as over 60% of Democrats now think that he’s simply not doing enough. He has also chosen not to repeal the Trump tax cuts (despite promising to do so ‘on day one’), which would have offered new, fiscally-sound funding for climate initiatives.

The China trade war? The CHIPS and Science Act (2022) marked a turning point for the Democratic Party. No longer were they the party of free trade – using the market to constrain China and bring it to the negotiating table, as President Clinton advocated. It was essentially a $300 billion protectionism bill, subsiding domestic firms and making imports less competitive (much to the disgruntlement of allies). Democrats now believe that reshoring is the safest bet they can make. This is not a vote-winner but an indulgence of the same fears which have consumed the Republican Party. Biden and Trump now sing off the same hymn sheet when it comes to ‘Red China’.

Social protections? The Respect for Marriage Act (2022) protected same-sex couples from the chance that the Supreme Court overturns precedent and rules that equal respect for LGBTQ+ relations is not an implicit part of the constitution. This fear came in the wake of the high-profile Dobbs decision (2022) which overturned the universal right to abortion access. This was a huge driver of turnout in the 2022 midterms, particularly in states which had referendums or ballot initiatives about enshrining or removing protections for abortion access. Yet Democrats failed to protect abortion rights nation-wide before the House was taken by Republicans in that midterm election. Cynically, there may have even been an incentive to leave the issue on the table in 2024 as a vote-winner for the Democrats, although the lack of legislation was mainly due to the obfuscation of Senators Manchin and Sinema – lawmakers who Biden was unable to get on board. His inability to act swiftly means that around 1 in 3 women have lost their access to safe, legal healthcare, women who his administration has undoubtedly failed. Trump’s immigration policy is still also more-or-less in place, despite Biden lambasting it during his election campaign.

Overall, has the good outweighed the bad? Probably. But is this a promising election slogan? Definitely not. Trump is not as big and scary now as he was in 2020 or 2021. The Capitol riot of January 6 has been politicised beyond recognition by both parties. The impeachments were a boon to his rhetoric of the ‘deep state’Four long years of lawsuits may lead to few convictions and much scepticism over what he has termed a “witch-hunt”. While ‘Trump candidates’ lost big-time in the midterm elections, having the man himself back on the campaign trail, the biggest political attacks on abortion rights in the rear-view mirror and a rather unimpressive incumbent means that there is a real chance of a mega MAGA-comeback. If Trump can continue to fend off the vacillating Ron DeSantis, he will pose a significant challenge to Biden’s 2024 aspirations. He is not the unelectable extremist that some think he is. He is a frighteningly popular one.

Biden has failed to step out of Trump’s shadow during his presidency – having lost the House to the Republicans, his time to do so has likely run out. It is not the sign of a successful administration that its biggest achievement came before the President had even stepped foot on Air Force One. Climate legislation, fiscal policy, social protections and the China trade war have all either borrowed from the Republican playbook or been half-baked and half-hearted. Democrats are paying the price for playing it safe in 2020. The president now trails in many polls as voters express renewed concerns about his mental acuity. In recent memory, only Presidents Carter and Trump have had approval ratings lower than Biden’s at this stage of their tenure – both failed to win re-election.

The New York Times puts it simply: “While the 2020 election was decided by voters who liked Mr. Biden and didn’t like Mr. Trump, today it seems the 2024 election could be decided by voters who dislike both candidates”. Not quite a titanic clash: stoppable force meets movable object. Having failed to define himself as anything more than ‘the guy who beat Trump’ or inspire excitement among the public, Biden may soon pay the price.

From the country that brought you Jaws: The Revenge and The Next Karate Kid, 2024 may offer the worst remake yet. The stars of the show will have a combined age of almost 160, promising the all-action thrill of a snail race. But thanks to Democratic failures and the enduring apathy of the American public, Biden-Trump II may offer a final, sickening twist.

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