Whether or not the 2024 US presidential election presents the expected Joe Biden v Donald Trump rematch, much will be at stake.
From the future of reproductive rights to the chances of meaningful action on climate change, from the strength of US support for Ukraine in its war with Russia to the fate of democracy in America itself, existential issues are set to come to the fore.
“It’s the economy, stupid.” So said the Democratic strategist James Carville, in 1992, as an adviser to Bill Clinton. Most Americans thought stewardship of the economy should change: Clinton beat an incumbent president, George HW Bush.
More than 30 years later, under Joe Biden, the post-Covid recovery seems on track. Unemployment is low, the Dow at all-time highs. That should bode well for Biden but the key question is whether enough Americans think the economy is strong, or think it is working for them in particular. It seems many do not. Cost-of-living concerns dominate public polling, inflation remains high. Republican threats to social security and Medicare might offset such worries – hence Biden (and indeed Donald Trump) seizing on any hint that a Republican candidate (see, Nikki Haley) might pose a threat to such programmes.
Ron DeSantis made attacks on LGBTQ+ rights a hallmark of his attempt to “Make America Florida”. The hardline governor’s tanking campaign suggests how well that has gone down but Republican efforts to demonise all forms of so-called “woke” ideology should not be discounted. There have been tangible results: anti-trans legislation, book bans and restrictions on LGBTQ+ issues in education, the end of race-based affirmative action in university admissions thanks to the conservative-packed supreme court.
Continuing struggles on Capitol Hill over immigration, and Republicans’ usual focus on crime in major cities, show traditional race-inflected battles will play their customary role on the campaign trail, particularly as Trump uses extremist “blood and soil” rhetoric in front of eager crowds. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, a distinctly worrying sign: Black and Hispanic support for Biden is no longer such a sure thing.
High-ranking Democrats are clear: the party will focus on Republican attacks on abortion rights, from the Dobbs v Jackson supreme court ruling that struck down Roe v Wade last year to the forthcoming mifepristone case, draconian bans in Republican states and candidates’ support for such bans.
For Democrats, it makes tactical sense: the threat to women’s reproductive rights is a rare issue on which the party polls very strongly and has clearly fuelled a series of electoral wins, even in conservative states, since Dobbs was handed down.
Trump, however, clearly also recognises the potency of the issue – while trying to dodge responsibility for appointing three justices who voted to strike down Roe. Haley and DeSantis have tried to duck questions about their records and plans on abortion. Whoever the Republican candidate is, they can expect relentless attacks.
The Israel-Gaza war presents a fiendish proposition for Biden: how to satisfy or merely mollify both the Israel lobby and large sections of his own party, particularly the left and the young more sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Proliferating protests against Israel’s pounding of Gaza and the West Bank show the danger of coming unglued from the base. A recent Capitol Hill hearing, meanwhile, saw Republicans claim a political victory with the resignation of the president of the University of Pennsylvania over alleged antisemitism amid student protests for Palestinian rights.
Elsewhere, Biden continues to lead a global coalition in support of Ukraine in its fight against Russia but further US funding is held up by Republicans seeking draconian immigration reform, some keen to abandon Kyiv altogether. Throw in the lasting effects of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan (teed up by Trump but fumbled by Biden), questions about what the US should do should China attack Taiwan, and the threat Trump poses to US membership of Nato, and heavy fire on foreign policy is guaranteed throughout election year.
If Biden is happy to be seen as a protector of democracy abroad, he is increasingly keen to stress the threat to democracy at home. After all, his most likely opponent refused to accept the result of the 2020 election, incited the deadly attack on Congress of 6 January 2021, has been linked to plans to slash the federal government in a second term, and has even said he wants to be a “dictator” on day one.
Trump will no doubt maintain the lie that his 2020 defeat was the result of electoral fraud as various criminal cases proceed towards trial, 17 of 91 state and federal charges concerning election subversion. For Biden, the issue has been profitable at the polls. DeSantis and Haley, though, must dance around the subject, seeking not to alienate Trump supporters. The New York Times sums up their responses, dispiritingly, thus: DeSantis “has signed restrictions on voting rights in Florida, and long avoided questions about 2020”; Haley “said Biden’s victory was legitimate, but has played up the risk of voter fraud more broadly”.
If Trump threatens US democracy, the climate crisis threatens the US itself. From forest fires to hurricanes and catastrophic floods, it is clear climate change is real. Public polling reflects this: 70% of Americans – strikingly, including 50% of Republicans – want meaningful action. But that isn’t reflected in Republican campaigning. Trump says he doesn’t believe human activity contributes to climate change, nor that climate change is making extreme weather worse, and is opposed to efforts to boost clean energy. Haley does believe humans are causing climate change and making weather worse, but worked for Trump as UN ambassador when the US pulled out of the Paris climate deal and opposes clean energy incentives. DeSantis is closer to Trump – and wants to end regulation of emissions.
Biden’s record on climate may be criticised by campaigners but his record in office places him firmly against such Republican views.