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President Joe Biden talks to the widow of Republican senator John McCain at a speech he gave on democracy. He is standing at a podium with a flag behind him.
President Joe Biden talks to the widow of Republican senator John McCain at a speech he gave on democracy. AP/Alamy

Can Biden bounce back as the US presidential race turns nastier?

Antagonism between the two expected candidates for US president in 2024 is ramping up as the political battleground turns increasingly nasty.

US president Joe Biden suggested that Donald Trump and his allies pose a threat to democracy, “our institutions, to our constitution itself”, in a recent speech honouring former Republican senator John McCain.

“There is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and intimidated by Maga Republican extremists,” he said, as part of a set of remarks aimed at showing the difference between McCain’s version of Republicanism and Trump’s. Americans continue to be concerned about threats to US democracy, according to a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

In the same week, Trump’s speech to car industry workers in Detroit pointedly tried to drive a wedge between Biden and working-class voters. The former president claimed: “A vote for Crooked Joe means the future of the auto industry will be made in China.”

Currently, Trump and Biden are neck and neck in the polls, and what makes the 2024 race all the more gripping is that a former president will run for the highest political office in the United States while facing 91 criminal charges across four criminal cases. Trump says he is not guilty of any offence.

So why is Biden not pulling ahead of an opponent who already served a chaotic four-year term in the White House and is now facing criminal charges? A CNN study at the beginning of September shed some light on this. It showed the president’s overall job approval figure at 39%. It also found that 58% of those polled believe Biden’s economic policies have worsened conditions in America, with 70% stating things are going badly in the country.

It’s the economy, stupid

More than 30 years ago then president Bill Clinton’s campaign manager and Democratic party strategist, James Carville, after becoming increasingly impatient at questions regarding what the 1992 presidential campaign was all about, responded by placing a sign in his office: “It’s the economy, stupid!” This arguably remains the case ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll on September 24 found that 44% of respondents believe they are financially worse off under Biden. While his administration can rightly point to strong economic growth, near full employment, and record investment in infrastructure, one economic metric remains a critical area of concern: rising prices.

Members of United Auto Workers union march through downtown Detroit.
Members of United Auto Workers union march through downtown Detroit. Donald Trump flew in to give a speech to them on September 27. AP/Alamy

EJ Antoni, public finance economist at the Grover M. Hermann Centre for the Federal Budget, has stated that, “prices have risen 17% on average since Mr Biden became president, versus rising a mere 1.4% in the year before he took office… While annual inflation has since come down, prices are still rising, and now the pace is picking up steam.”

High inflation in 2022 has been coupled with other economic problems for the Biden administration. Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, William A. Galston said that “the earnings of most US households declined significantly last year. For households in the middle of the economic distribution, the decline was 2.3%, from US$76,330 (£61,000) in 2021 to US$74,580 in 2022.”

American discontent with “Bidenomics” is not only an explanation for the president’s poor favourability ratings, but may also explain Trump’s relatively strong figures when matched against Biden in national polling. Gary Langer, a public opinion researcher and political analyst, has observed that: “When he reluctantly left office in January 2021, 38% approved of (Trump’s) work as president… But currently, looking back, 48% say they approve of Trump’s performance when he was in office… Comparison with Biden may be a factor.”

The age factor

The other political issue at play for Joe Biden is his age. He will turn 81 in November (Trump is 77). In a recent NBC News poll, 74% of voters stated that they had concerns about an octogenarian president as well as his mental fitness. In a sign that his campaign realises it is time to step up the pressure on Trump and fight back, Biden’s team has just launched a $25 million television advertising blitz in key battleground states.

In May 2023 Trump was found liable in a civil trial of sexually assaulting advice columnist E. Jean Carroll in 1996. A further legal defeat came on September 26 when a New York judge ruled the former president perpetrated fraud by repeatedly misrepresenting his wealth by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Republicans are now trying to shift the legal focus, launching a House impeachment hearing against Biden, related to his son Hunter’s international business deals, as part of an inquiry into “abuse of public office”.

With 13 months to go before the next presidential election, Biden and Trump remain in an incredibly tight race according to recent polling. The ABC-News/Washington Post poll cited earlier even has Trump leading Biden by ten points, 52%-42%. A YouGov/Economist poll conducted the same week, however, has the president leading Trump by five points, 45%-40%.

As Trump’s seven Republican opponents for president took to the debate stage in California on September 27, the former president chose instead to campaign in Michigan, a sign that Trump does not think he has any real competition. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Hayley, one of those opponents, claimed that: “We have to face the fact that Trump is the most disliked politician in America. We can’t win a general election that way.” This view is not echoed by Republican voters. A Monmouth University poll found that 48% believe Trump is “definitely” the strongest candidate to beat Biden.

Even some Democrats worry that Trump is looking like a winner. In a recent podcast interview, Carville said if the election was “November the third of this year. And … the candidates are (Joe Biden and Donald Trump) … Trump would be a betting favourite”. The 2024 presidential election race looks extremely tight, and increasingly vicious.

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