Game on: The Biden camp’s comeback plan - Hindustan Times

Game on: The Biden camp’s comeback plan

Jan 30, 2024 09:00 PM IST

As the choice becomes starker and economic sentiment improves, Biden’s team believes that the momentum will shift to the President

Donald Trump dominates the American political theatre at the moment. His indictments and court cases have helped consolidate his base. His resounding success in the initial Republican primaries has made it clear that he will be the party’s nominee for the presidential elections this November. Negotiations in the United States (US) Congress, where funding for Ukraine, Israel and border security remains tied together in a package, are held hostage largely due to Trump’s signal to the party’s Congressional leadership to make life difficult for Joe Biden. And polls show either a really close race or a Trump edge in the national elections when matched with Biden.

Former US president Donald Trump (left) and US President Joe Biden (AFP)
Former US president Donald Trump (left) and US President Joe Biden (AFP)

On the other side, Biden is struggling with two wars. The Israeli offensive has fractured his political coalition, with people of colour and minorities alienated from the administration for what they see as American complicity in war crimes. There is now a real threat to American soldiers on the ground as seen in Jordan, and American economic interests as seen in the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. The Ukrainian resistance against Russia is diminishing due to fatigue in the West. Macroeconomic indicators look reasonably good but the popular sentiment on the economy is down due to cost of living, with blame largely attributed to Biden. His age and occasional fumbles don’t help, neither does his vice president Kamala Harris’s limited popularity. And the White House is being blamed for the surge in illegal immigration from the southern border.

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And that is why Trump looks like he has the momentum. But conversations with a set of top Democratic operatives in Washington DC indicate that while they are keeping a close watch on the evolving political landscape, the President is confident of returning to the White House. Their confidence appears to be based on four factors.

The first is simply time. “It is just too early. Nine months is an eternity in politics. Let the choice become starker,” said one of Biden’s closest advisors who has seen multiple presidential campaigns. The predictive value of the current political mood is limited given the dramatic pace at which events have been unfolding in both the US and the world. The Democrats believe that the Republicans are taking up all the oxygen in the room at the moment given the primary races, but as it becomes clear that Trump is the nominee, the choice will become clearer, and Biden will continue to step up the offensive against the Republican candidate.

Trump, the thinking goes, is no longer an unknown candidate like he was in 2016. He has had eight years in public life, and in those eight years, he has given the Democrats a lot of material to play with — his erratic administrative leadership, casual and regular violation of laws and rules, the high attrition rates in his own team, his extreme polarising rhetoric that alienates immigrants and minorities, his role in the January 6 mob attack on the US Capitol, his legal cases, and his abrasive behaviour. Once the binary is clear on the ballot on polling day, the Democrats hope that their currently disillusioned younger base will return to the party’s tent, recognising the danger Trump represents to American democracy.

Two, the Democrats believe that the economic sentiment will change in three respects. First, with the economy slowly getting out of the fears of recession, interest rates dipping, growth momentum sustained and robust employment figures, there is a sense that inflation will continue to dip. And as grocery and rent costs dip, Biden’s team hopes that the current anger against the administration will subside. Second, Biden will continue to tout his major legislative accomplishments, manufacturing push, and real financial investments across domains, from infrastructure to climate to modern tech. The Democrats recognise that there is a lag till the impact of these measures is felt on the ground but are hoping that this will assume tangible forms by the end of the year. And the third is Biden’s focus on labour and unions. As the first president to stand in a picket line to express solidarity with striking workers against the auto industry, and with the endorsements of top unions, the Democrats believe that their old working-class coalition, which is where Trump has made inroads, will return to Biden.

Three, the Democrats will make abortion — and a possible legal crackdown on other individual rights — a key campaign plank. The Supreme Court verdict overturning national protection to abortion was due to Trump’s nominees to the court. The decision has alienated women, but also men. And it has kindled fears of backtracking progress on issues such as the legal sanctity of same-sex relationships.

Abortion was seen as the single most important driver of voter attitudes during midterm polls where the Democrats put up a better-than-expected performance. It has also resulted in the Republicans losing in referendums on the issue in Red states. The Democrats will point to the past and Trump’s role in enabling the decision and paint a future where the Republicans will aim to have national legislation against abortion protections. This, they believe, will galvanise women, especially in suburban areas.

Finally, Biden’s team appears to believe that it has the advantage both among key demographics and key states. More Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Blacks still vote for the Democrats than the Republicans even if Trump is steadily making inroads into these segments. More college graduates still vote for the Democrats than for Trump. Fewer moderate Republican and independent voters will vote for Trump than they did in the past. And the battle in states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada remains close and Biden’s pathway to a majority in the electoral college requires him to win fewer of those swing states than what Trump needs.

When Biden met China’s President Xi Jinping in California in November 2023, according to a column in the Washington Post, he told the Chinese leader not to pay too much attention to opinion polls. “You will be meeting with me in five years,” he was reported to have said. Biden may or may not be right. He is definitely down at the moment. But it is never a good idea to underestimate the man who was first elected to the Senate in 1973, hasn’t lost a major national election since, and thrives on being the underdog. The game is on in America.

The views expressed are personal

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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