By Harsh V. Pant
A year from now, the US will have a new President but the nation’s electoral challenge is getting curiouser and curiouser. An incumbent President, despite all his efforts, is unable to generate enthusiasm and a potential challenger is unable to get any relief from the courts. And the two main political parties seem rudderless. There are a number of ostensible challengers to President Joe Biden among the Democrats and in the Republican ranks. But no one has been to make a breakthrough of the kind that is usually expected at this stage in the election cycle. American democracy looks stale and tired precisely at a time when it should be leading the march in salvaging the credentials of the western democratic model.
This week’s off-year election results gave the Democrats something to cheer about amid growing doubts pertaining to Joe Biden’s winnability. Abortion emerged as a strong vote-catching issue as Republican leaning Ohio and strongly Republican Kentucky both gave victories to abortion rights advocates. This strong pushback against the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court last year has generated significant enthusiasm within the Democratic Party rank and file to bring their base out and develop coalitions with the moderates. The Democrats are getting mobilised around this issue, thereby even a state like Ohio which Trump had won by eight percentage points in 2020 is now seemingly in play for the Democrats.
These results will certainly bring the bounce back in the Democratic camp but they will do little to assuage the concerns around the candidacy of Joe Biden who is not doing well in opinion polls. His approval rating at 38% reached the lowest point in his presidency this month as concerns about growing inflation and cost of living continue to dominate airwaves. This, despite the fact that Biden has had an impressive legislative record so far with his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, infrastructure investments, support for computer chip plants and taxes on corporations and the high income group to help fund healthcare. Biden’s handling of the economy continues to be the albatross around his administration’s neck. And then there is the issue of his age which has hogged the limelight for quite a while now. Every time Biden makes a public appearance, his age and health concerns take the focus away from his accomplishments. Younger Democrats are also souring on Biden and are dragging down his approval ratings.
What should be even more concerning to the Democrats is the recent poll suggesting that Trump is leading Biden in five of six key battleground states. Though the White House has rejected the polls and has urged caution in taking these polls at face value, the twin challenge of a weakening economy and multiple global crises is fuelling discontent against the incumbent. And these poll numbers have once again brought Donald Trump to the centre stage of the Republican Party. Those who once thought that Trump cannot defeat Biden in general elections are now changing their minds as they find Trump their best bet.
The entire galaxy of leaders in the Republican primary have made electability of Trump their main issue but now find that they cannot challenge Trump on this. Here’s a once defeated US President who had to face two impeachment attempts during his time in office and since departing the White House has been engulfed in a plethora of legal cases. Yet today he is the best bet of the Republicans once again. Even as his court appearances have increased, his support among the Republicans has also been growing. The more he has been targeted by the Democrats, the more endearing he becomes to his base.
Trump has used his courtroom appearances to also burnish his brand by saying controversial things and taking on the judges and the opposing lawyers. He has framed his legal woes as part of a larger design against him – political vendetta to ensure that he doesn’t return to politics. “All Democrats, all Trump haters, all cases that are not good,” he said in the court while answering one of the questions. “Weaponisation, they call it.” Still positioning himself as an anti-establishment candidate, he has leveraged his time in the court to his political advantage by crafting a political narrative that is lapped up by his supporters. He has not bothered to join the three Republican debates so far even as he continues to maintain a 44-point lead among Republicans from his nearest challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The US Presidential elections are still a year away and as these last few years have underlined, the “unknown unknowns” seem to be defining the political landscape more than ever before. With two conflicts raging and China breathing down the neck, strategic and economic challenges will define the trajectory of the Presidential elections. But it is the personalities of Biden and Trump that are going to play an equally important role.
About the author: Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations with King’s India Institute at King’s College London. He is also Director (Honorary) of Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University.