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Can the war save Joe Biden’s presidency?

A year of Biden in the White House hasn’t convinced Americans that he is up to the task. Will Russian aggression tip the balance before the 2024 election?

By Sarah Baxter

Americans have a serious case of presidential envy. In Ukraine they see the youthful President Volodymyr Zelensky, 44, uniting his country under unimaginable circumstances with a display of true resilience and sheer guts. The contrast with Joe Biden, 79, presiding over a polarised nation and facing woeful approval ratings, is painful. To make matters worse, the leading challenger for the White House in 2024 is Donald Trump, 75, whose reputation as the US’s divider-in-chief has only increased with his unhinged claims of a “stolen” election.

There is a large measure of agreement in the US that the lion-hearted Ukrainians must be supported by all measures short of war – Biden’s very own policy. This crisis, his advisers quietly boast, is exactly the moment for which the highly experienced, Nato-supporting, multilateralist president was made. Could Vladimir Putin save Biden’s presidency? If only it were that simple. A poll taken at the outbreak of war revealed that 59 per cent of Americans believed Russia had invaded Ukraine because Putin regarded Biden as weak (62 per cent added the attack would not have happened if Trump were in power).

“The state of the union is strong,” Biden said in his annual address to Congress on 1 March. Stating this as a fact did not make it true. On the eve of his speech, a poll in the Washington Post showed that only 37 per cent of Americans approved of his performance in office. Trump has begun battle-testing the slogan “Make America Strong Again” as the best way to batter his opponent in 2024 – as if strongmen were still merrily in vogue after Putin’s invasion.

[See also: What Joe Biden didn’t mention in his State of the Union speech]

A younger, more charismatic Democrat could surely beat Trump, if only somebody could think of one. Conversely, Biden has come to embody the exhaustion of the Democrats. He feels like the last gasp of an ancien régime. He originally presented himself as a “transitional” president – a safe option who would pass on the baton, perhaps to Kamala Harris, his vice-president, or to a young Turk who had yet to emerge, once he had calmed the US’s nerves after four years of Trump. Yet there is no obvious successor to whom the party can transition.

It was wishful thinking to believe Biden would ever voluntarily leave the White House at the end of a single term in office after spending more than 40 years trying to get there. He fully intends to run again. Moreover, the idea of being a transitional president soon gave way to grander notions of being a transformational one. A portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt – who served for 12 years – was wheeled into the Oval office and the talk was all about rivalling the New Deal and Lyndon B Johnson’s great ­society in scope and ambition.

This wasn’t the “centrist Dad” figure that Americans had voted for, but OK, perhaps, at his age, he was in a hurry. There was one thing missing, though, that he had failed to spot – he didn’t have Roosevelt’s whopping majority in Congress. Biden attempted to govern as though he were still a senator, trying to strike deals personally with old “friends” in both parties only to be publicly rebuffed. Had he not noticed that bipartisanship in Congress had foundered decades ago?

Now the talk is of Biden being the new Roosevelt to Zelensky’s Winston Churchill. It is a tempting thought. Yet what if Biden is the gaffe-prone politician of old? The man whom Robert Gates, the former US defence secretary, accused of being “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”? The problem is also bigger than Biden. The US is unsure of its purpose and direction. This is not something that a “good war” in Europe can easily solve, especially while the outcome remains uncertain.

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Time is not Biden’s friend. Democrats expect to be routed in the congressional midterm elections, now only eight months away. Although Biden did his best to tout his successes in the State of the Union address, such as 5.7 per cent growth and rapid job creation, he admitted that at 7.5 per cent, “inflation is robbing [families] of the gains they might otherwise feel”. The prospect of a gruelling war in Ukraine is raising fears of stagflation – high inflation and low growth – at home.

Biden’s green agenda has been met with cries of “Drill, baby drill” amid rising oil prices. Lauren Boebert, a Republican congresswoman and ultra-right exhibitionist, wore the slogan on the back of her shawl to the State of the Union address. A billboard was erected in New York’s Times Square recently by a conservative advocacy group, stating, “Hey Vlad. Screw You! Nyet to Russian oil. Time for American oil. Drill more, pay less. C’mon Joe. This ain’t hard.”

On foreign policy, Biden has to regain the trust he forfeited with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, when his poll numbers collapsed over doubts about his competence. His aides have begun to fret that the aggressive sanctions imposed on Russia might cause a trapped Putin to lash out in even more unpredictable ways, but the merest hint of an “off-ramp” for the Russian president would lead to further accusations of weakness. The most triumphal outcome, the downfall of Putin, would be a huge personal victory for Biden, yet could be tempered by fears of global political and military instability.

[See also: Trump shows what Putin gets right about America]

On the domestic front there is the sense that a once-mighty political party is crumbling. White working-class voters who used to be taken for granted by Democrats have become the foot soldiers of the conservative culture wars. Hard-won suburban voters are returning to the Republicans. African-American voters are feeling let down, and the loyalty of Latino voters is slipping away. Complacency is fatal. Have the Democrats learned nothing from the loss of their blue-collar vote? Foundations shift and creak, then collapse.

Ruy Teixeira, the political scientist who in 2002 coined the comforting phrase “the emerging Democratic majority”, based on demographic and geographical trends, sharply revised his thesis recently, stating: “The Democrats’ Hispanic voter problem is not as bad as you think – it’s worse.” This verdict was confirmed by primary elections held in Texas on 1 March, in which there were high turnouts and big wins for Hispanic Republican candidates. “It’s very hard to look at the pattern of turnout… and conclude the Democrats are on the march in any serious way,” said James ­Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas in Austin. “They are still clawing at the rock face trying not to fall backwards.”

Before the outbreak of war, the question was whether the president’s advisers should fall on their swords – an end perhaps to “prime minister” Ron Klain, Biden’s powerful chief of staff, and the clutch of close aides who have been with the president since his days in the Senate. Biden also has an under-the-radar circle of veteran advisers, including his sister Valerie Biden Owens, his long-time political confidante, who is on hand in Delaware, where he retreats most weekends.

Yet blaming his inner circle under- estimates Biden’s pride and stubbornness. He thinks he is the smartest man in the room. “I certainly found him to be testy,” a former aide told me. “There’s no question about it – and he shows it when anybody challenges him too much to his face.” Biden is not getting more humble or less crotchety with age. And the one thing he can’t change is the passing of time: he would be 82 by the beginning of his second term of office. That makes it tough for him to be the comeback kid.

Had the Democrats been in better shape, Biden would not have won the nomination in the first place. Barack Obama has a lot to answer for. He let the old guard back in by making Biden his vice-president in 2008 and declaring Hillary Clinton his successor in 2016, when Obama knew more than anyone how vulnerable she was to an upstart challenger (having beaten her himself).

Clinton is unlikely to stand again – “that part of my life is over”, she told me crisply last autumn – but you can see why she might be tempted. At 74, she is younger than Biden and Nancy Pelosi, the 81-year-old speaker of the House of Representatives, who is running again in the midterm elections. Michelle Obama’s name keeps cropping up as the “break glass in case of emergency” candidate, but she has never displayed the slightest interest in becoming president.

“Mayor Pete” Buttigieg, the 40-year-old transport secretary, who served in Afghanistan and was an intelligence officer in the Navy reserves, is perhaps the closest thing to a novelty candidate in the Zelensky mould, but he would have to improve his standing considerably with African-American voters to be confident of victory.

Biden himself was barely taken seriously as a contender at the start of 2020. He came fourth in the Iowa caucus in February 2020 (well behind Buttigieg) before the sight of left-wing senator Bernie Sanders, 80, sent Democrats running for the “safety first” option to take on Trump. The surprise for voters was that Biden wasn’t nearly as safe as they imagined. His advisers cringe every time he pops up for an unscripted moment – and most of his plans have gone off script.

The high point, looking back, was Independence Day on 4 July 2021. Covid-19 was supposed to be on its way out and Americans were looking forward to record economic growth in the autumn. Biden’s 52 per cent approval rating was only two or three points down from his figures at the inauguration – and very close to his actual election performance. “Today, all across this nation, we can say with confidence: America is coming back together again,” Biden declared in an upbeat televised address on the White House lawn. It was one of those premature “mission accomplished” moments.

[See also: Joe Biden’s team is making enemies of the press]

There was, in fact, already a low thrum of anxiety about Biden’s performance, which softened the ground for the collapse in his ratings when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021. The Delta variant had arrived in the US, inflation was taking off, immigration was surging and there was a spike in murders in large US cities. Inflation, Biden said airily at the time, was expected to be temporary. By July, used car prices had risen 32 per cent – not something that affected me personally. But I did pay attention when my hairdresser warned me before getting out her shears that I was going to have to pay 30 per cent more for my cut – and thoughtfully asked if I wanted to leave.

Then there was the widespread perception that Biden let immigration soar on the US border with Mexico. Indeed, in July, US border control reported “encounters” with 200,000 people, the largest monthly figure for more than two decades at a time when the midsummer heat usually deterred crossings. By the end of 2021 the total had swelled to two million.

Biden’s lifting of Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy on entering office (now reinstated) and promise that parents with children would not be separated was applauded by rights groups; critics argued it convinced migrants that the US border was open. At a crossing on the Rio Grande in April 2021, people from Guatemala and Honduras told me explicitly they had come “because of Biden” – while the administration pretended the surge was merely a seasonal blip.

Meanwhile, the refrain, “Where’s Kamala?” – who was tasked by Biden with addressing the “root causes” of the migrant crisis – did more than anything to sink her claim as a viable presidential candidate in the eyes of many. The crisis went on to provide Tucker Carlson of Fox News with his snarkiest talking point: that Biden cared more about “Ukraine’s ­borders than ours”.

By autumn 2021, the two giant spending bills intended as Biden’s presidential legacy were floundering. Drawing on his decades in Congress, he spent a good deal of political capital lobbying the left and right of his party in person without much success. Failure to make sure he had all his senators’ support first was another blow to Biden’s reputation for competence. It added to the impression of a tone-deaf administration, pressing ahead with policies without regard for the costs or consequences.

[See also: How the US economy has roared back to life]

While Biden’s $1trn Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was eventually passed, the $2.2trn Build Back Better Act (BBB) was pronounced “dead” by Joe Manchin, the centre-right Democratic senator for West Virginia. All the noisy bickering made it near-impossible to recall which bill was meant to do what. Which bill included investment in green technology and environmental justice, or was it both? And how exactly was Biden proposing to expand social welfare? Any popular policy details got lost in the squabbling.

Is it possible that elements of the BBB bill can be revived this year in piecemeal fashion, as Biden suggested in his State of the Union address? Manchin said he was baffled by the speech: “I don’t know where that came from. Nothing has changed.” He later claimed he was willing to discuss a few proposals, such as lowering prescription drug costs, but there could be renewed stalemate.

Is there any prospect of better days ahead? Perhaps, although candidates facing ­elections this year have been citing “scheduling conflicts” when Biden is in their neighbourhood. Stacey Abrams, for example, was a no-show during Biden’s visit to Atlanta in January, even though she is the Democratic candidate for governor in hotly contested Georgia. “We got our scheduling mixed up,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “I talked with her at length this ­morning. We are all on the same page and everything is fine.”

For now, Covid-19 pills are being made available, mask mandates are being lifted and inflation could begin to tail off towards the end of the year (if the war in Ukraine does not prove ruinous for the global economy). All is not lost. The Democrats have become aware that they have to get in step with the country over parental concern about schools and Covid ­regulations. In his State of the Union address, Biden also said firmly the answer to crime was “not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police” and spoke about the need to “secure our border”.

These are the essential first steps to being heard by voters. Biden’s disillusioned ­supporters – the 10 per cent or more who have stopped approving of him since the last election – are moderate Democrats, Republicans and independents. It is these missing voters that he needs to win back.

[See also: Will Russia’s war push back action on climate change?]

A strong foreign policy will help, but will not be decisive. Any setback in Ukraine could affect Biden. A Marist poll for the US broadcasters NPR and PBS on 4 March revealed a rally-round-the-flag bounce in Biden’s approval ratings; the figure jumped from 39 per cent to 47 per cent, but still remained below the 51 per cent who disapproved of his performance, even though there was ­majority support for his handling of the war in Ukraine.

The Democrats are braced for the worst in the upcoming November midterms. Mostly they hope that if – or when – the Republicans retake Congress, voters will be so ­horrified by just how Trumpified the ­resurgent Republican Party has become that they will learn to value Biden again. The main reason he won in 2020 – the idea that he was preferable to Trump – might provide Biden with his best chance to win a second term. In a vital election, however, that is not very comforting.

Sarah Baxter is the former deputy editor of the Sunday Times

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror