White Man Can Jump. Will he?

By Partha Chakraborty-

It is not since the 1912 Taft-Roosevelt match, two US Presidents –sitting and one former – competed head-on in a run for the highest office. The general elections in November, 2024 will likely have President Joe Biden, as the Democratic candidate, against former President Donald Trump, appearing as the Republican Candidate. As the weeks are counted down, are we ready for a repeat?

52 of these 112 years since Taft v. Roosevelt in 1912 Joe Biden attended The State of the Union Address, starting as a young Senator from Delaware in 1973. At 81, he already is the oldest US President, and by the end of a second term, if he wins in November, he will be 86. It is not an actuarial impossibility; legitimate questions can arise if he is ready for the burden – both physical and mental.

His opponents have been quick to play up, and vilify, any signs of frailty in his appearance, and lack of public appearances. At last week’s State of the Union Address, and in advertisements released soon after, made a commendable attempt to put this to rest. He appeared energized, focused, and in full command of his surroundings. He even managed to poke fun at his own perceived frailty in an ad released shortly after. “Look, I’m not a young guy. That’s no secret,” he says. The ad ends with a cheeky “behind-the-scenes take on a retake,” where he says, “Look, I’m very young, energetic, and handsome. What the hell I’m doing this for?” Well played, Joe, well played.

As of today, I find it difficult to predict where the wind blows eight months away. That said, I do see a few deciding factors.

First, the economy, especially inflation. Democrats have been boneheaded for a few months to ignore inflation as an electoral worry, citing a number of (legitimate) economic success stories. Refusal to see the eight-hundred-pound gorilla on the kitchen table made them appear callous to a reality most are facing, day in and day out. Fortunately, inflation has been trending down, and keeping down, including for groceries, gas, and rent. Barring unforeseen events, I do see no change in the trendline before the election. It is still a top concern, but not a five-alarm fire as it was before.

Second, mess at the Southern border. I call it a self-goal by the Republicans, and a masterful play by Biden administration. For a long-time immigration was served on a gold-platter to the Republicans – almost ten million undocumented crossed the border during Biden administration. Migrants overwhelmed support infrastructure at cities and counties, and stretched budgets often at the cost of existing vulnerable populations. Instances of crimes by the undocumented were easy fodder for any barely-veiled xenophobic audience.  It forced Democrats to wake up and work on a bi-partisan bill that could have been a real game-changer. Then the Orange Glob descended upon the theater and declared it unacceptable, presumably because hizzoner had nothing to do with it. With that, the tables turned, now it is the Republicans who are unserious about solving immigration problem, it is them who cannot be trusted.

Third, the Abortion issue. It has been argued that Access to Abortion has become the “Defund the Police” scar on the Republicans. I fully agree. As I have argued previously, Dobbs should have been the end of the debate – in these United States, it is quite possible, even desirable, for individual states to arrive at different choices. Republican orthodoxy demands more, possibly a complete ban nationwide. Even in deep-red states Republican orthodoxy is facing defeat, but in response they are digging themselves deeper in the hole. Recent ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court resulted in such a backlash that forced even Donald Trump to chime in, which prompted Alabama legislature to hastily pass a bill to address the issue. But the damage is done.  From now till November, Democrats will do everything to shine light on zealots in the Republican coalition who cannot accept a win and move on.

Fourth, America’s role in distant shores. Ukraine war is dragging on but most Americans continue to support materiel support. Administration narrative is that defeating Russia at her doorstep with no American lives at risk is infinitely more desirable than getting pulled into a head-on conflict as a NATO member supporting another country facing Russian aggression. It is plausible, and relatively pain-free. That cannot be said about the Israel-Hamas war. It has elicited deep wounds inside American minds on both sides, and American lives are at stake. Super Tuesday exposed Democrats’ vulnerability, a sizeable number registered a protest vote against Biden, enough in number to sway the State, and possibly the general election, if they stay home. Biden cannot wish enough that the conflict ended soon, but it increasingly appears he has little influence.

Fifth, a very likely Third-Party challenge. Third Parties are the apparitions that always lurk at the shadows, only to jump when you are least prepared. Nader’s adventurism most likely caused Gore Presidency in 2000, even if he scored a paltry 3% of votes. Ross Perot in 1992 won far higher but did not tip the scale on any party’s favor because he, as a Centrist, squirreled away support from both. This time it could be a Nader redux, if and when. Young voters and progressives – traditionally handmaiden of the Democratic Party – are unhappy, some would likely support a firebrand name on the ticket. Traditional small-government-fiscal-conservatism Republicans are homeless in the Trump Party of today, and they too might support a protest candidate just so Trump is not reelected.  But the two sides cannot reconcile for a credible alternative.

A few other issues are likely to fade away from collective memory. Law and order was a big concern, but cities seem to be waking up to the menace. Last week each of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles – each is a scourge of the right as a “basket-case” of “invasion” by the undesirables – took concrete steps to restore reason and normalcy. Local politicians will take a fall in the November elections, but it is unlikely to be a viable national issue, especially because Biden is a centrist. Culture wars, especially movements supporting freedom of speech, are unlikely to cause any damage beyond local and school elections. Beyond the core Republican base who were never at play, many of these supposedly hot-button issues are simply not bugging most voters.

I have previously argued that Donald Trump takes his legal troubles as a badge of honor. By Super Tuesday it became obvious that a vast majority of Republicans taking part in the Primary process do approve. As he sails through to the Convention in August, I would like to remind that most Independents would rather not have a convicted contender in the White House, as would whatever is left of Republicans who have not yet kissed Trump’s ring. Even if there is a protest vote in the Democratic ranks, they would not cross over to a Trump ticket. On the face of it, choosing Trump is a trapdoor that Republicans stepped on, again.

“But here’s the deal: I understand how to get things done for the American people,” Biden says, talking about his age, in the same ad I mentioned. That truly is his greatest strength and he knows that from his long political career. He is right to hold Trump accountable for his lack of experience, or interest, or capacity for that matter, in governance. Trump has given every indication that his second-term, if, will be a monotony of personal vendettas. That is not governance, that is a banana republic story, a script for a despot to run the country aground. He is the last person I would trust with the Nuclear Football. For the greatest country in the world, he is the worst choice, as we stand today.

Trump was, and still is, a protest vote against cultural elites. I could buy that narrative as the decision factor, except that I did not, and I will not. Because he is a mess, and worse, a danger next time. I wish it was not Biden against Trump for 2024. I am still hopeful that it will not be, somehow. But if it is, my choice is clear.