A confluence of crises jarring America’s political, democratic, judicial and economic systems, often fueled by Donald Trump and far-right Republicans, threatens to severely test Joe Biden’s presidency amid rising doubts over his reelection bid.
As the 2024 White House race heats up, it’s becoming clear that extraordinary, historic challenges complicate Biden’s push for a second term, over and above the liabilities expressed in his low presidential approval ratings and the uneven economy.
Even by the standards of recent years, in which democracy has wobbled and fierce political recrimination deepened, the country is heading into a political morass without parallel.
- The front-runner for the Republican nomination is a twice-impeached ex-president – Trump – who is facing four criminal trials and has never shelved his attempt to overturn the American democratic system of fair elections.
- Biden now faces his own impeachment drama after pro-Trump Republicans, despite a paucity of evidence of abuses of power, opened an investigation seeking to tie him to his son Hunter’s alleged influence-peddling in China and Ukraine. Biden is also reeling after his surviving son last week became the only child of a sitting president to be indicted.
- The House Republican majority, beset by infighting and radicalization, has threatened to choke off federal funding and may shut down the government by the end of the month after its most extreme members demanded massive spending cuts it has no power to enact given opposition by the Senate and the White House. The showdown is increasingly an existential threat to GOP Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
- The octogenarian president is increasingly coming under scrutiny over his ability to serve a full second term if he wins in November 2024. It’s a legitimate question that many Americans share but that the White House struggles to answer.
- A sense of building national malaise is encapsulated by two strikes hobbling two industries that had outsize influence on the mythology of US cultural power and global dominance in the 20th century: automobiles and Hollywood.
- Washington’s festering political mess could have international implications as hard-line Republicans seek to halt billions of dollars of US aid to Ukraine as it fights Russia’s invasion. President Volodymyr Zelensky is due to travel to Washington this week to seek to shore up the lifeline, but Trump warned on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that if he wins in 2024 he plans to get Zelensky and Vladimir Putin “into a room” and broker a deal – a scenario likely to swing heavily to the Russian strongman’s demands.
- All of this is occurring at a time when no one in either party appears to have the power to push aside the two dominant political figures – Biden and Trump, who are the most likely combatants in a presidential race next year that polls show few Americans want.
The buildup of crises does seem more acute in Washington than in the rest of the country – where most people don’t spend their time obsessing over politics or threats to democracy.
This weekend, millions of Americans spent time with family; tailgated at college football games; marked Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday; enjoyed the county’s abundant natural beauties as summer ebbs; or simply worked to get ahead. So the national political crunch only bubbles in the background of normal life for many citizens. But the trauma seizing Washington will soon intrude, transfixing the nation in a tumultuous 2024 election.
Trump is back and orchestrating more chaos
Trump’s reemergence into public life as the runaway leader in the Republican primary race, his more than 90 criminal charges and his unrelenting assault on US democracy are conjuring another fateful national moment.
The ex-president suggested on NBC that he only liked democracy that bent to his power, leaving the impression that only election results that show that he won are acceptable, a position that represents an assault on the core US principle that people choose their leaders.
“It has to be a democracy that’s fair,” he said. “This democracy – I don’t consider us to have much of a democracy right now,” said Trump, who lost an election that his own administration said did not feature significant fraud.
Trump also argued that his indictments, including over attempts to steal the last election and his hoarding of classified documents, were examples of a so-called flawed democracy. His comments underscore that during a second term, Trump would double down on his view that presidents have almost absolute power and are not constrained by convention or the law.
In another example of the GOP’s challenge to traditional governance, Trump’s allies in the House last week launched an impeachment probe into Biden, despite failing to show evidence he profited from his son’s apparent influence peddling in Ukraine and China while he was vice president.
House Speaker McCarthy appeared to trigger the probe as part of a failed strategy to appease the most extreme members of his party, who are threatening to shut down the government before the end of the month. The conservative Freedom Caucus’ hard-line maneuvering represents just as much an assault on America’s foundational political principles as Trump’s election lies, since its members reject the idea of compromise, even though they lack power granted by voters to enact their agenda.
McCarthy’s speakership is teetering and he faces the potentially existential threat of a showdown over a stalled defense bill this week.
Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz warned Sunday that the speaker would fall unless he honors supposed concessions he made to win his job during 15 rounds of balloting. “I do not stand alone. A critical mass of Republican lawmakers are with me, not Kevin,” Gaetz wrote on social media.
McCarthy warned, however, that his enemies were playing a futile game. “I have been through shutdowns, and I have never seen somebody win a shutdown, because when you shut down, you give all your power to the administration,” he said Sunday on Fox News.
House Republicans on Sunday reached a tentative deal to temporarily fund the government, but it is unlikely to pass, meaning Congress is no closer to avoiding a shutdown.
The turmoil in the Republican Party is creating the kind of dysfunction and extremism that could turn off general election voters next year. Yet a mood of national exasperation with politics, and a sense that no leader can harness events that are spinning out of control, create the kind of chaos and political cynicism in which a strongman demagogue, i.e., Trump could thrive.
But Trump is also embroiled in a legal swamp that is causing extreme stress for the judicial system. Special counsel Jack Smith, for example, has asked for a partial gag order on the former president to stop his intimidation of witnesses in his federal election meddling trial, which is set for March. The request will force Judge Tanya Chutkan to wrestle with how much a presidential candidate’s free speech can be fettered because he is a criminal defendant.
Trump is falsely claiming in fundraising emails that Biden is trying to prevent his possible general election opponent from speaking about the president’s “corruption.” The clash captures the national nightmare of an ex-commander in chief and GOP front-runner campaigning for a White House return while under the threat of becoming a convicted felon.
Biden struggles to define events in a tempestuous time
At the center of the storm is Biden, whose 2020 presidential campaign turned on a promise to restore normality after a pandemic and the extremism of the Trump years.
Biden is absorbing the political and personal ordeal of his son Hunter’s indictment last week in connection with a firearm he purchased in 2018. The younger Biden’s lawyers say the indictment followed undue Republican pressure on another special counsel, David Weiss.
The charges facing Hunter Biden do not compare to those facing Trump – several of Trump’s coming trials will test charges that he tried to destroy US democracy to stay in power in 2020. But the combination of an impeachment probe and the potential spectacle of a president’s son on trial could allow Republicans to create a corrosive narrative that Biden is also corrupt to balance out Trump’s criminal exposure.
Hunter Biden’s deepening problems come as polls show the president locked in a too-close-to-call race with Trump if he is the Republican nominee next year.
Questions about Biden’s age – he will be 82 by the next inauguration – were crystallized in a Washington Post op-ed last week by David Ignatius, who called for the president and Vice President Kamala Harris to stand aside.
The White House argues that Biden has showed remarkable stamina, such as during his round-the-world-trip this month in which he successfully wrestled with foreign policy challenges. It has also attacked journalists who raise the issue on social media. But news coverage is only expressing genuine questions many voters have about Biden’s age and the implications for his reelection bid.
Biden is also inconvenienced by having to run on an economic rebound that is real in terms of official data but that many people outside Washington do not feel. Grocery prices remain high even if inflation has ebbed considerably. High interest rates used to bring down the cost of living are having a painful impact in the heartland.
In this atmosphere, seasonal spikes in gasoline prices become even more of an irritant and show Biden’s potential vulnerability to any shaky economic conditions next year, despite the administration’s efforts to show how he has tried to improve the lives of working Americans and revive manufacturing under “Bidenomics.”
The United Auto Workers’ strike at the Big Three automakers puts Biden in a tough position as he balances his traditional support for unionized labor with his administration’s priority investments in electric vehicles, which will bring big changes to the industry. The White House has pledged a “just transition” to green energy, with good-paying jobs for workers, but unions fear those changes will harm pay and job availability.
The president has called on management to improve its offer as workers demand big wage increases and take aim at huge pay hikes executives have received in recent years. The dispute is also politically treacherous for Biden, given Michigan’s status as a likely swing state in 2024 and Trump’s efforts to exploit the strike – including his vows to end government support for new-generation clean vehicles.
In more placid times, the auto strike would be a dominant national issue defining a fraught political moment. But it’s just one of many crises threatening to overwhelm a political system that appears on the verge of a serious malfunction.