Crunch time: Biden enters new year facing political fight of his life

<span>Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
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Welcome to paradise. As rain dampened spirits in Washington, Joe Biden this week flew with family to St Croix in the US Virgin Islands to ring in 2024. Its lush landscape, turquoise water and humid air provided some welcome respite for a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Biden has fought numerous elections for the Senate and White House, but next year he faces possibly the toughest campaign of his career.

He enters the new year with a 34% approval rating, according to a recent poll by Monmouth University, the worst of any modern-day president seeking re-election. Such polls “should be a wake-up call for Biden and his team because the campaign is idling on the tarmac and it really needs to get into the air”, said Chris Whipple, a journalist and author of The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House.

The Biden-Harris campaign, headquartered in his home city of Wilmington, Delaware, has signalled its intent to keep calm and carry on highlighting Biden’s economic stimulus and infrastructure spending achievements. A second term is likely to focus on unfinished business such as reproductive freedom, voting rights and gun-safety measures including a ban on assault rifles.

The US escaped a predicted recession and is growing faster than economists expected – “Start reporting it the right way,” Biden told reporters this week. But that comes after inflation hit 40-year highs in 2022 and the cost of food and gas is weighing on voters. A White House effort to sell his record as “Bidenomics” has failed to catch the public imagination.

The president must also answer to criticism from progressives for failing to back calls for a ceasefire in Gaza, where health officials say more than 20,000 people have been killed so far and residents have insufficient food, water and medical supplies. Biden‘s handling of immigration policy is also under attack from Republicans as migrant crossings at the US-Mexico border hit record highs during his administration.

“Joe Biden needs to speak to voters where they are, and where they are is in a place where people are fed up with high prices and high interest rates,” Whipple said. “It would go a long way if Biden could speak plainly and acknowledge that and explain what he’s going to do to alleviate it. That’s a real opportunity for him and he’s good at it. A wonky recitation of achievements is not connecting.

A president who has repeatedly asked voters to allow him to “finish the job” is also just as focused on presenting the race for the White House as a referendum on stopping Trump, who has been twice impeached and indicted in four separate cases and is facing 91 criminal counts.

A name that Americans will hear much more of in the coming year is Julie Chávez Rodríguez, granddaughter of the Latino labour activist Cesar Chavez and Biden’s campaign manager. In a memo of 21 December, entitled “Why Joe Biden will win in 2024”, she wrote that Trump’s extreme agenda and election denialism again looks poised to define the Republican party.

“The choice for the American people in November 2024 will be about protecting American democracy and the very individual freedoms we enjoy as Americans,” added Rodríguez, noting that Biden and Harris will draw a sharp contrast with “Make America great again” Republicans.

The campaign claims that stronger-than-expected grassroots support helped it finish the third quarter of the year $91m in the bank, outraising Trump by about $26m and his Republican rivals Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley nearly five and six times over. Trump’s war chest is also under strain from multiple court cases and expensive legal fees.

Rodríguez said the campaign had announced state leadership in South Carolina, Nevada, Michigan and Wisconsin. By mid-January it will have state leadership teams announced in every battleground state, joining hundreds of state party staff whose operations on the ground were boosted by a $95m investment for the 2022 midterms.

The campaign has also begun working on minority voter outreach with pilot schemes to expand organising in Wisconsin college communities, Milwaukee’s Black neighborhoods and key swing areas in Phoenix, Arizona. It is spending early money on advertising aimed at Black and Latino voters in swing states.

Traditional door knocking and organising programmes are no longer enough. Rodríguez added: “A one-size-fits-all approach to organizing will not win the November election – especially at a time when Americans are increasingly relying on their personal networks of friends and influencers over traditional media to consume the news.

“That’s why our team is already piloting programs focused on Black, Latino, women, and young voters in key battleground states, emphasizing new resources and tools that are helping supporters and staff share our message in ways that will break through to our key coalition of voters.”

Rodríguez also wrote that Biden and Harris will “begin ramping up campaign-specific travel, including in the early months of 2024”. Vice-President Kamala Harris has announced a “reproductive freedoms tour” stressing the plight of women across the country as a direct result of the supreme court ending the constitutional right to abortion.

Next month will see a big push in South Carolina to energise voters ahead of the Democratic primary in February. It is a very different landscape from the so-called “basement strategy” during the pandemic election of 2020, when Biden often spoke from a makeshift studio under his Delaware home.

Republicans are sure to mount an energetic challenge – Trump’s barnstorming rallies have become a fixture of political life – so there will be pressure on Biden, at 81 the oldest president in history, to match them and convince voters that he has the stamina for another four years in office.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington, observed: “Because of both his duties and his age, it will be a much slower campaign than most incumbents. I would not expect him to be on the road as much as [Barack] Obama in 2012, for example.

“I don’t think they will want to have him do multiple events in one day until October because they can’t risk having him go from Milwaukee in the morning to Detroit in the afternoon and he’s tired. In that sense it’ll be traditional but traditional minus.

Some Democrats have complained that the Biden-Harris campaign has been slow to build infrastructure in battleground states and is behind the pace set by Obama in 2011 and Trump in 2019. Others counter that the nature of political campaigning evolved significantly in recent years. Shaking hands and kissing babies now competes with the currency of social media and viral videos.

Olsen, author of The Working Class Republican, added: “It’s not clear to me in this day and age how much campaign infrastructure, particularly as an incumbent, is important. We are in a world where the incumbent president is well-known and covered constantly. It may be more important, for example, to spend extra money on TikTok than to have five extra staffers going door to door in suburban Milwaukee.”

Biden spent months before the midterms warning that Trump and his movement could undermine American democracy. Democrats won tight Senate races in Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania – all states key to winning the White House. In such a context, Democratic strategists refuse to give negative polls too much credence.

Bob Shrum, who was an adviser to Al Gore and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, said: “I am deeply sceptical of the general run of the punditocracy about Biden’s problems. All of this so much reminds me of the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020.

“It’s almost as if with a lot of people in the press who wrote him off, said he was never going to get there, wasn’t even going to get through the early primaries, there’s still a tendency - and I think this is subconscious - to say, well, you know, actually I was really kind of right about him. Age is one way to talk about that.”

Shrum’s former partner Mike Donilon is now a senior adviser to the president. “He and Biden have been friends as well as having a relationship politically for 40 years. They have a plan, they’re going to stick to the plan, they’re going to execute the plan and they’re not going to listen to a whole bunch of people in the peanut gallery.”

Biden also has an ace up his sleeve that none of his predecessors did: his likely opponent. Trump’s approval rating is also woefully low and his court cases and flirtations with fascism seem likely to turn off swing state voters.

Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist, said: “Republicans are at a disadvantage because everything that Trump does ultimately alienates him from the people that he’s going to need. In that regard, Joe Biden doesn’t need to do anything. He can sit back and watch Trump do what he always does and have the out-of-sight, out-of-trouble mentality. It’s like, as long as you don’t go out there quoting Hitler, you’ll probably be all right.”