On November 1, 2020, Joe Biden promised on Twitter, “I’ll end Donald Trump’s chaos.” Three and a half years later, perhaps the central challenge facing Biden’s reelection is the specter of incapacity. Five I’s—international instability, immigration, identity, and inflation—have given voters a sense that disorder has grown under the 46th president.

Biden made his Twitter pledge in the depths of the coronavirus pandemic, and Covid’s aftermath remains an important backdrop for the 2024 cycle. The post-pandemic period has brought grim news for incumbent political parties. In Germany and Canada, the incumbent center-left parties have seen their poll numbers glide downward; in the United Kingdom, the Tories seem to stand on the precipice of electoral oblivion. Given these massive swings, it’s notable that the race between Biden and Trump is still close.

Still, several troubling signs remain for Biden. International affairs have proven a major challenge. The turbulent August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan shattered public confidence in his presidency. Biden’s approval numbers nosedived, and since the end of the Kabul airlift, he has never been at a net-positive approval rating in 538’s polling aggregator.

The Afghanistan withdrawal encouraged international adversaries to test the United States and its allies. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 engulfed Europe in war. Hamas’s massacre of Israelis in October 2023 provoked a war in Gaza with Israel and ignited political unrest in the United States. These domestic controversies pit moderate Democrats (many traditionally pro-Israel) against an increasingly outraged activist wing. The White House, fearing progressive blowback, has sent mixed messages on Israel policy. Meantime, the outbreak of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic protests at progressive citadels—including major cities and elite universities—has alarmed Americans.

If progressive identity politics has hampered Biden’s ability to maneuver on Israel, it has also affected his immigration policy. When he entered office, Biden systemically set about deconstructing border enforcement and widening migration pathways. The result: the biggest border crisis in memory. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that the foreign-born population in America has swelled by over 6.6 million people since Biden took office, and close to 60 percent of that comes from unauthorized migrants.

This enforcement breakdown has helped push the American electorate toward restrictionism. A Harris poll from April found that a narrow majority—including 42 percent of Democrats—would support mass deportations of illegal immigrants. To many voters, border chaos has made Biden’s promise of normalcy ring hollow.

Inflation has similarly angered the electorate. While the gusher of deficit-financed stimulus during 2020 and pandemic-era supply-chain crunches are partially responsible for price hikes, Biden’s continued deficit spending has compounded America’s broader fiscal challenges. The Federal Reserve’s interest-rate hikes, imposed to help tame inflation, have caused mortgage rates to rise significantly. Those costs especially weigh on first-time homebuyers.

Biden’s immigration and inflation policies have hit the working class hard. Poorer communities are less able to insulate themselves from the disruptions caused by mass migration, and inflation cuts deeper when you’re barely making ends meet. The polarizing identity politics favored by the administration serves as a signaling mechanism for the college-educated elite but alienates many blue-collar families.

These factors have contributed to Biden’s deteriorating position. While national polls remain relatively close, the incumbent president polls significantly worse against Trump than he did four years ago. In the 2020 cycle, Biden consistently led Trump by 5 to 10 points; today, he trails Trump by roughly a point in the RealClearPolitics average. And despite his nearly 4.5-point victory in the 2020 popular vote, Biden won the presidency by a relatively narrow margin in a handful of swing states—principally Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Those states have now trended toward Trump, particularly in the Sun Belt. Recent New York Times and Siena College polling shows Trump up by significant margins in Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia. Facing the brunt of the border crisis, multiethnic working-class communities may be growing more receptive to Republican overtures.

If Trump can hold all his 2020 states and pick up those Sun Belt states, he needs only to flip Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin to cross the threshold of 270 electoral votes and regain the White House. Many polls, however, show Biden running stronger in the Rust Belt—RealClearPolitics averages in those three states have the narrowest of Trump leads.

The first president in decades born during FDR’s presidency, Biden entered the national stage as an acolyte of George McGovern. His own administration labors in the shadow of both men. Harkening back to the New Deal Democratic Party, Biden’s approach to politics remains fundamentally coalitional, focused more on assuaging certain constituencies than on implementing some abstract ideology. But McGovern’s primary victory in 1972 augured the rise of a progressive cultural vanguard at odds with the traditional Democratic blue-collar base. This vanguard now holds the commanding heights at many elite institutions and of much of the Democratic political apparatus.

Biden has staked his presidency managing this coalition by merging lunch-bucket economics with graduate school cultural politics. Thus, he signed infrastructure and semiconductor bills while also championing legislation that would nullify most state regulations on abortion. The same executive pen that targeted “junk fees” has also authored orders inscribing progressive identity politics into the Federal Register. Biden may continue this strategy. He has extended tariffs on China, and his administration has hinted at modest reforms to the nation’s asylum system. Hoping to appeal to critics of Israel’s war on Hamas, he announced that he would put a brake on certain military supplies if Israel launched a full-scale ground operation against Rafah.

This approach is rife with contradiction. Populist economics and progressives’ cultural imperatives don’t always align. The border, for example, is both a cultural and an economic issue, so unwinding immigration enforcement to appease cultural progressives might hurt working-class voters, some of whom are recent legal immigrants. While Bill Clinton moved to the center on certain cultural issues after a setback in the 1994 midterms, Biden has been unwilling to heed calls for the White House to take more assertive action on immigration. Drawing contrasts with the identity-politics Left could help Biden differentiate himself from the activists, but the president instead has often reinforced their position. He even expressed “regret” to MSNBC for having used the term “illegal” to refer to an unauthorized immigrant.

And yet, the president is reportedly bullish on his reelection prospects. His coalition successfully held off a “red wave” in 2022. Biden remains strongest with highly educated, high-propensity voters, and the Democratic turnout machine could deliver again in November. Donald Trump’s favorability numbers have improved, but he remains unpopular with much of the electorate. If Republicans cannot consolidate behind a pro-worker economic platform, Biden might trumpet his own record more successfully.

Still, growing instability abroad combined with inflation, immigration, and identity politics at home jeopardize Biden’s reelection bid. Consider two additional datapoints from the New York Times polling. First: in swing states, Biden runs significantly behind the respective Democratic Senate candidates. This may indicate that voters remain open to Democrats in general but have soured on Biden in particular. (It might also signal many down-ticket Republicans’ failure to grasp their new potential electoral coalition.) Second: when asked about whether Trump or Biden would transform American life, over 45 percent of Americans thought that Trump would make major changes, while only 11 percent thought the same about Biden (32 percent thought that nothing would change if he were reelected).

Perhaps sensing these dangers, Biden challenged Trump to two debates yesterday—a challenge  quickly accepted by the former president. The first face-off between the two men is scheduled for June 27. Biden’s team may calculate that a precedent-breaking, early-summer presidential debate could be a chance to reset the campaign narrative by showing him as feisty, assertive, and in charge. A majority of respondents in the New York Times poll said that they wanted a president who could help bring Washington “back to normal.” For a president who campaigned on restoring normalcy, that’s a troubling number. November will tell us whether it’s politically fatal.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images


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