Joe Biden was barely two minutes into his State of the Union address when he made his first mistake. He called Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schummer the “minority leader.” It happened before he had even finished greeting everyone, and the Republicans were rubbing their hands together in anticipation for more mistakes. Trump wrote on his social platform Truth Social: “Big stumble.” Fox News issued an alert. Twitter was abuzz with comments. And yet, that minimal three-letter slip, which Biden immediately corrected, was the juiciest gaffe that the Republican could find in his more than one hour speech.
The Republicans hoped that the 80-year-old president would slip up and show that he is in no position to run for re-election in 2024, but rather the opposite occurred. When heckled by Republican lawmakers – an unusual occurrence for a State of the Union address – Biden responded quickly and with irony. After he stated that some GOP lawmakers had proposed cuts to social security and healthcare, House member Marjorie Taylor Greene – a keen Trump supporter who mistook gazpacho for Gestapo – stood up and shouted “liar.” To which, the president replied: “I enjoy conversion,” drawing laughter and applause from Democrats. “As we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? They’re not to be touched? All right. We got unanimity!”
Biden used the State of the Union address as an apparent springboard to his – still unconfirmed – candidacy for re-election in 2024. Although the president said that the job still had to be “finished,” he pointed out what he had achieved in the first half of his term. A few days earlier, at a Democratic National Committee event in Philadelphia, attendees chanted: “Four more years!” And after the speech, Biden visited Wisconsin, one of the most decisive states in the US, and Florida, territory of both Donald Trump and his likely Republican opponent, Governor Ron DeSantis, in just two days.
The president is building a narrative in which is the defender of the people, standing up to the banks, oil companies, pharmaceutical companies and other large corporations. To support his narrative, he points out that the unemployment rate has dropped to the lowest level in more than 53 years, with the number of industrial jobs rising – a fact that he hopes will sway over unions. He is presenting himself as the one who will defend social security and public health coverage. And he is positioning himself as a stalwart against the threats to democracy posed by Trumpism and his false voter fraud allegations. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, after the US’ unpopular withdrawal from Afghanistan, he has remained a strong supporter of Ukraine, and stood up to China.
The achievements of the first half of Biden’s term include the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which promotes the manufacture of microprocessors, and the Inflation Reduction Act, his flagship climate, tax and health reform. Biden’s challenge is to ensure that citizens feel the impact of these measures.
Rising consumer price, which hurt his approval ratings last year, are starting to cool. The much-vaunted recession has not appeared. And even the migration crisis, another one of the Republican Party’s key criticisms, is easing.
But just as things were going well, classified documents from his time as vice president were discovered in an old private office and at his home in Wilmington, Delaware. It was a major blow, but Biden has tried to downplay the importance of the discovery. In an interview with PBS New Hour last week, he said: “The best of my knowledge, the kinds of things they picked up are things that are from 1974 and stray papers – there may be something else, I don’t know.”
The gap between those who approve of Biden and those who disapprove has been halved, but there is still an 11-point difference. Making matters worse, according to a poll by ABC News and The Washington Post, 58% of Democratic voters would prefer another 2024 presidential candidate to Biden. Other surveys show similar results.
The question, of course, is which other candidate? So far, there is no clear alternative to Biden. An incumbent president does not usually have strong rivals. But Biden – who would be 82 years old in 2024 and 84 by the end of the new term – is a special case.
His age was already a big issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. There was a lot of interest in who he would choose for his running mate, as this candidate was considered a potential replacement for the 2024 White House run. But Vice President Kamala Harris is much less popular than Biden, and is likely to be his running mate again.
Other potential candidates have stopped short of announcing a run, and have generally shown their support for the president. The Democratic Party also reshuffled the primary calendar to suit Biden’s wishes.
The president’s official position is that he plans to run for re-election, but has not made the “decision” yet. “I’m just not ready to make it,” he said last week in a television interview. At the press conference following the November 8 midterm elections, Biden answered the question, looking at his wife, Jill Biden: “Our intention is to run again.”
Since then, he has dropped few hints about his plans. In December, it was leaked that during French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to the United States, Biden, his French counterpart and the two first ladies toasted to Biden’s 2024 campaign. (Biden, who does not drink alcohol, raised a glass of Coca-Cola).
Although the polls do not look good for Biden, his 2020 victory and the better-than-expected results at the midterm elections paint a more optimistic picture. Having former US president Donald Trump as the rival candidate would likely increase his chances of winning. It would be more difficult for Biden to win against a younger rival, although the president says that he will make he’s decision irrespective of who he may be up against. Biden was not a very bright student, but he managed to win the election for class representative in high school. And he has continued to score wins in his 50-year political career (as a candidate for senator, vice president and president).
An announcement on whether he will run is expected in the coming weeks or months. If Biden decides to run, the second half of his term – with a Republican-controlled House and very little margin to carry out big measures – is set to turn into a showdown between the president and the Republican Party. Biden will try to highlight his achievements, while the Republicans will try to bog him down in investigations.
Last week, Biden was asked again about his age in an interview on PBS: “Watch me. It’s all I can say.” According to the president, while he was giving the State of the Union address, he heard people say: “Well, just watch Biden, my God, age is not an issue anymore.” But he added: “I’m a great respector of fate. I would be completely, thoroughly honest with the American people if I thought there was any health problem, anything that would keep me from being able to do the job. And, so we’ll see. But, you know, I think people have to just watch me.”
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