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BUILD BACK BETTER: WASH, RINSE, REPEAT

Joe Biden turns 79 amid low poll numbers and a genteel scramble for the next Democratic candidate

US President Joe Biden gestures upon leaving Walter Reed Medical Center after undergoing a colonoscopy in Bethesda, Maryland, US, on 19 November 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Michael Reynolds / Pool)

When things go well, a US president can sometimes claim credit, even when they have little to do with the event. But when things are more problematic, the blame is inevitably the fault of the occupant of the Oval Office. Joe Biden is caught up in that right now.

On Saturday, 20 November, US President Joe Biden celebrated his 79th birthday, just after having undergone his annual physical examination, having had a colonoscopy, and having handed over — albeit temporarily — the responsibilities and authority of the president to his vice-president, Kamala Harris. Along the way, some of his close advisers — and the president himself — have been reassuring other Democrats that he was planning to run again for the top office in three years’ time in the 2024 general election. Everything but the annual physical sets a new precedent. 

In connection with his physical examination, Biden was placed under general anaesthesia for the colonoscopy for a short period. Thus, in accord with constitutional provisions, the president formally transferred his authority and responsibilities over to his vice-president, just in case there was a sudden need for a presidential decision that could not wait until after the president regained full and complete consciousness — like fending off or retaliating for a nuclear attack, just like in the movies.  

The thing about this particular transfer of authority, of course, is that it gathered significant commentary because it was the first time a woman and a person of Afro-Caribbean-South-Asian heritage had been the recipient of such a transfer of authority. This temporary transfer of authority got the headlines, perhaps even more than the fact the president was reported to be in good health on the basis of the physical examination. In Biden’s case, the colonoscopy was mentioned as something perfectly normal, unlike the circumstances of his immediate predecessor whose equivalent procedure had been shrouded in secrecy, presumably so as to not undermine his self-described circumstances as a political superman, invulnerable to any debilitating physical conditions, diseases or illnesses.  

As an aside, in the current circumstances, there were no public revelations about whether or not Biden had taken one of those cognitive assessments such as his predecessor had boasted about undergoing in order to prove to doubters that his mind was up for the job. That particular test was where the test-giver offered various questions such as speaking five unrelated words and then seeing if the test-taker can repeat them back without faltering. In fact, though, the particular test so flaunted by Donald Trump, the Montreal Cognitive Assessment test, isn’t actually designed as a measure to detect lack of mental acuity, circumstances of mental illness or growing incapacity. It is primarily used to aid in the detection of early signs of cognitive impairment or dementia, but never mind all that, let us go back to the present — and the future. 

For the incumbent president and his senior advisers to be plainly speaking about the 2024 presidential race within a year or so of winning an earlier election is now yet another new precedent set — although it is largely a standard assumption that an incumbent president will want to run again if constitutionally allowed to do so. Comments like that about Biden’s plans to run again are interesting given the fact he would be running for office at the age of 81, older than any other previous candidate — and he was already the oldest elected president when he ran in 2020. 

Nevertheless, chronological reality and inevitability have already set in motion, despite Biden’s words about that next campaign, the beginnings of a genteel scramble about who will step forward as the next Democratic candidate, come 2024. Right now, this whispering campaign is weighing and measuring the current vice-president, Kamala Harris, versus Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. This particular subliminal horse race has been taking place amid a rising tide of mutterings about the vice-president’s putative stumbles and shortcomings in firmly establishing her public presence on the admittedly difficult policy issues she is point person on. Then there are also media reports — ie, mutual feuding leaks — over difficulties between her staff and the president’s senior aides.  

Vice-President Harris has been tasked with seizing and managing the immigration issue in government and providing high-level protection of voting rights in the face of the Republican onslaught in various states against voting rights. At this point, critics within her own party are very carefully whispering that, so far at least, she has fumbled or been ineffectual on both counts.  

By contrast, it is simultaneously being noted that the very self-assured and obviously ambitious transportation secretary (he did, after all, campaign seriously for his party’s presidential nomination in 2020, despite his youth and modest political CV) will now be at the centre of things with a major share of the many projects to be funded by the just-passed, trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. Just think of the opportunities that will come from all those ribbon cuttings, sod turnings, and opening-day remarks.

This could give Buttigieg access to an unsurpassed bully pulpit for speaking directly to voters and businesses all across the US about the successes of the administration he is part of, as well as taking a star turn at all those public events that will highlight the very much needed building or rebuilding of bridges, roads, harbours and so much else to be supported by this newly passed law. Unless something goes very wrong in all this, it will do little harm — and may well significantly enhance — his public image and continuing visibility in time for 2024, perhaps, if Biden ultimately decides not to run for reelection. 

And all of this brings us to the current political circumstances of the incumbent president. Despite the passage of that earlier stimulus package at the beginning of the administration and at the height of the pandemic’s economic impacts, the passage of the trillion-dollar infrastructure package into law, and the passage, at least in the House of Representatives, of what is usually called the social infrastructure bill in the vicinity of $1.7-trillion, the president’s polling numbers have been falling significantly, and were in the low forties in recent polls. Of course, final passage of the social infrastructure bill now depends on keeping every Democratic senator on board in a Senate split 50-50 and with the vice-president as the tie-breaking vote.

Part of that deep fall in support may be attributable to the apparent chaos of the final departure of US personnel from Kabul, but that is receding from public memory. What is truly hurting now is the crisis of the supply chain as it affects everyday life, especially in the Christmas shopping season, with the availability of new consumer goods, sharp rises in inflation, and, of course, the big spike in the price of gas — petrol for South Africans — in the US.

Covid restrictions sharply curtailed spending on a whole range of services and shopping for the past year and a half, and for many people their savings have built up over that time and their desire to spend is now running at full speed. Now, as the pandemic restrictions begin to roll back, that pent-up demand and the cash to pay for things are chasing supply, especially when the goods are still either being manufactured or are waiting to be delivered from a ship queued up for a chance to dock and unload.  

In reality, this president, or any president, has little he can do directly to fix the tangled-up supply chain that includes port and harbour congestion and the shortage of long-haul trucking to take goods from ports to warehouses, wholesalers, and retailers. Similarly, the price of fuel is largely a matter of supply and demand as oil-producing nations are trying to limit production to maximise their own revenues in uncertain times. But the president, absent some visible method or action for correcting this, gets the blame. Blame translates into falling popularity, and that, ultimately, can translate into electoral disaster.  

At least in immediate circumstances, about all that the president can realistically do is order the release of some of the limited strategic petroleum reserve to increase supply downstream and thus help soften prices; tweak regulations and administration ensuring full-on, 24/7 operation of ports; and maybe find the means to lure former long-haul truckers back to their former occupation.

The real whip to beat back inflation, however, lies with the country’s central bank. It can raise interest rates, thereby taking some of the heat out of the spending boom, but the risk there is that too much, too soon also runs the risk of tamping back down on the country’s economic recovery. That would increase unemployment, just as the economy has been adding close to half a million new jobs per month. And, of course, the Federal Reserve Bank is not directly controlled by the president in any case and will sometimes act without the direct support of the president — or even crossgrain to the chief executive’s wishes. 

There are, of course, many other things to focus the attention of politicians beyond these immediate concerns. Among Democrats, there is a growing realisation that in thinking about future elections, they may have misjudged the tenor of Hispanic voters (a growing share of the electorate) and that, surprise, surprise, they are not automatically Democrats. Rather, they are more strongly social and economic conservatives than those woke liberals who pontificate in the news media and social media. That can make them that much harder to attract to future Democratic candidates if those candidates seem to veer too far to the progressive wing of the party.  

Meanwhile, among Republicans, current office-holders are struggling with their growing realisation that while core Republican voters still seem wedded to the return of Trump in 2024, incumbent senior office-holders, especially governors and purple state Republican senators, see another Trump candidacy as likely to split the party over his record and his frequently intemperate language about other Republicans.

That could drive all those suburban voters who were key to Biden’s victory in 2020, right back to the Democratic Party they had — per those new polls — been drifting away from in recent months. None of this even takes into consideration the considerable foreign policy concerns that have been animating conversations. There will be plenty to keep observers busy in the next months. DM

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