Five challenges that can choke Biden presidency
Joe Biden’s term has seen a range of dramatic domestic and global events that have tested his skills and judgment. Five challenges loom for the US president
It is not easy being the American president. But even by the standards of tumultuous presidencies, Joe Biden’s term has seen a range of dramatic domestic and global events that have tested his skills and judgment. In January 2021, he took oath when American democracy had just faced one of its most severe challenges with Donald Trump refusing to concede defeat and transfer power; Biden did his bit in restoring a degree of confidence in America’s governing arrangements. Biden also had to focus on getting the pandemic under control, which he did with a strong vaccination drive. There was a simultaneous economic challenge, which he addressed by pumping money into the economy through direct cash transfers and a massive infrastructure push. It helped deal with the immediate distress and created jobs, but excessive liquidity in the system, a change in the nature of demand, and supply chain interruptions also led to inflation, and managing that then became among the administration’s top priorities.
Externally, Biden stuck to his instinct of withdrawing from Afghanistan, but his administration botched up the exit in a manner that dented his ratings at home — they haven’t recovered since August 2021 — and hurt American credibility abroad. But the President was clear that the United States (US) had to move on from the conflicts of the past, including in West Asia, where he sought to nurture and engineer new economic and diplomatic arrangements between erstwhile rivals. This, it was hoped, would reduce the need for an American security and military footprint, while still protecting its interests.
While the US was ahead of the curve in anticipating the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Biden had to spend an extraordinary amount of time and political capital in rallying Europe to support Kyiv against Moscow. All through, the administration had to prepare a robust counter to China. It methodically created a web of partnerships and deepened military arrangements across the Indo-Pacific, imposed technology restrictions on Beijing, and beefed up its own domestic manufacturing and tech ecosystem while seeking to maintain a degree of stability in the relationship with Xi Jinping. This was the moment when Biden would have ideally liked to see his domestic policy programmes show dividends — a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive, a chastened China, and his political stock rising in the run-up to the 2024 elections. Instead, Biden now faces a crisis on five fronts, all of which are intertwined in some ways.
The first crisis, which may well occupy a fair bit of his remaining term, is the unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel and Tel Aviv’s ongoing response. The US was just beginning to have a rare conversation on Israel’s democratic deficits under a far-Right regime, but that conversation will become secondary as the administration pulls out all stops to back Israel at a time of crisis. The US was also seeking to engineer an Israel-Saudi Arabia pact and create new economic interdependencies in the region with both I2U2 and IMEC, the two arrangements where India is a partner. This will take a backseat as the old pattern of military conflict and humanitarian tragedy overshadows all else in the region. How the US backs Israel without all of West Asia spiralling back into a vicious cycle of insecurity is Biden’s key challenge.
The second crisis is Ukraine. Experts now agree that Kyiv’s counteroffensive hasn’t gone well this summer. Ukraine will remain independent and sovereign and Russia has already failed in its strategic goal of implanting a pliable regime in Kyiv, distancing it from Europe and weakening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Instead, Ukrainian nationalism is at an all-time high; Kyiv is closer to the European Union than at any point in the past; and NATO is stronger today than it was before 2022. But the fact is Ukraine’s ability to completely repel Russian forces is in serious doubt. There is little chance that Crimea will ever return to Kyiv. Moscow may not be making the territorial gains it hopes for across the Donbas, but its capacity to bleed is high. This will be a long war; 2024 is unlikely to be a good year for Kyiv, and Ukraine’s ability to survive as a nation rests on the support of the West. How to ensure that the West remains unified and Russia doesn’t make advances, at a time when his own country is divided on the question, remains Biden’s second challenge.
China remains the third challenge. Notwithstanding Beijing’s economic troubles and the deeper engagement between DC and Beijing, American policymakers are acutely aware that they are battling China every day, in multiple theatres, across multiple dimensions. From Africa to the Pacific Islands, from East Asia to Latin America, from South Asia to Europe; from investment and trade to tech and intellectual property, from military arsenals and deployments to scientific research and educational interlinkages, no geography and substantive issue is left untouched by the US-China rivalry. How to stay the course in deterring China while preventing an outright conflict remains Biden’s challenge.
Add to it two domestic crises.
After Kevin McCarthy was ousted by members of his party as Speaker, the US House of Representatives has become dysfunctional. Democrats may be celebrating the chaos within the Republican ranks but the prospect of the House getting a Speaker who is even more beholden to the far-Right cannot be ruled out. In less than 40 days, the US federal government will again face the prospect of a shutdown, which, the Republicans hope, will lead to public anger against Biden. And Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with offering more funding for Ukraine, making one of Biden’s external priorities hostage to domestic political divisions in the Congress. How Biden ensures the federal government stays open and the Republicans continue to support Ukraine remains his key domestic challenge.
And finally, for Biden, all of this is happening when his ratings are at an all-time low. Biden has been a transformative and remarkably effective president. But the perception that he is too old to run for a second term and the reality that wages haven’t kept up with inflation is strongly embedded in the public consciousness. The more the perception grows that Biden may not make it in 2024, the more his ability to win internal political battles and cement his external standing diminishes. How Biden restores his domestic political standing is, therefore, his fifth and, probably, most critical challenge.
The views expressed are personal
- United States
- Joe Biden
- East Asia
- Xi Jinping
- South Asia
- Donald Trump
- Scientific Research
- Latin America
- West Asia
- Us House Of Representatives