The 2024 presidential campaign preview you didn’t know you needed | Fletcher McClellan

In the battle of ideas, will voters put the culture wars or the economy first?

February 16, 2023 6:30 am
Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference at Pinellas County schools, Aug. 11, 2021. (Credit: Gov. DeSantis Facebook/The Florida Phoenix).

Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference at Pinellas County schools, Aug. 11, 2021. (Credit: Gov. DeSantis Facebook/The Florida Phoenix).

It must be time to think about the 2024 presidential election, which is only 21 months away.

The political media have written off the next two years in Washington, D.C. as a hopeless stalemate between President Biden and Republicans who control the House of Representatives.

Former President  Donald Trump has declared his 2024 candidacy. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has jumped into the race. And Republicans such as former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are  readying presidential bids. 

The media and political observers framed President Joe Biden’s 2023 of the Union Address – which contained numerous policy proposals – almost entirely as a preview of his campaign for re-election.

The political question most often asked by the public is whether the president will really stand for election again. Biden will be 86 years old at the end of his second term, if voters and his health permit.

Driven by Republicans who want to replace Biden and Democrats who would like him to step aside, signs of Biden’s advanced age are a major focus of media coverage.

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Even voters who approve of the president do not want him to seek a second term.

However, it appears that President Biden wants to serve four more years. He thinks he is doing a good job. Positive reviews of his SOTU message, laced with appeals for bipartisanship – contrasting with the rowdy behavior of insolent Republican House members – should encourage him further.

Therefore, barring serious health issues that would force the president to limit his time in office to a maximum of one term, we should assess President Biden’s present chances for re-election.

To begin, most presidential elections tend to be referenda on the performance of the incumbent president, especially if he is seeking a second term. 

Biden’s victory over Trump in 2020 can be interpreted as a rejection of the Republican and his policies, particularly Trump’s failure to deal effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic.

At this stage of the upcoming race, President Biden is in dangerous, but not insurmountable territory.

Biden’s approval ratings are in the low-40% range. Not ideal, but first-term presidents with midterm average grades in the low-to-mid-40s, such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, went on to re-election. One did not – Donald Trump.

Conventional political wisdom says the economy is the most important issue to voters most of the time, and 2023 is no different. Despite record job growth and low unemployment, voters have been critical of Biden’s economic performance since inflation rose to its highest level in at least 40 years.

Judging from his State of the Union Address, Biden believes that demonstrating progress on the economy is key to electoral success in 2024. 

The president devoted the first half of the SOTU to his administration’s accomplishments on economic issues. All other subjects, ranging from Ukraine to abortion to gun violence, were lumped into the remainder of the speech.

Interpreting Biden’s political thinking, a strong economic message can theoretically overcome social and cultural divisions in the nation and enable the president to reach independents and non-MAGA Republicans.

Touting the economy is not a foolproof strategy, however. For one thing, the Federal Reserve Board is still raising interest rates, hoping to bring inflation under control without triggering a recession. So far, so good, but any long-term forecast is problematic.

For another, partisan polarization has neutralized the effects of economic performance on public opinion. Currently, only 14% of Republicans believe Biden is doing a good job on the economy, in contrast to 67% approval from Democrats. Neither objective conditions nor presidential salesmanship will change many minds.

In contrast to Biden’s focus on the economy, Republicans believe cultural issues will capture voters’ attention. That is the assumption of DeSantis, who has aggressively pursued an “anti-woke” agenda in Florida, including a ban in public schools on course materials and instruction that highlight racial inequality and discrimination, as well as LGBTQ themes.

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Clearly, Republican voters are intrigued by the governor, positioning DeSantis in horserace polls as the principal challenger to Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. 

DeSantis’s rise has not gone unnoticed. On his Truth Social platform, Trump is taking a strong position against transgender rights and siding with conspiracy groups such as QAnon. Not surprisingly, he is also accusing the governor of “grooming high school girls with alcohol,” which DeSantis denies.

A battle between Trump and DeSantis to cater most to right-wing elements in the Republican Party – the next test is support for fetal “heartbeat” bills – is likely to be good news for Biden and the Democrats, who benefited in the 2022 midterm elections from extremist GOP Congressional and gubernatorial candidates.

The president’s biggest obstacle to re-election may not be his Republican opponent but the Democratic base, which is noticeably uneasy about the prospect of four more years of Grandpa Joe.

Getting voters excited about steady, unspectacular leadership in perilous times will be Biden’s second biggest challenge – next to convincing them that he’s fit to run again.

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Fletcher McClellan
Fletcher McClellan

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.