Oct 29, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Behind the Curtain: Biden's horror shows

Illustration of a hand pulling back a blue curtain with a recurring Axios logo across it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Biden's White House is stuck in a split-screen reality — spiraling war threats overseas and spiraling political problems at home. Both are horror shows for re-election.

Why it matters: Top officials believe Biden has been at his best in managing the early days of the Israeli-Hamas war. But they privately concede things have never been worse politically since the 80-year-old took office.

Most troublesome: It's hard to see how to brighten his public image on issues haunting the American public — crime, immigration, inflation, race, trust. And now two divisive wars America didn't start.

  • Biden's top aides "are deeply frustrated, and somewhat bitter," said one backer in frequent touch with the West Wing. "They think he's doing a great job — and by many measures, he is."

But private polls show the same hurdle as public ones — brutally and stubbornly low popularity broadly, and on topics animating voters:

1. He's tied or trailing former President Trump nationally and in swing states — even though Trump was indicted four times on 91 felony counts and is spending many days in court (and storming out).

2. Biden gets crushed on his handling of immigration, crime and inflation — none of which will likely turn around in time to put a new spring in his step.

  • It's not death by one issue, but by half a dozen hitting at once. "The load-bearing wall breaks," one Biden official conceded.

3. Many of Biden's own voters don't want him to run — a daunting design flaw for a re-election campaign.

What to watch: Election Day is 53 weeks away, and Biden needs to excite young voters, Black voters and Hispanic voters.

  • His core constituency is unlikely to vote for Trump. But Democrats are concerned about a combination of voters staying home or backing a third-party candidate.
  • Dems won in 2020 because of massive turnout. Now, many of Biden's base voters are over him. To try to rev them up, Democrats plan to lean into Trump, abortion and rising cultural issues, including book bans.

Here's where things get trickier. Among the pitfalls ahead:

1. It's hard to see a big new idea that could pass Congress and move the needle with the public. The White House slammed so many chips on Bidenomics, which is getting results in reality but has been a flop politically.

  • That leaves West Wingers banking on Trump hatred, not Biden love (or even liking) to carry them.
  • The Biden campaign has spent $10 million and counting on TV ads, mostly touting Biden — and his polls haven't moved. If anything, they've gone down.

2. Top Biden backers worry they're one trip or stumble or brain glitch away from another round of Biden's-too-old hand-wringing.

  • It's a visible weakness that can't be fixed or changed, as one veteran of presidential politics points out.

3. Hunter Biden likely will remain in the headlines through Election Day as he battles criminal charges and House Republicans push impeachment against his dad.

4. House Republicans have made themselves a laughingstock with their speaker fracas over the past month. But Speaker Mike Johnson says he'll continue the impeachment inquiry.

What they're saying: Biden advisers point out that year-out predictions are rarely right. Politics aren't static. Individual pieces of Bidenomics are popular. And they say 53 weeks is actually lots of time: Voters will decide next fall — after hundreds of millions have been spent by each side — not this fall.

  • In October 2011, 13 months before former President Obama's re-election, a Quinnipiac poll had his approval hitting an all-time low.

Yet many top figures in both parties agree on this brutal calculus:

  • Trump is the only viable Republican that Biden can defeat. And Biden and Vice President Harris are the only Democrats that Trump could defeat.

What's next: The Middle East war gives the president a chance to project stable leadership ahead of a general election that could boil down to Biden's age vs. Trump's character.

  • But the White House knows the war will likely widen. One Biden insider said about the war: "The most pessimistic scenario is the most likely outcome."

"Behind the Curtain" is a new column by Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and co-founder Mike Allen, based on regular conversations with White House and congressional leaders, CEOs and top technologists.

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