Oct 29, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Biden's 1979 moment

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

On the foreign policy front, President Biden's re-election bid is playing out similarly to that of the last Democratic president who failed to win a second term: Jimmy Carter.

Why it matters: Three destabilizing overseas crises have taken place during Biden's presidency: The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and now, the prospect of a regional war in the Middle East.

  • The chaos across the globe is leading many Americans to conclude that we're facing a moment of historic danger, as Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and co-founder Mike Allen describe it.
  • That sense of fear and dread — on top of widespread economic anxiety — is very bad news for any president running for re-election.

Zoom out: There are some striking similarities to the political challenges Biden is facing and the headwinds faced by former President Carter, who was dragged down by twin foreign policy crises heading into his re-election.

  • Carter's demise was fueled by the 1979 Iranian Revolution that ousted the pro-American shah for an Islamic fundamentalist regime still in power today. The Iranian regime's holding of dozens of American hostages dominated the headlines — and drained Carter's political capital — through his re-election campaign.
  • In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, prompting the Carter White House to take a harder line with the Soviets. But that newfound toughness did little to change American perception that the world was adrift.
  • Once again, a Democratic president is facing wars fueled by Iran (led by Hamas and Hezbollah, its proxies in the Middle East) and Russia. Once again, American hostages are being held — and the U.S. looks like it's struggling to deter its enemies.

Between the lines: Like Carter, Biden faces softening support from a key part of the Democratic coalition: young, progressive voters.

  • Even though most Democratic voters side with Israel — with its support among Democrats growing since the Oct. 7 terrorist attack — the pocket of opposition is concentrated among the youngest voters.
  • After Biden offered stalwart support for the Jewish state in the aftermath of the attack, a wave of stories reported Arab and Muslim Americans threatening to withhold their support for the president after backing him in 2020.
  • It's hard to balance both factions within the Biden coalition, given the enormity of their differences. The clear majority of Democrats are pro-Israel and recoil from equivocation over terrorism, but in a close race, Biden will need to turn out some left-wing voters who have been critical of his support for Israel's military campaign in Gaza.
  • Biden also faces the prospect of losing some progressives to independent candidate Cornel West.

Zoom in: Voters' concern with Biden is mainly over his age and ability to handle the stress of such a taxing job. The major vulnerability for Carter, who faced a serious primary threat from Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1980, was his political inexperience — raising worries he was in over his head as overseas crises worsened.

Reality check: In a best-case scenario for Biden — one in which Israel effectively takes out Hamas without a wider war and Ukraine gains ground repelling Russia — he could receive a commander-in-chief bump.

  • Biden's one-day trip to Israel, along with his public show of solidarity, earned him plaudits from pro-Israel voters and Israelis across the political spectrum — even though he didn't get a political bounce back home.
  • His trip to Kyiv this year was highlighted in a campaign ad touting his presidential engagement.
  • And Biden aides say the president polls well when it comes to his responses to the crises in Israel and Ukraine, and on the issue of withdrawing from Afghanistan.

The bottom line: The demand for global leadership against hostile powers, which Biden articulated clearly in his Oval Office address last week, is running up against a growing isolationism and dismissiveness of America's role as a guarantor of global security — within both parties.

  • Biden will need to convince Americans he's up for the job. His message, so far, has been clear. But his actions will have to speak louder than words — in an increasingly volatile world.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the White House's perspective on Biden polling well on international issues.

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