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How National Security Issues Could Impact Biden’s Re-Election Chances
The center of gravity remains on domestic issues, but the world has a way of intruding on U.S. politics.
President Joe Biden formally announced his re-election bid today. While the 2024 contest will likely spotlight domestic policy issues like inflation, it’s worth analyzing the national security and foreign policy issues that could shape the contours of the election debate over the next year and a half.
Voters typically prioritize issues closer to home, but they do evaluate leaders’ fitness for office based on how they view their capacity to keep America safe from threats abroad and seize opportunities for America to compete in the world.
Heading into 2024, President Biden has a number of strengths and vulnerabilities when it comes to his handling of national security issues—and could face a host of unexpected surprises in the world over the next year and a half.
Biden’s Strengths on National Security
Biden came into office with a focus on jumpstarting America’s economy and battling the COVID-19 pandemic. But the world quickly intruded on his agenda, and he found himself dealing with challenges from Russia and China along with turmoil in places like the Middle East. Still, he’s managed to rack up some important successes on the foreign policy front over his first two-plus years in office.
Investing in America’s economic competitiveness. Biden’s national industrial policy, including a series of measures like the CHIPS and Science Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, were coupled with other moves aimed at rebuilding America’s partnerships in the world to give a boost to America’s economy, enhance supply chain security, and support a clean energy transition. These efforts still remain very much a work in progress, but key sectors of America’s economy—including manufacturing—have bounced back from the forced shutdown of the pandemic.
Supporting the defense of key partners in the world. Biden’s moves to build security and economic partnerships in Asia, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine and China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the world still has strong majority support among the American public.
Continuing to keep the pressure on terrorist networks. Biden built on the successes of his predecessors in keeping the pressure on groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, threats that seem to have receded but remain chronic challenges in parts of the Middle East and Africa.
Biden’s Vulnerabilities on National Security
Every president’s approach to foreign policy and national security suffers from gaps, and Biden’s is no exception. His record is marked with shortcomings that his political opponents could seek to exploit in the 2024 election campaign.
Immigration policy. Biden’s approach to immigration, an issue that has strong resonance among independent and Republican voters, has lacked focus and hasn’t produced clear outcomes. As a result, Biden gets low ratings from voters for his handling of immigration. All indications are that this issue may play a big role in the 2024 political campaign. Hampered by a divided Congress, the Biden administration reportedly is set to make some moves to address the enduring challenges with immigration policy through executive action.
Afghanistan withdrawal and continued terrorist threats. Biden took a political hit from his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in the first year of his administration, and the real-world implications of how the United States has handled Afghanistan may come back to bite Biden—much in the same way President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 led to the rise of the Islamic State and drew America back into Iraq. Recent indications point to a worsening security situation inside of Afghanistan that could harm America’s security, and as much as we’d like to turn the page on terrorism, a steadier and more engaged approach seems necessary.
Incoherence on China policy. Even though Biden and his team have taken important steps to give America’s workers and companies an edge in the economic competition with China, his administration’s overall approach to China suffers from a degree of incoherence both in terms of substance and how it’s communicated to the American people. Case in point: take a look at Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin’s speech last week on China, remarks that Robert Kuttner points out were “oddly soft-line and ill-timed.” This is just the latest instance of the Biden administration lacking a sharp and consistent strategic narrative on China.
The Biden team has a dual message that it needs to both deter and cooperate with China across multiple policy fronts in the world, which may be the reality of how to deal with China’s role, but it often leaves the administration sounding unclear about what exactly it aims to achieve with China.
Wildcard National Security Issues that Could Emerge
Beyond these relative strengths and vulnerabilities, any number of issues could arise in the next 18 months and play a surprise role in America’s political debates.
The Middle East remains a perennial geopolitical trouble spot. Biden’s initial impulse to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal hasn’t worked out as planned, and Tehran continues to play a destabilizing role in the Middle East—notwithstanding the recent deal China brokered between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The situation between and among Israelis and Palestinians remains a powder keg. In addition, the ongoing turmoil in Sudan in East Africa could require considerable time and attention. Steadier U.S. engagement in this part of the world makes more sense than a pull back—preventive diplomacy and regular engagement are still less costly than reactive crisis management.
Russia’s war against Ukraine comes with several associated uncertainties, even though at this point the conflict seems to have settled into a bloody stalemate. North Korea’s regular provocations and threats could at any point produce threats to America and its partners in East Asia. Cyber threats along with continued political interference in politics and elections in America and Europe remain other top threats, as indicated by the latest Global Threats Assessment released by the U.S. intelligence community.
Biden’s current upper hand in the foreign policy political debates
Stepping back to look at the bigger picture, Biden currently holds several political advantages on the politics of national security a year and a half before the 2024 elections. First and foremost, as an incumbent president, he has broad leeway to take actions that keep Americans safe and deal with whatever threats emerge.
Secondly, the current architecture of the political debate over U.S. foreign policy gives Biden an upper hand. Politically, the Republican Party remains deeply divided on many important national security questions, with different wings of the party voices fundamentally different views on issues like how to deal with Russia’s war against Ukraine. Biden’s critics from the fringe left and isolationist camps, the self-styled “restrainers” and “progressives” influential in some elite discussions in the halls of universities and think tanks, are largely irrelevant because they offer more criticisms than actual practical plans. Their vague ideas lack support among the American public.
If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee in 2024, then foreign policy will likely be more relevant to the election than at any point since the mid-2000s given the platform he's laid out since Election Day 2020. His gated community mindset combined with his inclination to “blame America first” and praise leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping may win him support among the isolationist of the right and left, but these views remain outside of the mainstream in America. Trump could end up rallying support from the isolationists on the right and left, but those groups seem vastly outnumbered by those in the center lane in favor of a balanced international engagement.
Biden can do three things to reinforce his advantages in the politics of national security:
Articulate a clearer message that highlights his successes in helping make America more secure and prosperous through his national industrial policy and his steadier engagement with partners in the world.
Address the incoherence that remains in his China policy, since this is the issue that has the broadest resonance with the American public and has the biggest capacity to shape the rest of the world.
Prepare contingencies for the unexpected to come up in areas like Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Middle East, and cybersecurity.
National security and foreign policy probably won’t drive the 2024 political debate as much as other issues, but Biden should take these steps to highlight his strengths and shore up his vulnerabilities.