Biden’s Biggest Challenges to Reelection—Immigration, Gaza, and Even the Economy

Age isn’t the only hurdle for him to avoid becoming the 12th incumbent president to fail to win a second term

Photo: President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a campaign event with Vice President Kamala Harris in Raleigh, N.C. He stands in front of an American flag with a navy suit and red tie.

President Joe Biden, seen here campaigning in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday, March 26, faces significant challenges in his reelection bid, especially on immigration, Gaza, and the economy. Photo by Stephanie Scarbrough/AP Photo

Politics

Biden’s Biggest Challenges to Reelection—Immigration, Gaza, and Even the Economy

Age isn’t the only hurdle for him to avoid becoming the 12th president to fail to win a second term

March 28, 2024
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President Biden’s reelection campaign faces a heady array of challenges, including the age question (he’s 81) and the likely Republican nominee, former president Donald Trump. What will he have to do to avoid becoming the 2nd consecutive incumbent president (and 12th in history) to lose a bid for a second term?

Tops among the issues he has to tackle: immigration, Gaza, and the economy, all of which have shown up in the results of several early primaries.

With immigration and the war in Gaza, Biden appears to be caught in damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t scenarios, taking hits from both Republicans and many on the more liberal side of his own party. The robust economy is less of an issue for what may be wrong with it—not much, in most experts’ views—than for the fact that many Americans think it’s bad and refuse to give his administration any credit for its actual strength.

An incumbent (or previous) president has failed to win reelection 11 times in history, the last in 2020 when Trump lost to Biden. We asked some Boston University faculty experts in American politics and the presidency, foreign policy, and government affairs to assess how Biden can deal with these three key issues to avoid becoming the 12th.

Immigration

Trump and his minions are making plenty of hay out of what is, from any perspective, a big mess at our southern border, with thousands of migrants arriving every week from Central America and elsewhere.

Although Republican rhetoric is laced with racism and lies about the criminal character of the migrants, the sheer numbers of arrivals spreading out across the United States makes this a legit issue, and Biden seems to be hardening his approach. Many on the left, on the other hand, think asylum seekers deserve a more sympathetic response.

Thomas Whalen, a College of General Studies associate professor of social sciences, who specializes in 19th- and 20th-century American social and political history, says Biden isn’t the one to blame.

“I think here we see where the paralysis in Congress is having its greatest impact, because presidents can’t do everything under our constitutional order,” says Whalen, who has written several books on sports and society. “We don’t elect kings every four years. Biden is constrained by the rule of law, and Congress has shown a decided inability [or unwillingness] to act on this issue, at least on the Republican side. This is, from their point of view, a winning issue.”

Whalen notes that Republicans in both houses of Congress abandoned a bipartisan deal that was brokered earlier, because politically it would be damaging to their base, or at least cost the support of the base.

“To me this is the problem with American government right now,” Whalen says. “We are living in an ungovernable country, and it’s at a crisis point. He needs congressional action and he’s not gonna get it.”

The president might take extraordinary measures through executive order to close the border, he says, “but then he will be seen as desperate—it will be seen as a pure political move, and he’ll lose a good part of his liberal democratic base. So it’s a lose-lose on Biden’s part.”

The one thing he can do on the issue, Whalen says, is to follow President Harry Truman’s playbook from 1948 and run against a “do-nothing Congress.”

Gaza

“‘American voters don’t care about foreign policy.’ That old line often gets thrown around at election time,” says Andrew David, a CGS lecturer in social science whose research interests include the US presidency and the history of US foreign policy. “Yet, the ‘uncommitted’ campaign in Michigan’s Democratic primary, which garnered 100,000 votes last month, was primarily driven by Biden’s Gaza policy.”

Gaza, David says, is “the classic foreign policy trap for an American president”: the expectation that American power can and should be used to solve a crisis, with pressure from opposing domestic groups to be more forceful in words and deeds. Some want Biden to support Israel unwaveringly after the October 7 Hamas terrorist offensive. Others, including more liberal Democrats, Arab Americans, and some Jews, want him to use every tool at his disposal to stop what they see as a genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Photo: A demonstrator raises an anti-Biden sign as thousands of people protest outside the Israeli Embassy against the planned ground invasion of Rafah, Gaza
A demonstrator raising an anti-Biden sign as thousands of people protest outside the Israeli Embassy on March 2 against the planned ground invasion of Rafah, Gaza. Biden’s diplomatic efforts so far seem to have pleased neither Israel’s staunch supporters nor those who want an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Photo by Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via AP

A successful Biden-led cease-fire could ameliorate some of these concerns, but America lacks the clout in the region it had, going back to the 1970s, David says, and Biden’s efforts could address that, too.

“Better late than never, but Biden’s recent toughening stance against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu still can go a lot further, given the growing civilian body count in Gaza,” says Whalen.

“The president continues to tiptoe around the issue. Given all the military aid and public support he receives from the US, Netanyahu has no problem thumbing his nose at the Biden Administration. That kind of rank ingratitude needs to stop,” Whalen says. “I understand Biden does not want to alienate Jewish American voters, but in doing so, he’s alienating Arab-American voters, and also a huge swath of young Americans under 30.

“Alienating this new Generation Z, I think in some ways is an even greater threat, not just to Biden in 2024, but for the Democratic Party moving forward,” he says.

The Economy

Recent scholarship has stressed the relative limits on the ability of presidents to influence the economy, David says, “yet voters naturally link the status of the economy to presidential performance. That Biden doesn’t have more support because of this is surprising.”

The economy, by most metrics, is good. Unemployment remains low, a recession seems to have been avoided, and wage gains continue. Hesitation among voters on economic matters is understandable considering high inflation and interest rates. But the overall picture is good, and “it remains Biden’s job to prove the economy is strong,” David says.

Biden was quite impressive during his State of the Union address March 7, touching on key issues where “there’s a host of misinformation floating around about how much more improved the economy is under his presidency,” says Christine Slaughter, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of political science.

“In many ways, he set the record straight about the state of the economy, and the positive trends—such as the Black unemployment rate, which is at an all-time low, yet still nearly double the unemployment rate for whites—that are benefiting voters, specifically Black Americans and Latino Americans,” Slaughter says.

“Democrats have to continue to message those gains to voters, and they must use trusted messengers to deliver those messages to non-white voters, who have a slight decline in enthusiasm for supporting the Democratic ticket,” she says. “These messages should look different for young and older voters who are more or less entrenched in Democratic party politics.”

“It’s a bread-and-butter issue,” says Whalen. “People see it at the grocery store, the prices, and they see the prices of other domestic goods, like cars and so forth. And it kind of just eats away at their bottom line.

“But what people and what analysts don’t get right now is that wages are also rising,” he says. “The sting of inflation is slowly being rubbed away for many people in the middle class. So that might go in a positive direction for Biden. But the perception is now that, you know, the economy is still not recovered, not recovered sufficiently.”

Biden “is a horrible messenger, though. He has to get the message out there, but that’s where his age comes in, because he just doesn’t seem to have the energy to kind of do the whistle-stop tour that Truman did in 1948.”

Summing up:

After his victory in 2016, Trump received credit for running as a populist candidate—an advocate for the “little person,” David says. Statistics don’t suggest that was the reason he won, but both parties have positioned themselves as the champion of the average American.

“Biden seems to be taking a real stab at connecting rhetoric with reality,” he says. “The monthly distribution of child tax credit checks early in his administration and his effort to eliminate student debt both encountered some success. He recently became the first president to march with striking union workers. His efforts might help us more definitively say whether voters are as keen on rewarding action as they are to support rhetoric.”

But Slaughter says that to reach Black voters, whose support was key for Biden in 2020, it’s important to emphasize the absolute difference between the two (presumptive) major party candidates.


Ronald Reagan was underestimated too. Going into 1984, he was considered old and doddering too, and guess what happened there?
Thomas Whalen

“Republicans have worked to demobilize the Black vote by blocking voting rights legislation. There have been many attempts to erode the protections of the Voting Rights Act, such as gerrymandering Black voters into districts, photo identification requirements, and denying organizations the right to challenge voter suppression legally,” Slaughter says.

But while there’s a clear difference between the two parties, “Democrats have yet to fulfill many promises made in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020,” she says. “There hasn’t been a successful police reform bill or federal oversight of law enforcement officers, and it seems like Democrats have all but retreated from the issue.”

“I think you have to take a lesson from 1984,” Whalen says. “Relatively late in the election cycle, Ronald Reagan was not doing so good. We were coming out of one of the worst recessions in modern memory, and it took a while for the public [to realize], but, you know, come election day, they voted for Reagan.

“It was a complete turnaround,” he says. “The economy makes the biggest difference of all. Inflation is still hanging around, prices are still unusually high, but if they get down a little bit more, like the price of gas, which has been going down overall the last few months, I think Biden will be in pretty good political shape, barring some other catastrophe.

“He’s probably following the Reagan political game plan here, which is basically, ‘the economy is doing well, and we’re gonna run on a prosperity platform.’ Biden was never really overwhelmingly popular in any race. He lost a couple of presidential bids, but in terms of Senate races, he always had long odds against him and he always pulled it off.

“I would not underestimate him,” Whalen says. “Ronald Reagan was underestimated too. Going into 1984, he was considered old and doddering too, and guess what happened there?”

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Biden’s Biggest Challenges to Reelection—Immigration, Gaza, and Even the Economy

  • Joel Brown

    Staff Writer

    Portrait of Joel Brown. An older white man with greying brown hair, beard, and mustache and wearing glasses, white collared shirt, and navy blue blazer, smiles and poses in front of a dark grey background.

    Joel Brown is a staff writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. He’s written more than 700 stories for the Boston Globe and has also written for the Boston Herald and the Greenfield Recorder. Profile

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Boston University moderates comments to facilitate an informed, substantive, civil conversation. Abusive, profane, self-promotional, misleading, incoherent or off-topic comments will be rejected. Moderators are staffed during regular business hours (EST) and can only accept comments written in English. Statistics or facts must include a citation or a link to the citation.

There are 7 comments on Biden’s Biggest Challenges to Reelection—Immigration, Gaza, and Even the Economy

  1. Biden’s biggest challenges are the results of his policies. He could be 20 years younger and having implemented the same policies, he’d be in the same situation.

  2. I was surprised not to see a mention of Robert F Kennedy, Jr as one of Biden biggest threats. I am not a fan and a lot of people are lining up against him, but splitting the vote has to hurt one of the two candidates.

  3. The DNC is trying hard to prevent RFK, Jr from running. This is not democracy. RFK is collecting signatures to be on the ballot as an independent candidate. Can’t wait to hear the debate between RFK, Biden, and Trump. Let’s have a civilized conversation about the future our this country.

    1. The media powers, apparently even here at BU, are doing their best to “cancel” RFKjr, by denying him any part in media discussions, avoiding any mention of his name, and just trying to keep him invisible to the voting public.

      Curiously a lot of Republicans who don’t like Trump are leaning toward RFKjr, too, if only as a protest vote. However, with prudent strategy, RFKjr could actually appeal to Republican voters. This could be the first election where an independent candidate has a reasonable chance.

  4. I guess only ‘some’ comments get posted .. just make sure that you don’t criticize the writer – who happens to criticize the Trump voter as a ‘minion’.

    This country is doomed – mostly because the Fourth Estate has completely collapsed.

  5. “We simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked, and circumventing the line of people who are waiting patiently, diligently, and lawfully to become immigrants in this country.” – Donal Tr… Oh wait, that was Barack Obama in 2005.

    “Today, we send a strong and clear message. We will make it tougher for illegal aliens to get into our country. We will treat organizing a crime syndicate to smuggle aliens as a serious crime. And we will increase the number of border patrol, equipping and training them to be first-class law enforcement officers.” – Trum… Whoops, I was wrong again. This was Bill Clinton in 1993.

    Stop gaslighting us.

  6. The economy ISN’T doing well. Stop streaching the facts. NOTHING Biden has done has been good for our country, plus he’s a corrupt politician. The sooner he’s gone, the better it is for the country.

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