By Jeff Mason, Trevor Hunnicutt and Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Incumbent President Joe Biden entered the 2024 election race on Tuesday with something he didn’t have two-and-a-half years ago: a record in the White House.
He plans to run on it, highlighting his successes as an argument for another term, while opposition Republicans likely slam his White House performance.
Biden, 80, promised on the 2020 campaign trail to fight Covid-19, recast the economy, combat climate change, bolster voting rights, bring back bipartisanship and “restore the soul of America” after former President Donald Trump’s divisive White House tenure.
As Biden grappled with that list, the former 36-year member of the U.S. Senate and vice president to Barack Obama also faced unexpected challenges, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and record-high inflation.
Biden attacked a burgeoning anti-vaccine movement early in his presidency, requiring 100 million workers to get shots aimed at making Covid-19 less deadly and contagious, and presided over a broad distribution of vaccines and a $1.9 trillion economic relief package.
But he was criticized from one side for extending lockdown measures and from the other for being too quick to declare the pandemic over, and too slow to distribute tests and ship vaccines overseas.
More than 1.1 million Americans have died of Covid-19, the majority of those since Biden was president, but the rate of deaths has slowed, especially in the last year.
JOBS, INFLATION AND THE ECONOMY
Biden ran on a promise to remake the US economy, by taxing the wealthy and companies more and pushing the benefits to the middle class.
Under his administration, job growth hit records not seen since the 1960s, nearly triple the pace seen before the pandemic. The economy now has 3.2 million more jobs than the pre-pandemic peak.
But Americans have also seen a leap in inflation, fueled in part by pandemic spending and supply chain problems that drove gasoline over $5 a gallon in the summer of 2022. Critics also say that increased federal spending under Biden, including $750 million on climate change and tax breaks, also drove inflation higher.
The surge in prices forced the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates quickly, a tightening that some worry could spark a recession.
March’s consumer price index data showed gasoline prices dropping, rent increases started to slow and food prices down 0.3% in their first decline since September 2020.
Biden may have worse cards in 2024, with unemployment likely to rise as growth slows, interest rates remaining high and inflation holding above pre-pandemic levels.
Reuters polls show Americans see the economy as the biggest problem facing the country.
Democrats would tout their legislative wins and talk about inflation going down, but that approach will be problematic, said Republican strategist Doug Heye.
“The American people aren’t feeling it,” Heye said.
Biden can point to the Western response to Russia’s war against Ukraine as a solid achievement: The US has rallied the world against Moscow, keeping the pressure on even as some European allies have wavered, and bolstered the NATO alliance.
But the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 drew sharp criticism from both Democrats and Republicans.
Biden has also struggled with long-time ally Saudi Arabia, which has backed oil output cuts from OPEC+ that the United States says are unnecessary.
Relations with China have also slid, as Biden bans and tracks investments and exports to China and congressional members from parties continue to seek more punitive measures against the economic rival.
US MANUFACTURING, INDUSTRY
Biden and his fellow Democrats pushed through more than $2 trillion in federal spending, much of it aimed at restoring US manufacturing, in bills including the CHIPS, Inflation Reduction Act and an infrastructure bill.
Many of the companies who want a share of that federal spending must comply with a batch of requirements that force industries to make their products in the United States, a move welcomed by labour unions but opposed by trading allies such as the European Union and Mexico.
U.S. manufacturing jobs hit 12.98 million in each of the first three months of this year, the most since 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Biden returned the United States to the Paris climate accord which Trump pulled out of, and set a goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.
The president’s signature Inflation Reduction Act has been called the biggest investment in climate change mitigation in history, with billions of dollars in incentives to boost renewable energy and carbon-reduction measures.
However, his administration approved oil and gas projects on federal land, notably the decision to approve the Willow project in Alaska’s North Slope, which environmentalist groups argue undercut the progress that has been made on his other achievements.
Unable to secure voting, policing and criminal justice reforms in a Congress his Democratic Party narrowly controlled for two years despite fiery speeches, Biden has pursued smaller steps using executive authority.
Bipartisan talks on policing reform failed despite the waves of anger and protest unleashed by the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Biden signed executive orders pushing federal agencies to use racial justice criteria when considering policies related to housing, the environment, infrastructure and a variety of other areas.
His administration has boosted funding to historically Black colleges, and Black unemployment levels hover around record lows. Biden also dismissed the sentences of thousands of people with federal offences for simple marijuana possession, a disproportionately non-white group.
Biden has also installed a diverse Cabinet and senior leadership team.
Biden promised to reverse Trump’s hardline immigration policies. But after taking office in 2021, he struggled operationally and politically with record numbers of migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, a challenge that derailed some reform efforts.
The decision in January to block more migrants at the border while opening new limited, legal pathways to immigrants broke a promise to restore access to asylum, but has not shielded him from Republican criticism on the issue.
And a move to expand Covid-19 border restrictions implemented under Trump was lambasted by some fellow Democrats and former officials.
The Biden administration also has faced scrutiny over its handling of record numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
In February, the administration said it would crack down on child labour amid a steep rise in violations and investigative reports by Reuters and others on illegal employment of migrant minors in dangerous U.S. industries.
POPULARITY AND POLLING
Biden took office in the harrowing days after the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters, and his positive early polling reflected Americans’ desire for stability.
During the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, his approval rating slipped below 50%, however, and it has not recovered. In recent months, it has hovered around 40 per cent.
In a hypothetical one-on-one contest, the latest Reuters polls show Biden leads Trump 43% to 38% among registered voters, just outside the poll’s 4 percentage point credibility interval for registered voters.
In another hypothetical two-person match-up, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, trailed further behind, with 34% to Biden’s 43%.