A year makes a difference after all.
President Joe Biden begins 2023 politically stronger than 12 months ago, bolstered by his party’s surprise midterms success, a robust set of legislative accomplishments and the resilience of the alliance he rallied to support Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. Indeed, as he vacations on St. Croix, the biggest decision he faces is whether to seek reelection to the office he holds.
Biden has not yet fully committed to another term, according to three people with knowledge of the deliberations but not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations. On his island vacation, Biden continued his running conversation with family and a select few friends and allies about a reelection bid.
There are challenges still on the horizon, from an economy threatening to slow down, to the war in Europe, to an incoming Republican House majority threatening gridlock and investigations. But those in the president’s circle believe there is a strong and growing likelihood that he will run again and that an announcement could potentially come earlier than had been expected, possibly as soon as mid-February, around the expected date of the State of the Union, according to those people.
That potentially accelerated time is owed, in part, to a sense inside the White House and among Biden allies, that the new year dawns on a note of revival, one marked by an unlikely comeback that has reassured fellow Democrats.
Revamping the primary calendar to put Biden-friendly South Carolina first was another sign of intention to run again. First Lady Jill Biden has signaled that she is onboard with another bid, even as some close Biden worry about the toll of a campaign on the 80-year-old president. Advisors privately acknowledge that Biden benefitted in 2020 by being spared the full rigors of a campaign due to the pandemic and some close to him harbor anxieties as to how he will handle a punishing, full-blown itinerary this time around.
Though some Democrats still express worry about Biden’s age, their public doubts were largely silenced by the party’s strong November showing, in which Democrats grew their Senate lead and prevented a red wave in the House. There are still worries, chief among them, per White House aides, is the economy.
Though inflation has somewhat cooled, it remains high in most sectors and there are fears that gas prices could rise again next year. Moreover, there is a quiet concern in the West Wing that the nation’s economy will slow for at least the first quarter of 2023, according to administration officials, even if the United States manages to technically avoid a recession.
Europe, meanwhile, seems poised for a possibly significant setback, having been battered by inflation and an energy crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. That could cause residual effects in the U.S. as could a lingering Covid crisis in China, which has sparked worries in Washington about supply line challenges as well as the possible birth of a new virus variant that could spread throughout the globe.
China looms as another concern for other reasons. Though Biden’s November summit with Xi Jinping in Bali helped cool some tensions between the two superpowers, Beijing has continued to send menacing signals toward Taiwan and has not fully abandoned its Russian allies. And while Kyiv has shown remarkable resilience in repelling Russia’s forces, Moscow has shown no signs of abandoning its invasion and has resorted to terror strikes against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure to plunge much of the nation into darkness during a cold winter.
Closer to home, while the Republicans’ majority in the House will be slim and unruly, the newly empowered GOP lawmakers will be able to exact a price on the West Wing. After two years of unified Democratic control, Biden will now see much of his agenda stall. And armed with the power of subpoena, Republicans are vowing to open a slew of investigations into the president’s policies and family. Already, there are frictions between the two sides over document production and records requests.
But the Biden White House points to its success in 2022 as proof that its strategy has been working. Rewarded by voters, the West Wing sees no reason to change course.
The president’s aides believe that the Republican agenda on many issues — from entitlements to abortion — is out of step with a majority of the public. Biden took office promising an alternative to the extremist elements in the Republican Party and pledged to work across the aisle. He managed to achieve some bipartisan victories in 2022, including on a semiconductor chips bill and a modest gun control package.
“The American people were clear in the best midterms for a new President in 60 years that they want leaders to focus on improving their lives — not partisan divisiveness — and President Biden’s hand is outstretched to his Republican colleagues in an offer to make bipartisan progress for the country,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates.
While many GOP election deniers were defeated in November, the extreme right will wield power in the new Congress and has all but pledged obstruction. Biden has steadfastly promised to find areas of compromise, and his aides believe that he’ll be cheered by voters for the effort even if the results are scarce. The West Wing also believes the planned congressional investigations could backfire on the new GOP House majority, considering some of the likely areas of inquiry.
Republicans have vowed to look into the administration’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal and the migrant crisis at the border. But they’ve also pledged to investigate the business dealings of the president’s son, Hunter Biden. Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), expected to be a loud voice in the new Congress, recently declared “We are going to make it very clear that this is now an investigation of President Biden.”
While a newly empowered GOP majority in the House will block most chances of significant policy action, White House aides believe that some previous legislative wins will more fully take effect next year and prove popular with voters, furthering their momentum. Biden’s inflation reduction act will lock in key priorities on climate funding and prescription drug prices. The transportation law will continue to fund projects across the country. And his final piece of legislation for the year, a $1.7 trillion bipartisan spending package, includes an overhaul of the law his predecessor cited in the lead up to the January 6 riot.
“There were questions about whether or not Biden would run again but not only are those questions muted, there is more energy and enthusiasm to run again,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist. “He got elected to bring the pendulum back to the middle, to create some sort of normalcy, and he’s done that. He’s also cast a light on Republicans to make their candidates less desirable.”
But 2023 will also be a year of war. Perhaps Biden’s signature accomplishment over the past 12 months was his ability to hold an alliance together to support Ukraine in its rebellion against Russia, framing the fight as one for democracies around the globe. The conflict appears nowhere close to abating: neither side will entertain peace negotiations, and there are worries about how long European solidarity will last in the face of a growing economic crisis.
The war has become a vital test of Biden’s governing principle: that this century would be a battle between democracies and autocracies and the free world would win if it proved it could deliver for its people. So far, Biden believes it has.
“The American people know that if we stand by in the face of such blatant attacks on liberty and democracy and the core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the world would surely face worse consequences,” said Biden as he stood alongside Ukraine’s president at the White House. “American people are prepared to have us stand up to bullies, stand up for freedom. That’s who we are as Americans. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
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