The next presidential election won’t take place for another 14 months, but it’s safe to say this fall could do much to shape the race for the White House.
Here are five political narratives that will dominate politics in coming months as Congress returns to avoid a shutdown, Republicans debate their presidential nominee and former President Trump does battle in a colliding series of legal fights.
Can Biden bounce back from a difficult August?
President Biden’s approval ratings are objectively poor — and nothing happened in August to improve them.
The president’s job approval is roughly 10 points underwater in national polling averages. In early general election matchups with Trump, he is in a de facto dead heat — despite the fact that the former president has now been impeached twice, indicted four times and charged with 91 criminal offenses.
The Biden team is hoping that a $25 million ad campaign — launched Aug. 23, the same day as the first Republican debate — will begin to reframe the political dynamics.
They hope that will help focus attention on the president’s economic record, including robust job creation. The president and his allies can also highlight the impact of legislation passed so far in Biden’s term — such as, for example, the likely reduction in the price of 10 key drugs announced earlier this week.
Democrats also emphasize the political potency of the abortion issue. Biden and Vice President Harris are positioning themselves as vigorous defenders of reproductive rights. Their allies believe that’s a political winner, given the electoral impacts that have already been seen since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June 2022.
Still, Biden’s age is a serious concern for many voters. A recent Associated Press-NORC poll indicated a startling 77 percent of all adults believe he is not fit to serve a second term. Biden, already the oldest president in history, would be 86 at the end of a second term.
There is also scant evidence that his focus on “Bidenomics” is resonating with voters. Most polls show plurality disapproval of Biden’s performance on the economy — evidence, perhaps, that the electorate remains scarred by the high level of inflation reached last year.
Shutdown politics will dominate Congress
Congress will return to Washington seeking to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the month that Biden is already preparing to blame on the GOP.
Whether they can reach a deal by Sept. 30 on at least a short-term spending measure is a big question that may depend on Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) ability to wrangle a deal from his conference.
The stakes are high. If there is a shutdown, there’s a good chance it could hurt House Republicans, damaging their chances of retaining their slim majority next fall. Senate Republicans have signaled that they have no interest in walking into a shutdown, but much will depend on the House GOP and McCarthy.
The Speaker faces a number of challenges.
A debt ceiling deal reached over the summer set spending ceilings for the coming fiscal year, but the House drafted appropriations bills below those levels after blowback from conservatives — who want even more cuts.
The Senate, meanwhile, passed appropriations bills out of committee in line with those caps –– with the gap between the two chambers setting up what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called a “a pretty big mess.”
The Speaker also faces opposition from conservatives who want to cut off U.S. funding to Ukraine and flatly oppose Biden’s request for supplemental Ukraine funding. The Republicans who want to do this are pointing to a host of issues, including the border and the Maui wildfires, to argue the U.S. must pay more attention to its own needs than those of Ukraine.
Yet the majority of Republicans in the House and Senate have been supportive of sending arms and money to Ukraine, suggesting the votes just aren’t there to cut off support.
The White House late last week took aim at the GOP, criticizing Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a firebrand who has aligned herself with McCarthy, for saying she would not vote to fund the government unless the House voted on opening an impeachment inquiry against Biden.
The president’s team believes that’s a bad look for the House GOP, and is signaling it thinks the public won’t side with Republicans if they appear to be playing games with a shutdown.
The easy way out will be for the House and Senate to kick the can down the road by voting for a short-term funding measure past Sept. 30. But even that might not be easy, as the House Freedom Caucus is demanding policy concessions on the border, the Justice Department, and “woke” Pentagon policies in exchange for voting for a stopgap bill.
Even if they do pass a stopgap, looming shutdowns will shadow the political world for the next several months.
Will House GOP impeach Biden?
Greene’s linkage of an impeachment inquiry to the funding fight underscores the pressure McCarthy faces in going after the president this fall.
There’s a lot of context and history at play.
Many House Republicans view the two impeachments of Trump as political attacks that should not have seen the light of day. These GOP voices are eager to strike back now that they enjoy a majority in the House.
The federal indictments over the summer of Trump have fed into this narrative, with Republicans arguing the Justice Department has been weaponized by Democrats against Trump and the GOP.
McCarthy has handled the situation carefully, because Republicans are divided over how to proceed.
Vulnerable GOP lawmakers running in districts won by Biden in 2020 do not want to vote on impeaching the president.
The launching of an inquiry does not mean the House will vote to impeach Biden, but once that investigation begins, it could be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.
Yet a Senate guilty vote in a theoretical Biden impeachment trial is an impossibility, meaning some House and Senate Republicans will see the effort as dangerous and pointless — and politically risky.
McCarthy, of course, has another challenge: his continued grip on power in the House, which has been in question since his historic struggle to win the Speakership.
He’s since won credit for his handling of the GOP conference, frequently proving his critics wrong. But between the impeachment and shutdown battles this fall, he may face his greatest tests yet.
Can anyone challenge Trump for the GOP nomination?
So far, no one has gotten within striking distance of Trump in the battle for the Republican nomination.
Trump led second-placed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by 35 points Friday in the weighted national polling average maintained by data site FiveThirtyEight.
Trump has benefited from the stumbles of the DeSantis campaign. The Florida governor’s poll ratings have declined since he officially launched his quest in May.
According to a Thursday report from The New York Times, the chief strategist for the main super PAC supporting DeSantis’s candidacy recently told donors that the Florida governor needed to beat Trump “in the next 60 days” — a marker of just how perilous the situation has become.
Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has enjoyed a mini-boom in recent weeks, moving into third place in some polls and snapping at DeSantis’s heels. But Ramaswamy is one of the most pro-Trump candidates in the race, and the fact that his candidacy has won praise from the former president himself underlines the reality that he poses little serious threat.
It is of course possible that some other contenders can bend the trajectory of the race in their favor. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley had a strong first debate and has seen increased crowd sizes at recent campaign appearances, according to aides.
Whether any other candidate can disrupt Trump’s march to the nomination is one of the biggest questions in American politics.
If the polls retain their current shape through the end of the year, it is very difficult to see how anyone beats Trump.
Will Trump’s legal fights take him down or crowd out everything?
There is no sign so far that Trump’s legal troubles have hurt him in the battle for the GOP nomination.
In fact, he has enjoyed fundraising spikes after each indictment. The media focus on his legal troubles has obligated many of his GOP rivals to defend him, or at least sympathize with his complaints about an allegedly politicized system of justice.
That said, there are two important factors pushing in the opposite direction.
Firstly, the general public takes a far dimmer view than the GOP base of Trump’s conduct. A recent Navigator Research survey found that “all 4 indictments are viewed as legitimate charges by about three in five Americans.”
Secondly, it is still possible that the spectacle of one or more Trump trials could reshape the race.
So far, Trump’s Washington, D.C., trial on federal charges relating to Jan. 6 is set to start March 4, the day before Super Tuesday.
His New York trial on charges of falsifying business records, relating to a hush-money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels, is slated to begin March 25. And the case in Florida, centered on sensitive documents discover at Mar-a-Lago, is due to begin May 20.
Trump’s legal team may be able to get one or all of those trials pushed back.
But there’s no predicting exactly how the unprecedented spectacle of a former president on trial could affect the 2024 race.
Emily Brooks contributed.