From the Center

When American politicians reach across the Atlantic Ocean for inspirational rhetoric, they usually borrow from Winston Churchill or occasionally from Benjamin Disraeli or Margaret Thatcher. But another, lesser-known British Prime Minister may offer our current president more valuable advice in the early stages of his re-election campaign.

When Harold MacMillan became his country’s leader, he was asked by a young journalist either what he feared most or what he believed would determine his time in office. While the precise question asked to MacMillan is disputed by historians, his response is long-remembered.

“Events, my dear boy,” MacMillan said. “Events.”

The present-day events that are now buffeting Joe Biden’s administration have created a political landscape much different and much less favorable than the president and his advisors had anticipated slightly more than a year before the 2024 election. While it’s been clear that a campaign against Donald Trump would be decided by extremely close margins no matter what, it appeared not too long ago that the saliency of abortion rights in the midterm elections, the steady decline of inflation rates, and the continued growth in employment and manufacturing had created an environment that would work to Biden’s benefit.

But recently, a trio of unexpected occurrences have reminded Biden—and all of us—that MacMillan’s warning of the impact of real-world events is just as relevant today as it was in the middle of the 20th century.

The most recent of the three tremendously disruptive events is the outbreak of war in the Middle East over the weekend. The Biden Administration has been involved in painstakingly delicate negotiations for months to achieve a diplomatic agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a historic treaty that would transform global politics and would have provided an immense foreign policy triumph for Biden to carry into his re-election campaign. But after Hamas’ attacks on Israel on Saturday and the likelihood of weeks, if not months, of blood-soaked carnage ahead, the prospects for an agreement that would rely on meaningful progress toward Palestinian autonomy are dead for the foreseeable future.

Two days earlier, Biden took his most recent steps to try to confront the skyrocketing numbers of migrant crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border. In recent months, cross-border traffic has exploded, and Democratic elected officials from states throughout the country are now very publicly voicing their unhappiness. When the Biden Administration announced last Thursday that construction of the Trump-era border wall would start again and that Venezuelans who had immigrated here unlawfully would now be deported back to their own country, Biden was criticized by progressives and mocked by conservatives. But no one believes that these actions—or any others that Biden takes—will significantly slow the migrant flow before Election Day.

These twin international emergencies join a domestic controversy that will also be a political thorn in Biden’s side for the foreseeable future. It’s been a few weeks since the declaration of an autoworker strike in mid-September, when thousands of union members joined a picket line against the Big Three automakers in protest of wages, benefits and industry-changing technologies that threaten their jobs. But despite some recent signs of progress in the negotiations, the prospect of a prolonged work stoppage is still very real. The economic impact of an ongoing strike, especially in key swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, could be extremely damaging. Coupled with other looming economic challenges in the form of rising oil prices, the cutoff of the student loan forgiveness program, and a potential government shutdown next month, the possibility of a recession is growing.

There are debatable but serious arguments as to whether Biden’s own policy decisions have contributed to these problems. The president’s opponents argue that massive post-Covid government spending and the administration’s climate change policy helped provoke the auto worker strike, that Biden’s relaxing of Trump’s border policies contributed to the heightened migration levels, and his decision to allow frozen Iranian assets in exchange for the release of American hostages last month encouraged Hamas’ heightened aggression. Whether Biden’s decisions improved or worsened these situations will be debated long after votes are cast next November.

But while Biden has not solved these crises, it’s not credible to argue that he created them. Either way, though, these three messes are sitting in his lap, and the root causes that created them will not go away anytime soon. If he is re-elected, it will not be because he fixed them, but because he convinced voters that the Republicans’ shortcomings are even worse.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).