The trouble with Black Swan events is that you can never predict them, and your response to them often determines your character as much as your future. This is precisely what is happening to US President Joe Biden.
In his landmark book — The Black Swan — mathematical statistician and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb gives three characteristics for such an event. One, it needs to be an outlier; that is, it lies outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Two, it carries an extreme impact. Lastly, even if it is an outlier, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact. This is to make the event explainable and predictable.
The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and the subsequent response by Tel Aviv is the textbook definition of a Black Swan event. No one predicted it, it has had a massive impact on the rest of the world (even more than the Russian invasion of Ukraine), and there is a global race to explain, even if unsuccessfully, what is happening.
Biden’s response to the deadly conflict (more than 10,000 killed as of November 7), on the other hand, has been thus far ineffective despite the seeming activity with Secretary of State Antony Blinken making several visits to Israel and its Arab neighbours and he going there once; to the extent that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rebuffed all American calls for a humanitarian ceasefire, and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) continue to pound densely-populated civilian areas in Gaza.
Back in the US, Biden faces a tough challenge from his predecessor in the White House — Donald Trump who, in spite of being embroiled in several legal tangles, is ahead of him in five of the six battleground states, according to a New York Times-Siena College poll released a few days ago.
The latest data shows that Trump leads Biden in Arizona (49% to 44%), Georgia (49% to 43%), Michigan (48% to 43%), Nevada (52% to 41%) and Pennsylvania (48% to 44%). Biden is ahead, narrowly, in only Wisconsin (47% to 45%). Worse, the results show that Vice President Kamala Harris and a “generic Democratic nominee” faring better against Trump than Biden does, especially among younger voters and even Black voters, who have traditionally voted for the Democratic Party.
In fact, Biden’s average approval rating across polling agencies and political spectra at present (40.8) is close to what Trump’s was at his presidency’s first year (40.5). Shockingly, Biden’s support among Democrats has fallen to 75%, a 11-percentage-point fall from the previous month. This is an all-time low for him.
Another poll in Michigan, conducted by a former Biden associate named Lake Research Partners, shows that the President’s support is waning even among the Muslim and Arab democrats in the state. It is so bad that only 16% of those surveyed said they will vote for Biden if he is the party’s presidential candidate for 2024.
Each of these numbers were recorded much after the Israel-Hamas war began, with voters getting at least three weeks to consider and critically analyse Biden’s actions and policies.
This may be shocking, but it is by no means surprising. His own party members were amazed when he announced earlier this year that he is going to run for re-election in 2024 with Vice President Kamala Harris as his running mate (even though the Democratic Party will have presidential primaries with several candidates, no incumbent President has lost the nomination in modern American history).
One, Biden will be 81 this month (November 20) and almost 82 on polling day next November (American presidential elections are always held on the first Tuesday of November).
Over the course of his otherwise uneventful presidency (relative to what past American presidents had to face and until October 7 happened), Biden’s mental acuity has increasingly come under question. In May this year, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll showed that 62% of Americans doubted his mental fitness to become president again. The number for Trump was 51%. These were average numbers. Specifically, 40% of Democrats, 70% of Independents and 80% of Republicans said they had serious concerns about Biden’s mental sharpness.
Biden’s goofs are so legendary that leading media outlets compile an annual list of his on-stage gaffes each December. Last year, for instance, in the all-important State of the Union national address, Biden referred to Ukranians as Iranians. In another event, he publicly asked if a Republican lawmaker was responsible for organising the function when the said person had died the previous month in a car crash. The list goes on.
The question then, is, who, if not Biden? Well, heres’ the thing. At present, there is no one in the Democratic Party with the same mass base as Biden. The moment Biden steps aside, there will be the political equivalent of a Roman gladiator battle, and an immediate dilution of party unity.
In case of Biden withdrawing for the January 23, 2024 New Hampshire primaries, there will be at least five who will vie for the Democratic Party nomination (four of them have endorsed Biden at present and have refused to challenge him if he runs) — Kamala Harris, California Governor Gavin Newsom, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (all have endorsed Biden) and Congressman Dean Phillips. There is also the wild card, former First Lady Michelle Obama, who has steadfastly declined to run.
Harris’ political clout has been damaged for being associated with Biden (and she knows it), and Buttigieg — the nerdiest and perhaps the most capable of them all as an administrator — is openly gay and is married to his longtime adviser Chasten James Glezman. While the US has come a long way in accepting gays into the mainstream, there is still considerable doubt over Americans accepting one as President.
That leaves Newsom, Whitmer and Phillips. The first two do not have the financial or the political clout yet to run a national campaign. Newsom recently vetoed a progressive legislation putting caste and ancestry as part of California’s anti-discriminatory clauses, a step that has alienated him in the traditionally Democratic state. Whitmer’s influence is restricted to Michigan, and even though she does have national ambitions, even the Democrats are sceptical. It is too early to say anything about Phillips.
If — and this is a strong if — Michelle Obama does announce her candidature, she will rally the Democratic Party like no other. Her husband — former President Barack Obama — is still respected in the party and has significant support among undecided independents and the next generation of voters.
The lack of support for Biden’s actions in the Israel-Hamas war and the drop in ratings could be the perfect opportunity for Biden to withdraw. But Biden is hedging his bets. If he does manage to bring peace to the region — even if temporary — he could swing right back into the game. Domestic politics, after all, trumps foreign policy.
Sachin Kalbag, a journalist and a podcaster, is Senior Fellow at Takshashila Institution, a Bengaluru-based non-partisan think tank. He can be reached at email@example.com. He tweets at @SachinKalbag