Will Donald Trump win the 2024 election?
Commentary by J.T. Young originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire
China, not the economy, is Biden’s biggest wild card in 2024. China is both important and a big negative with the American people; however, its political impact in this year’s presidential contest is so far undetermined. China is also volatile, both internally and externally, and this volatility could affect its behavior on the world stage. Lastly, Biden is personally susceptible on China. Together, these factors mean great importance, great uncertainty, and great vulnerability for the president.
Usually, the economy is a presidential election’s greatest factor. The Clinton campaign’s 1992 admonition “It’s the economy, stupid” is close to a universal. Though important, this year the economy seems largely set. A soft landing from high inflation appears in place and the economy itself, while never strong, has avoided recession. Further, estimators believe it’s unlikely to change much in 2024. Important, meh, and largely “set”: both sides can make of it what they will, while voters’ opinions are already formed.
China is different. Like the economy, China is important – the world’s second largest economy and America’s chief global adversary – and therefore important to the American people. But in contrast to the economy, China is far from “set” as a political factor.
China has a multitude of problems, most of its own making, and these could make it extremely volatile –both in its actions and as a political factor.
China’s big economy does not necessarily equate to a strong one. Its growth has been fueled by borrowing-financed spending on infrastructure and real estate that has resulted in bubbles. The COVID crisis resulted in a years-long national shutdown from which the economy has yet to recover. China’s promised (and needed) economic reforms have been superseded by state intervention. The tide of foreign direct investment has slowed (turning negative in Q3 of 2023). And Chinese consumer spending still lags.
As its economy has weakened, China’s leaders appear to have sought to compensate with an aggressive foreign policy. Not just its closest neighbors – such as India, Taiwan, Japan, and others – but throughout Asia, the Pacific, and the world, countries have felt and chafed at China’s belligerence. Its best friends are among the world’s worst actors: Russia, Iran, Cuba, Noth Korea, Venezuela. Bad actors have one thing in common: They act badly. And their acting badly always offers the risk of drawing China into international difficulties.
Internal problems and external aggression – from predatory business practices at home and abroad to China’s antagonizing aid to Russia in its Ukrainian invasion – have already demonstrated their potential when it comes to China’s volatility. These have created no end of headaches for the Biden administration thus far (remember the almost comical spy balloon fiasco of a year ago); these headaches could become migraines if repeated during a close election campaign.
Added to China’s volatile potential is Biden’s personal exposure. In 2019, while campaigning in Iowa, Biden said “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man … I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what, they’re not, they’re not competition for us,” prompting outcry across the political spectrum. If you’ve forgotten, expect Republicans to remind you. Often. The reminders will not stop there.
Expect the Republicans to also raise questions about administration communications with the Chinese during COVID and the role China played (and they will say the administration downplayed) in the pandemic. Climate change will be raised: Republicans saying Biden has been too soft on China because of its climate agenda, while environmental voters will be upset over China’s lack of cooperation here. China’s human rights abuses, too, will be raised against Biden.
And of course, Republicans will also raise questions about personal involvement with China. Expect to hear these words again many times: “My son has not made money in terms of this thing about, what are you talking about, China.” These will include Hunter Biden and his dealings and Joe Biden’s role in these.
China is a rare unifying issue in American politics: Everyone recognizes its importance and almost everyone dislikes China. This raises its stature almost to that of the economy. Any lack of stature in comparison to the economy, China makes up for in volatility. China is increasingly a rogue nation, playing by its own rules that are neither stable nor predictable.
Like the economy, America’s sentiment regarding China is set. What is not set is whether China will play against Biden and, if so, to what extent. What is certain is that Republicans will seek to play it against him. This makes China Biden’s biggest wild card in 2024.
J.T. Young was a professional staffer in the House and Senate from 1987-2000, served in the Department of Treasury and Office of Management and Budget from 2001-2004, and was director of government relations for a Fortune 20 company from 2004-2023.
This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.