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Biden and Trudeau: Stay or go?

 U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walk as they meet in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada March 24, 2023.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walk as they meet in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada March 24, 2023.

REUTERS/Patrick Doyle

If there were a political soundtrack this week for President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it would likely be “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” from The Clash’s 1982 Combat Rock album. Both have been sloshing through terrible poll numbers and facing calls – from within their own houses – to step down. Should they? Are they both now liabilities to their parties?

Polls get pundits and populists panting, so let’s start today with this: Calm the heck down.

They are not going anywhere.

For now.

Calm isn’t the order of the day, of course, so if there is a sense of collective hyperventilation, it's understandable. Take last night’s Republican debate in Miami, where the full-blown chaos machine, the isolationist candidate that is Vivek Ramaswamy opened by calling the party he wants to lead “losers” – a new approach for political strategists to consider. He went on to parrot Putin propaganda on Ukraine by calling President Volodymyr Zelensky a Nazi – um, maybe slow the roll, Mr. Fast Talking Tech bro, Zelensky is Jewish – pitched building a wall across the Canadian border (that would be 5,500-plus miles of a big, beautiful, useless wall), and then, after that baffling pitch, closed by claiming that Joe Biden is actually not the US president (Really?) and that the Democrats must come forward with their true conspiracy candidate: Gavin Newsom or Michelle Obama.

So yeah, maybe being level-headed isn’t the thing these days, but still …

Some perspective. Biden has a year of runway before he faces off against his likely opponent, former President (and full-time defendant) Donald Trump. No one on the stage last night, from Ron DeSantis to Nikki Haley, has a realistic shot of taking him down, but if he is convicted in one of his multiple trials, his already real vulnerabilities are increased.

Meanwhile, Trudeau, if his shaky deal with the NDP holds up, can wait until 2025. You count political years like dog years, and with so many moving parts – the economy, inflation, wars, labor strife, legal trials, political opponents, gaffes, health – snorting uncut poll numbers is not advisable.

In the last week alone, Biden went from albatross to eagle. After the apparently fatal New York Times/Siena College poll predicted he would lose five swing states, Biden saw his party retain the governorship in the hot red state of Kentucky, take over Virginia’s legislature, and celebrate Ohio voters overwhelmingly backing a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right of abortion.

Neither the poll nor the wins are decisive signs of much, except that the abortion issue is deeply hurting Republicans. As Ian Bremmer wrote here yesterday, Biden has a solid economic story to run on – unemployment is down, real wages are up, the economy is growing, Trump is unpopular, and third-party candidates like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. may hurt the Republicans as much as the Democrats.

Still, Biden has genuine problems that should not be ignored.

I asked my colleague Jon Lieber, managing director of Eurasia Group in Washington, DC, to outline Biden’s challenges, and he sent me this list:

  • Inflation eating away at wages.
  • He’s old.
  • A “world on fire” narrative that started with Afghanistan -> Ukraine-> Middle East, that he gets the blame for.
  • He’s old.
  • Splintering in his coalition with young people generally unhappy.
  • Large majorities of Americans see the country as on the “wrong track,” and the incumbent gets the blame.

So, Biden has real troubles ahead, Tuesday aside.

Trudeau is also facing an age thing – only, for him, it’s more about timing and the wheel of change. Every day, there’s another article about people feeling Trudeau’d out, as Susan Delacourt wrote about in the Toronto Star. In the Globe and Mail yesterday, Andrew Coyne compared Trudeau’s plight to Biden’s. A recent Leger poll has the Liberals getting creamed by the Conservatives, and recently, longtime Liberal Senator Percy Downe openly suggested it was time for Trudeau to step aside.

In Canada, it’s called taking a walk in the snow, named after Pierre Trudeau, who announced in his fourth term that he had taken a long walk in the snow and decided it was time to step down. Some Liberals are busy shopping for winter boots to gift to Justin Trudeau as a way of encouraging him to follow in his dad’s footsteps and get some fresh air this Christmas. Don’t hold your breath.

The Liberals are in desperate shape – maybe irrecoverable shape – but Trudeau does not see anyone in his party who can take on the opposition better than he can. (No leader thinks anything else, of course!) Trudeau is a superb campaigner, and he loves to be underestimated, as he has been for three elections. He hopes that interest rates fall, inflation is contained, house prices ease, and the economy turns in his favor over the next year. Hope is not a strategy, though, and he needs to regain focus, put some policies on the table that actually deliver these economic results, or he will tank his party. And as with Biden, it is getting late, and the wheel of change is picking up speed.

The bigger question remains, can the center hold? Is there a place for a left/right-centrist government, or is the pull of the populist far right or the populist far left inevitable?

That’s not just a US-Canada question, but a global question facing all democracies. Both Biden and Trudeau campaigned as progressive centrists, but both have crab walked left (on certain economic issues like climate) and sometimes back to the right (on foreign policy issues like the Middle East) to stay in power. They need to pitch a practical center as a viable option in a crisis-filled world being stretched to extremes.

So, should they stay or should they go? The fog of politics is similar to the fog of war. The important decisions are all too often shrouded in the same mists of uncertainty that Carl von Clausewitz, in his famous 1832 book, “On War,” described on the battlefields – only in politics those mists are made up of polls, pundits, partisans, and spinners on social media spewing disinformation. But there is one factor not to be ignored: ambition.

In politics, power is rarely voluntarily given up; it’s usually yanked from someone’s clinging hand. That may be the most important factor right now. Despite the potential risk to their parties, despite the terrible polls, both Biden and Trudeau will likely try to stay on and lead their parties in the next elections.

So, let’s all calm down. For now.

– Evan Solomon, Publisher


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