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Political Insight: Biden buoyant, Sunak strugglesJanuary 12, 2023

Written by Matthew Sutton, Associate Director, Public Affairs, BCW London.

In my first piece from Washington, I analysed the similar political challenges facing President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as 2022 came to a close.

Now with 2023 already proving to be yet another critical year ahead of the 2024 election cycle, it is important to explore how both men have faced their recent challenges and what this might mean for their re-election chances.

For President Biden, talk of his struggles in the U.S. midterms were proven unfounded as the Democrats emerged relatively unscathed, despite losing control of the House of Representatives.

Yet, the President still had to deal with the looming spectre of industrial action after months of talks had failed to end the impasse between unions and freight railroads. In dealing with this he faced down opposition from his own party and Democrat-backing unions to force through a resolution which aimed at preventing a rail shutdown and further economic fallout across the U.S. over the Christmas period.

With the threat of a Republican-led House looming in 2023, leading to a potentially less labour-friendly deal, the President called on Congress to impose a negotiated labour agreement for railroad workers and operators rather than risk weeks of further frustrated negotiation.

The potential midterm issues now appear a distant memory for the President, who has spent the early part of 2023 travelling the U.S. to promote his economic programme. All this against the backdrop of the chaos which encapsulated the opening of the 118th Congress last week. The election descended into turmoil as Republican opponents dealt with internal divisions over the election of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House. So rather than using the opening of Congress to get on the front foot, instead the Republicans were divided – advantage Biden.

Now, the President would appear to have a clear run at re-election – if he so chooses – whilst the Republicans struggle to position themselves as a credible alternative ahead of the 2024 Presidential campaign. Biden it seems, through a combination of luck and decisive action, has handled the challenges of the last few months perfectly.

Conversely, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has had a winter of discontent which shows no sign of abating. The Conservatives have now trailed the opposition Labour Party in the polls consistently for over a year.

Their reputation for economic competence hangs by a thread after the debacle of the Liz Truss experiment and the country has been crippled by public sector strikes over the festive period which look set to continue in the early part of 2023. Unlike Biden, Sunak has appeared reticent to engage with unions until the last few days, by which stage the political damage has already been done.

Against this backdrop, the Prime Minister has also faced criticism from the media over his lack of public appearances, with his recent ‘new year relaunch’ providing little new in the way of fresh policies to address the cost-of-living crisis gripping the country. The upcoming UK local elections in May are already being seen as a bellwether test for Sunak’s fledgling premiership, and should the Conservatives perform badly, there are already rumblings of yet another comeback for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson who remains the darling of the Conservative grassroots.

Sunak therefore continues to face an uphill battle to reverse his and his party’s political fortunes, even though the Labour Party itself has done little to convince as a credible alternative, other than not being in government for over a decade.

President Biden would therefore appear to have the upper hand of the two incumbents in terms of his re-election chances. However, as the last few months have proven, politics is a fickle business and things can change very quickly.

It’s shaping up to be yet another fascinating, yet unpredictable, year.