September 5, 2023 - 1:30pm

A popular trope in contemporary American politics is the idea of an “exhausted majority”, a cluster of voters who are worn out by escalating political conflict. A new Wall Street Journal poll of the 2024 presidential race has a message for these voters: prepare to get even more exhausted.

The poll has brutal numbers for President Joe Biden and ex-president Donald Trump, who is currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. The candidate flaws highlighted in the poll could dominate the presidential race — at the expense of many policy issues. Both men have a meagre 39% favourability rating, while 73% of voters (and two-thirds of Democrats) think that Biden, the oldest president in American history, is too old to run for re-election. Yet 47% of voters think the same of Trump, who would himself be an octogenarian by the end of a second term.

While voters have significant reservations about the characters of both men, Biden tends to come out somewhat better on that front. Two-thirds of respondents think Trump isn’t likeable, while 48% feel the same way about Biden. Only 45% of voters think that Biden is honest — which is higher than Trump’s figure (38%). Trump comes across as slightly stronger on having a “vision for the future” and on his record as president, though both of those numbers are in the low 50s.

This poll provides yet more evidence that voters are far from thrilled at the idea of a Biden-Trump rematch. So far, both men have kept their distance from the campaign trail. Gone are the days when Trump rallies crisscrossed the country — the former president has not had an in-person campaign stop since August 12. Biden has only had a single campaign rally since announcing his re-election bid.

A campaign dominated by Trump and Biden’s personal flaws could crowd out a discussion of other issues. For instance, the federal deficit is projected to double this year to $2 trillion, about twice what it was last year. Former Obama economic advisor Jason Furman called this magnitude of deficit-spending “stunning” in a time without a major national crisis.

Deficits are projected to trend upward, threatening the sustainability of many federal programs. But a Biden-Trump grudge match may leave this challenge unaddressed. Further, both Biden and Trump have political incentives to avoid discussing the hard trade-offs — especially for federal entitlements — that bending the curve on deficit spending would require.

With the passage of the infrastructure and CHIPS bills, Joe Biden has stolen some of Trump’s thunder on industrial policy. While Trump highlighted a clear policy contrast in 2016 with Hillary Clinton’s neoliberalism, the differences with Biden, while real, are often more subtle — whether, for instance, CHIPS does enough to “decouple” from China. However, a race-to-the-bottom presidential contest does not seem like an apt opportunity to explain those distinctions.

Both men have a flair for existential politics. In the lead-up to the 2022 midterms, Biden denounced his political opponents as “a threat to this country”. And perhaps the central message of Trump’s 2024 campaign has been “I am your retribution”. This is the quintessential reduction of politics to the friend/enemy distinction.

It may be a sign of political exhaustion, when questions of national interest become lost in the swirl of personal enmity. Factions in both the Republican and Democratic parties seem to be groping for some other way. Trump still faces challengers for the Republican nomination. While the Democratic establishment seems firmly entrenched in support of Biden, whispers that he should step aside persist. Whether any of those efforts will succeed remains, of course, an open question.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.