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Trump v. Biden, Yet Again - America at the Crossroads

Updated: 6 days ago

Part I of a two-part series by the Americas Focus Group on American politics ahead of the 2024 elections

What Future for America's Trade?
by Francesco Palluda

Trump speakes at a rally for the GOP primary, 2022
Trump speakes at a rally for the GOP primary, 2022
As we approach the November elections, trade relations with China continue to be at the forefront of the American debate, remaining a top concern for the U.S. public regarding the future of their country. This article explores the dynamics of this debate, widening the analysis to include positions taken towards the EU, and examining the benefits for Americans in adopting two completely opposite strategies towards the two players.

American trade policy has historically been characterized by what we could define as a Ricardian approach to international trade. Indeed, at least since the post-war period, the idea among American elites has always been fundamentally to avoid incentivizing instead free trade with anyone willing to reciprocate. The opening to trade with China since the late 1970s occurred in line with this line of thinking and continued for decades. As Obama himself said in 2009, "The relationship between the United States and China is the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century." However, it is during the administration of the Democratic president that the two countries begin to have a so-called trust deficit, and the American public begins to perceive Asian expansion in international trade as something to protect against. Thus began the first American tariffs on some Chinese products, initiating a trend that continues to this day.

This sentiment toward China continued to spread among Americans, and Trump skillfully rode this phenomenon during his election campaign. "Make America Great Again" meant, in fact, pursuing tough trade policies toward China. While on several rather controversial issues various technicians around the American government have, in some cases, sought to curb Trump's initiatives, regarding the highly protectionist policy toward China, he has always had ample room for maneuver. This is because many American economists, intellectuals, and opinion makers, both Republican and otherwise, shared with him a strong concern about Chinese expansion. So, as promised, starting in January 2018, Trump imposed tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods and imposed various barriers to trade and investment, thus unleashing a trade war that continued throughout his presidency.

As soon as Biden became president of the USA, he made it clear from the outset that he was in no hurry to deviate from the approach adopted by the outgoing president. The trade war continued along the lines initiated by Donald Trump, leaving essentially all the tariffs imposed by Trump unchanged. The approach of U.S. trade policy toward China showed strong continuity between the two administrations. The result of this was that the US trade deficit with China in 2023 reached 1% of GDP, returning for the first time below the 2003 values, the year China joined the WTO, after the peak of 2% reached in 2018.

As we all know, American politics from 2016 to 2020 has been strongly reactionary and conservative. Its successor, however, has been the expression of American progressivism, the other side of the coin of the polarized public debate in the country in recent years. These very banal considerations serve to observe how two factions that share almost nothing of their respective political agendas have instead had, and still have, such proximity on trade policy toward China, wanting to show their electorate firmness against the threat, for now commercial, from China. This continuity signals how firmly anchored the American public opinion is to this position. It is now consolidated among American economists and experts in international trade the idea that it is necessary to further reduce the trade deficit with China, prevent it from stealing American intellectual and technological property, and avoid being dependent on strategic sectors to a now hostile country.

In this period as we approach the day when American citizens will go to the polls, the statements of the two presidential candidates further reinforce this observation. If Trump has declared that he intends to raise tariffs to 60% on every single good coming from China, Biden also seems not to want to be outdone. Today, May 14, 2024, the president has indeed announced that he will quadruple tariffs on imported Chinese electric vehicles, double the tax on solar cell imports, while Chinese steel and aluminum will increase by more than triple. Finally, the president has instructed US Trade Representative Katherine Tai to more than triple tariff rates on lithium batteries.

Regardless of who the next president of the United States will be, it is clear that the position toward China will remain more or less unchanged. If the fundamentally unanimous position of American policy at large on this issue is well known, what are the dynamics of the internal American debate on trade relations with the European Union?

To understand these dynamics, let's take a step back again, starting with the observation that under the Obama administration, the decade-long trend of free trade among Atlantic partners continued. There were indeed several episodes of economic integration promotion between the USA and the EU, starting with regulatory cooperation between the two in order to harmonize regulations and trade rules, thus facilitating exchanges and investments between the two economies. In particular, the Obama administration initiated negotiations in 2013 for a transatlantic free trade agreement with the EU, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Criticism of the agreement from Europe was not lacking, especially from trade unions, NGOs, and environmentalists. Reductions in regulatory barriers regarding environmental legislation and food safety laws toward large American companies were perceived as harmful, for example. European protests were then ridden by various sovereigntists and populists, from right to left, with strong opposition. Let's avoid delving into European political shortsightedness here; instead, let's focus on the debate that took place in the United States regarding this trade agreement.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, there was substantial consensus that the free trade agreement with European allies would be win-win. According to Anu Bradford, a law professor at Columbia Law School, and Thomas J. Bollyky of the Council on Foreign Relations, TTIP aimed to "liberalize one-third of global trade" and could create millions of new jobs. Furthermore, boosts of around $100 billion for the economies of both parties were estimated. Negotiations continued throughout the last three years of the Obama administration, despite European reluctance. However, they stalled after the change in the White House with the 2016 elections, which, among other things, signaled a change in the American debate regarding trade policy. As promised during the election campaign, the new administration immediately made it clear its intention to pursue a strongly protectionist approach, not limited only to China. Consequently, the last negotiation on the TTIP took place in October 2016, after which there was nothing until April 15, 2019, when the negotiations were declared "obsolete and no longer relevant" by the European Commission,

Flemish indepentists hold a rally in 2014
US President Obama and EU Comission President Barroso in Washington D.C., 2013
For decades, the transatlantic partnership has been the foundation of the post-war international order based on the shared commitment of the United States and Europe to freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and open trade. On the last issue, the Trump administration adopted a different approach from its predecessors, fundamentally mercantilist. Trade deficits with European countries are seen by Trump, and by the intellectuals close to him, as a consequence of unfair European practices, which therefore need to be counterbalanced with tariffs and barriers. Thus, on June 1, 2018, President Trump imposed a 25% tariff on steel imports and a 10% tariff on aluminum imports from the EU, and this was followed by other measures such as tariffs on a range of European food products. Trump's staunch supporters greatly appreciated this approach by the Republican leader toward Europe, seeing it as a materialization of "America First." The U.S. steel industry primarily provides jobs in Ohio and other Midwest states, where Trump's presence is particularly strong. Therefore, Trump's initiative towards European producers did not come as a surprise.

With the next president, however, trade tensions have slightly eased. Biden immediately expressed his willingness to restore a relationship of trust and cooperation with the European Union. The first tangible result was that tariffs introduced on steel and aluminum, as well as tariffs on American motorcycles and whiskey introduced in response by the EU, were paused until March 2025. The suspension is believed to have laid the groundwork for gradually easing some of the tariffs on about 200 European products in the future.

It seems evident, therefore, that the internal debate in the United States regarding the trade approach with the EU is much less one-sided than that with China. American elites seem divided on the issue, and many Republican intellectuals also seem intent on re-strengthening commercial relations with the allies.

But what would happen in this regard in the case of Trump 2? In such a case, Europeans should prepare for new transatlantic trade tensions. For example, a second Trump administration seems likely to introduce a "universal base tariff" of 10% on all imports, including those from the Old Continent. It is reasonable to think that the European response would be a symmetric deterrence policy, aimed from the outset, in the event of a Republican victory, at unequivocally signaling that Europe would be ready to respond harshly to such protectionist measures, even at the cost of enduring the costs of a trade conflict. On the other hand, in recent years, European responses in trade policy to American closures have certainly not been lacking.

A situation of this kind seems at least worrisome, and not only from a strictly economic point of view. Starting from the latter, if it is true that the continuation of the trade war with China seems inevitable in the short term, not following a path of strong commercial openness towards the European Union is more harmful than it would normally be. Free trade based on "fair" competition means efficiency gains, technological advancement, and ultimately growth. From this perspective, if one intends to continue pursuing protectionist measures against China, then greater openness to the other ocean would cushion some of the inevitable economic costs that one must bear on the other side.

The Battle for America's Health
by Alessandro Matrone

Václav Havel addresses protesters in Prague, 1989
US President Biden speaks about lowering healthcare cost in August, 2023
With 60% of voters ranking it as a key issue in the 2022 midterm election, healthcare remains a central issue in determining the elections. Healthcare represents a substantial divergence between President Biden and former President Trump. Their differing views and shared ideas on crucial issues could contribute to a swing in the ultimate results.

Biden has committed to strengthen the Affordable Care Act (ACA), more commonly known as Obamacare. Throughout his time in office, he has worked on remedying Trump’s alterations. President Biden has been pressing for increased subsidies, even raising subsidies for the ACA in the upcoming 2025 budget. Former President Trump, however, has declared he would “totally kill” the ACA, proposing “something that’s great” in its stead. The proposed system will be stronger, better and much less expensive according to the former president, who has been reluctant to include further details. In the meantime, the increased subsidies and federal funding for Medicaid seen under the Biden administration would be slashed.

Trump’s potential second term would see the Republicans bringing their own American Health Care Act, dismantling the ACA, removing its tax penalties, and making it “far less expensive” according to Trump. The Republicans would establish a voucher system to give compensation to the elderly in order for them to purchase private health insurance and to end federal entitlement to Medicaid. Many healthcare analysts take issue with this proposal, labeling it  messy and disorganized. The Biden administration, for its part, argues that the American Health Care Act is focused on short term insurance that focuses on preexisting conditions, leaving patients in absence of insurance when they will most need it.

According to Hart Research public opinion surveys, voters trust Biden more than Trump on healthcare issues. The upcoming months will be critical for both candidates to highlight their health care campaigns.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022, due to its investment in healthcare, will battle for lower prices on prescription medication and pharmaceuticals. The financial relief provided by the IRA aims to lower drug costs and increase Medicare subscription. High rising prices led citizens to call for price caps and general lowering of pharmaceutical costs especially for the elderly. Since December there are also plans to liberalize the pharma sector, further containing costs. These policies, which have planned to set price caps for over 60 medicines by 2028 and cut overall drug prices, will assist the Biden administration in the upcoming election.

Bringing down medical inflation is a priority for the Trump administration as well. A renewed Trump administration would mean greater transparency in pricing. This would require industry legislation to promote explicit pricing in advertisements, pharmacies and hospitals. The Trump administration started this process of transparency with the “No Surprises Act” of 2020 which gave patients protection against surprise medical bills for emergency care from out-of-network cases.

Trump had proposals to peg the price of Medicare drugs to international market prices by using the most favored nation principle. This, along with the proposal to make drug companies show their prices on TV ads, show an effort to increase transparency and drive down prices. Americans currently pay 10 times more for insulin than other developed countries and 3 times more for prescription drugs. The pharma industry will be reforming, but the type of reform will depend on voters.

President Čaputová meets President Pavel in Prague, March 2023
President Joe Biden speaks about abortion during a Democratic National Committee event in Washington, D.C.
Whilst Trump has been reluctant to take a particularly loud stance on abortion rights so far, during his time in office, the appointment of three conservative justices in the Supreme Court led to the overturning of Roe v Wade. Although these decisions remain at state and court level, a new term for Trump would likely mean further reductions in abortion rights.

Another four years of Biden’s administration would entail more access to abortion and more reproductive rights. Nonetheless, restoring a federal right to abortion is likely not possible without reform of the Supreme Court.

New restrictions on abortion are being enforced by Republican-led states and possibly giving Democrats the lead. 27% of voters found abortion the number one issue during the midterms. For the upcoming election, abortion is the top issue for one in eight voters. Biden seems to be leading in this respect, the current president is trusted to move abortion policy “in the right direction” by 38% of voters, compared to his contender’s 29%.

Trump could struggle with communicating a clear stance on abortion. With KFF surveys estimating that a majority (55%) of total voters prefer a push to protect abortion nationwide, Biden’s pro-abortion stance can give him an advantage.

It is early to predict the importance of healthcare in the upcoming elections. Nonetheless, as we approach November, the electorate’s focus towards healthcare will increase. Abortion and rising drug prices especially are key issues that will play pivotal roles in understanding how the electoral landscape will unfold. Abortion, especially, deserves a more thorough analysis.

The Abortion Dilemma
by Marta Stella

As the 2024 presidential election approaches, abortion has resurfaced as a hot button issue in American politics. The positions on this delicate issue of the two leading candidates, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, might have a significant impact on the election results. 

President Joe Biden has consistently backed abortion rights, reflecting the Democratic Party’s pro-choice stance. Efforts have been made during his administration to protect and extend access to abortion services. Following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022, Biden has advocated for congressional action to codify abortion rights. His government has also fought to secure access to reproductive health services through administrative and legislative initiatives, including the Women’s Health Protection Act. 

Biden’s support for abortion rights mirrors a larger Democratic agenda that prioritizes bodily autonomy and gender equality. By casting himself as a supporter of reproductive rights, Biden seeks to galvanize the Democratic base, particularly among women and younger people who are more likely to embrace pro-choice policies. 

EU-Western Balkans summit, 13 December 2023
Trump calls himself ‘defender of unborn children’ at anti-abortion rally
On the other hand, former President Donald Trump has aligned himself with the conservative wing of the Republican Party and taken a resolutely pro-life stance. By selecting three Supreme Court justices, Trump significantly reshaped the judiciary during his administration, setting the stage for the historic ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade. 

The Trump administration also upheld a number of state-level abortion restrictions and reinstated the Mexico City Policy, which prohibits federal financing for non-governmental groups that offer abortion services or support the international legalization of the procedure. 

Trump’s pro-life stance resonates with a significant portion of the Republican base, particularly evangelical Christians and conservative voters who view abortion as a moral issue. By emphasizing his role in reversing Roe v. Wade, Trump aims to solidify his support among these groups and present himself as a champion of conservative values. 

However, Trump has occasionally been reluctant to appear particularly pro-life, historically attributing the party’s defeat in the 2022 midterms to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The contradictory impulses of maintaining the loyalty of the conservative base and reaching out to independent voters skeptical of pro-life politics have thus muddled his strategy.

Austrian party FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl
Number of legal induced abortions per year in the U.S., according to two different organizations
The opposing perspectives of Biden and Trump over abortion are likely to play a crucial role in the elections of 2024. 

For Biden, sticking to his pro-choice platform could help him win over women and progressive voters who are more likely to support abortion rights. In a way, his administration’s attempts to support reproductive rights might be seen as a defense against the perceived threats posed by a potential second Trump term. 

On the other hand, Trump’s pro-life stance can inspire evangelical Christians and conservative voters who place a high priority on the abortion issue. By highlighting his achievements in appointing conservative judges and restricting abortion, Trump hopes to energize his supporters and emphasize his adherence to their principles. 

Additionally, the abortion debate has the power to influence independents and swing voters. In recent years, public opinion has changed in favor of abortion rights, especially when rape, incest, or the mother’s life is in danger are involved. This tendency may work to Biden’s advantage, as independent and moderate voters who support some degree of access to abortion may be wary of Trump’s harsh attitude. 

Trump, however, might be able to win over swing voters by presenting abortion as a component of a larger story about preserving law and order and traditional values, even if they have different priorities than immigration or the economy. 

The impact of abortion on the 2024 elections will also depend on state-level dynamics. The candidates’ views on abortion may be crucial in battleground states where the electorate is more split. States that have abortion restrictions, for instance, may experience an increase in the number of pro-choice and pro-life voters, which could affect the election’s total turnout and outcome. 

Biden and Trump’s divergent views on this fiercely divisive topic are a reflection of the larger ideological gap between the Republican and Democratic parties. The candidates’ positions on abortion are probably going to mobilize their supporters, sway swing votes, and have a big impact on how the election turns out. Abortion will undoubtedly be a major issue in the US elections of 2024, regardless of whether voters support Trump’s pro-life program or Biden’s pro-choice ones. 

Demographics and Voting in the US
by Edoardo Maggi

A common recurrence one hears every United States election cycle: “minorities vote Democrat, and white people vote Republican”. Election pundits blast listeners with this pattern in decades worth of election cycles. Is this still evident, though? To a large extent, it is, as urban areas of the US vote much more heavily Democratic and rural areas have increasingly become more Republican. One could immediately argue that urban areas are where a large majority of minorities, including Black Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans live, meaning that it will be directly correlated with Democratic voting trends. This is indeed the case, although with a small caveat. For minority voters, recent trends indicate a slight increase in Republican sympathy. On the other hand, suburban areas are showing the opposite trend. This is the current dilemma that’s unfolding in the US, which in turn makes party platforms change, and as a result, the core voters of parties change. 

It is becoming increasingly evident that both of the two parties are dramatically changing. Republicans are no longer significantly winning wealthier voters in the suburbs, and Democrats are not winning over their core minority voters by the same margins as several decades ago. The implications of the 2020 election and the 2022 midterms show alarming results for the Republican Party in the suburbs. 

Across the country, in all major cities, suburbs are areas with higher incomes. Studies show that higher-income individuals vote at higher rates than those with lower incomes. Using this line of thought, Republicans are not just losing voters, but they are losing the most loyal voters and, by extension, the most likely voters. Meanwhile, for the Democratic Party, globalization has had profound impacts on their voter base. Once the party of blue-collar workers, the Democratic policy platform changed dramatically, going from the party of coal workers in West Virginia to the party of bi-coastal elites and voters with higher education. Republican strategist Mark Graul pointed to this issue in the 2016 presidential election, where the main worry was that “...for every rural vote we [GOP] pick up, we’re losing two suburban votes”. 

As a result, the Democratic Party is targeting this exact weakness of the GOP. However, the Democratic Party itself is facing a crossroads. Amongst Latino voters, the support for Democrats has been continuously dwindling for decades. Although Cuban voters in Miami-Dade County have historically voted Republican, now even Latino voters in states like Texas are seeing some shifts. 

Polish President Duda in 2017
2016 and 2020 Presidential Election results in the Lower Rio Grande Valley
Now, the focus must be put on the hotly contested regions of battleground states, including the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas and the suburbs of Georgia’s Atlanta Metro Area. Both examples provide more insight into the points that were discussed earlier.

For decades, the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas was one of the few loyal Democratic voting bases in a very Republican state. The support of this area for 2018 Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke allowed him to run a very competitive campaign against incumbent senator Ted Cruz, losing only by roughly two percentage points. The 2020 presidential election and 2022 midterms show this is not the case. Donald Trump in 2020 received record support in the region while maintaining a very conservative campaign. Trump shifted Starr County to the right by 55 percentage points, Hidalgo County by 24 percentage points, and Kenedy County by 40 percentage points. These are not numbers that Democratic strategists can afford to ignore. Shifts of this kind are election-altering, especially in a state like Texas, which has been trending towards a  competitive state in future elections.

Macron, Scholz and Tusk in Berlin in late 2023
Shift in voting margins from the 2016 to 2020 Presidential Election in Georgia
Meanwhile, in the Atlanta Metro Area, trends point to Democratic success. Atlanta is a rapidly-growing city in the Sunbelt region of the country. Population growth brings plenty of opportunities for parties to push their agenda and win over new voters. Population trends arguably contributed to Joe Biden’s hotly contested victory in Georgia, the first time the state voted blue since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Looking back once again to the 2020 election, a Democratic win in Georgia was reliant on many factors, particularly a spike in young and Black turnout, coupled with an intense shift in the Atlanta suburbs towards the Democratic Party.

Not only was this observed in the presidential election, but even in the two Senate races that occurred the same year with both Democratic candidates Ossoff and Warnock winning by almost a percentage point more than Biden. The image above shows the extent of the shift in the Atlanta suburbs. It must be repeated, however, that this shift to the Republicans shown in Atlanta proper is simply marginal. Most of the voters in the area are still a large plurality voting in favor of the Democratic Party, like Fulton County voting 46 percentage points in favor of Biden, while the suburbs around it have turned competitive.

The lesson to be learned is that suburbs are deciding key elections in battleground states. As a consequence, this has produced a notable shift in both Democratic and Republican Party platforms. The upcoming 2024 election will be a litmus test for whether these social and demographic trends will determine the future of the two parties for years to come.



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