Policy Matters
the State of the Union and the General Election

Welcome to Policy Matters.

Super Tuesday’s big day of primaries and President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address have passed. It’s official: The general election campaign has commenced. We are set for a rematch between President Joe Biden (D) and former President Donald Trump (R). Several third-party candidates also are seeking access to the ballot across the states.

In addition to campaigning, the president continues to navigate the challenges of a narrowly divided Congress, with just a two-seat Democratic majority in the Senate and a shrinking Republican majority in the House. The November elections will be decisive, with 33 Senate seats and the entire House up for election in addition to the presidency.


Biden Administration

State of the Union

President Biden recently gave his third State of the Union address – effectively a campaign speech to the nation to emphasize his experience and counter concerns about his age. He led with his commitment to democracy at home and abroad, vowing to stand by Ukraine in the face of Russia’s persistent aggression. He criticized Republicans in Congress for backing away from a bipartisan border security bill (more below). He vowed to restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land, calling out Trump – though not by name (“my predecessor”) – for endangering reproductive rights. Taking a victory lap, he highlighted efforts to lower costs for American families, create jobs, rebuild America’s infrastructure and address the climate crisis. The president, his cabinet and other surrogates are now taking these messages on the road, including visits to key swing states likely to be determinative in November.

Some criticized the speech as too overtly partisan and political. The Republican response to the speech delivered by Alabama junior senator Katie Britt stirred its own criticism and concerns.

Looming deadline for important regulations

President Biden’s agencies face a deadline this spring to finalize their most important regulations to ensure they cannot potentially be nullified or withdrawn by a possible Republican Congress and White House. Upcoming priority regulations include a crackdown on pollution from power plants, protecting federal employees from politically motivated firings and retirement security investor protections, alongside other recent agency actions.

Student loan debt forgiveness & “junk fees”

As the White House works to fulfill a 2020 campaign promise to address student loan debt, the Biden Administration announced it was canceling an additional $1.2 billion in student debt. This brings the total amount of student loan debt canceled by the Administration to close to $138 billion for nearly 3.9 million borrowers. In a continued effort to lower costs for families by addressing “junk fees,” the Administration announced final rules from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau slashing credit card late fees to $8 from $32. Efforts to put money into the pockets of Americans – especially the middle class – will serve as a centerpiece of the Biden campaign.

Climate disclosure regulations

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released its long-awaited final climate disclosure rule. According to the SEC, the 900-page rule – scaled back from earlier proposals – is meant to “enhance and standardize climate-related disclosures by public companies and in public offerings,” and meet investors’ desire for “more consistent, comparable and reliable information about the financial effects of climate-related risks.” The business community has consistently voiced opposition to the rule and previously supportive environmental organizations are criticizing rollbacks, with legal challenges from both sides.


Government funding

Congress managed to avert a partial government shutdown by completing six annual spending bills on March 8. A second measure covering another six spending bills accounting for around 70 percent of the government’s funding, including defense spending, faces a March 22 deadline. The unusual “laddered” process originated from negotiations to avert a shutdown in fall 2023, though it has required several short-term delays to buy more time for appropriations deal-making between the parties and chambers.

TikTok ban

Congress is considering legislation to force TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to divest from TikTok or else face a ban in the U.S. Officials have long alleged the platform poses a national security threat due to the Chinese government’s potential access to user data. The House voted 352-65 on a bipartisan bill, but Senators have voiced skepticism. TikTok has sought to activate its users in opposition. President Biden has said he would sign a ban if delivered to his desk; former President Trump has come out in opposition. TikTok is already banned on federal devices, as well as government devices in some states.

Border security

With U.S. border crossings reaching record numbers, immigration policy has become a top legislative and electoral issue. Conservatives in Congress made stricter border security policy a condition for supporting the Biden Administration’s proposed $118 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies, stalling the package amid months of negotiations. A deal was finally announced in early February. But Senate Republicans withdrew their support within a matter of days, dooming the effort, reportedly at the request of former President Trump.

In his State of the Union address, President Biden criticized the former president and Republicans for scuttling the bill and called on Republicans to send him legislation aimed at fixing the border crisis. A WSJ poll found 59% of voters would have supported the bipartisan border agreement.

Leadership turnover

Senate Republicans are vying to replace Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) after the longest-serving Senate leader in U.S. history announced he is retiring from his leadership position. (He will serve out the rest of his Senate term, which ends in January 2027.) The leading contenders to replace McConnell as Leader: Two Johns, Sens. John Thune (R-SD) and John Cornyn (R-TX). (A third John, Sen. Barrasso (R-WY), instead has decided to pursue the number two Republican position.) And while several members are said to be mulling a run for Leader, no serious challenger has emerged.


Candidate concerns

In the rematch between President Biden and former President Trump, current polls show a close race ahead, with Trump slightly ahead of Biden. However, both candidates face significant obstacles on the road to November 5. Two dominant issues: Biden’s age and Trump’s legal challenges.

Although both candidates face substantial voter concerns, recent polling suggests voters are especially concerned about Biden’s age. (Biden and Trump will once again make history as the oldest presidential nominees at 81 and 77, respectively.) A NBC poll found 76% of voters – including more than 50% of Democrats – are concerned about Biden’s physical and mental health, while 61% of voters have concerns about Trump’s felony charges.

Dominant campaign issues

Among the key issues shaping the campaign:

Economy: Voters’ economic concerns currently favor Trump, with a recent CBS poll finding 65% of Americans remember the economy during the Trump presidency as being good, and only 38% saying the same of the current economy under Biden. Despite abated inflation, low unemployment and a strong stock market, voters are not convinced Biden’s economy is working for them.

Immigration: Immigration and border security have become flash points between the Biden and Trump campaigns, as a recent Pew Poll found most American adults think the situation at the border is either a crisis (45%) or a major problem (32%). Looking to neutralize the issue, Biden supported the recent bipartisan Senate border security bill, whereas Trump effectively killed the deal. In recent weeks, both Biden and Trump visited the southern border, where Biden called on Trump to work together on a solution and Trump blamed the current crisis on Biden.

Reproductive rights: Since Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2022, reproductive rights has been a pivotal election issue, driving turnout among women voters in the 2022 midterms and resulting in a series of statewide ballot initiatives to preserve abortion access. Democratic leaders and pollsters have centered reproductive rights in the 2024 campaign, with the Biden team launching events and advertising declaring that a second Trump presidency will result in a national abortion ban. Although the Trump campaign has not publicly stated a position on a national ban, Trump has privately expressed support for a 16-week abortion ban and has taken credit for Roe’s demise. Vice President Kamala Harris recently became the first sitting president or vice president to visit an abortion clinic.

Foreign policy: Foreign policy has become an increasingly important campaign issue as the Israel-Hamas War continues and Congress debates additional aid for Ukraine. Biden’s unconditional support for Israel amid the growing crisis for Palestinians in Gaza has driven disillusionment among some Democratic voters which could threaten Biden’s share of the vote in November. Primary voters in some states, notably Minnesota and Michigan, organized sizable numbers of Democrats to vote “uncommitted” during the primary. In Minnesota the uncommitted earned 19% of the vote, enough to send delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Trump has said little on the war, only recently stating Israel should “finish the problem;” he has yet to offer specific thoughts or proposals on the U.S. engagement or financial commitments.


Trump’s legal issues

As the presidential campaign shifts into a new gear, Trump’s legal challenges hang over the race. The former president has been indicted four times on 91 felony counts across two state courts and two federal courts. He also faces civil litigation, including court orders to pay approximately half a billion dollars combined to columnist E. Jean Caroll for defamation and to New York State for a multi-year scheme to fraudulently inflate the value of his real estate properties with the goal of enriching himself.

The first trial – the New York case regarding alleged hush money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels – is set to begin on April 15, after being postponed. But dates for the others are up in the air, including pending a U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) case as to whether Trump is immune from prosecution as the former president, to be argued on April 25. It remains to be seen whether any of the cases against Trump can be resolved before the November election.

Trump’s presidential candidacy is also explicitly before the courts; lawsuits have been filed in 30 states challenging his status on the ballot due to his role in the January 6, 2021 Capitol Insurrection under the 14th Amendment. After Colorado’s state Supreme Court removed the former president from the ballot, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that individual states cannot exclude him from the ballot.

SCOTUS docket

Cases relating to Trump aren’t the only ones before the Supreme Court that stand to shape the 2024 elections. Continuing the last few years’ precedent of consequential terms, the 2023-2024 Supreme Court term also has on its docket cases involving social media regulation, abortion, gun rights and regulation and the authority of federal government agencies.

In February, the Court heard arguments in two cases relating to Florida and Texas’s efforts to regulate the ways social media companies moderate content on their platforms, in both cases to counter perceived concerns about censorship of right-leaning voices. And a recently argued case relates to whether the federal government can pressure social media companies to remove content it perceives to be misinformation. In late March, the Court will hear arguments relating to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval and regulation of the medication abortion drug mifepristone.

Many decisions – especially on the most consequential cases – will come just before the end of the Court’s term in late June.

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