Anticipating Biden vs Trump Rerun

Anticipating Biden vs Trump Rerun

Originally published in The Hindustan Times


As India prepares for polls, another election is looming in the United States (US). The presumptive presidential candidates are incumbent Joe Biden, a Democrat, and former president Donald Trump, a Republican. Public opinion surveys currently give Trump a slight edge, with voters expressing dissatisfaction with Biden’s age and his handling of inflation, border security, and West Asia policy. But Biden’s campaign believes that factors such as the strong performance of the economy, low unemployment, debt relief, and Trump’s legal woes could reverse the tide by November, when people go to the polls. 

At this early stage, predicting the outcome of the US presidential election is futile. The result in all but a handful of states is already a foregone conclusion, and the overall result may well be determined by about six crucial “swing states” and less than a million votes. Nonetheless, it would be prudent for observers to start anticipating policy implications. While many areas might witness policy continuity or greater transactionalism on the part of Washington, trade and immigration policy could see some dramatic changes.

In truth, on several issues, there has been significant continuity over the past eight years under both Trump and Biden. One, China is increasingly understood as the US's foremost strategic competitor, leading to shifts in US domestic, economic, and security policy in the Indo-Pacific. Two, the US believes it should no longer offer non-reciprocal market access in the spirit of neo-liberalism or globalisation. Trade deals that do not tilt the playing field in the US's favour are completely out of the question. Three, the US body politic is firmly against direct and open-ended military expeditions, which critics decry as “forever wars”. Four, despite complications, the US has mostly stood firm in its support for Israel and the Gulf Arab States.

There are, however, some important differences in approach between Biden and Trump on alliances, climate policy, immigration, tariffs, and democracy. While Trump readily criticises US allies as freeloaders, Biden has adopted an allies-first approach in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. A Trump electoral victory would have particular implications for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and US support for Ukraine. On climate and environmental policy, which is important for the Democratic base, Biden has supported large subsidies for domestic industry and active climate diplomacy. While Trump may not scrap subsidies (which benefit Republican constituents), he would certainly walk back international climate commitments. 

Another area of difference concerns immigration, which the Republicans seek to stem and Democrats hope to facilitate. On the Mexican border, a Republican administration will adopt a deliberately brutal approach to deter illegal migration. Trump has also expressed a greater willingness to employ tariffs and other punitive measures to counter perceived trade imbalances. Finally, while Biden has often cast his worldview as one of democracies vs autocracies, a Trump administration would care less about the state of democracy and human rights around the world. 

Some US allies and partners, including in Asia, are already anticipating the implications of a potential second Trump presidency. Trump’s return will be accompanied by greater conviction about his agenda – particularly on military assistance, trade, and immigration – but also greater professionalism in its execution. Unlike in 2016, when Trump surprised even himself by winning the election and entered office somewhat unprepared, his return would see a much more adept operation to execute his vision. Much more of the rank-and-file of the Republican Party would be behind him. Former trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer, ex-national security advisor Robert O’Brien, and domestic policy advisor Stephen Miller are among those who would play key roles in shaping trade, foreign policy, and immigration policy. Preparations are already underway to staff key government positions on the first day of a Trump administration and many erstwhile Trump critics in the Republican Party are reaching out to him about the possibility of joining his administration. 

What are the implications for India? Compared to US allies who depend upon Washington for deterrence or military aid, or major trade partners reliant on US market access, the outcome of the US election will matter somewhat less for New Delhi. In many respects, India will adjust to Trump’s transactionalism, as it did between 2017 and 2021, presenting itself as a partner willing to burden-share. 

Nonetheless, New Delhi will have to brace for dramatic changes in at least two areas – trade and immigration. Given India’s trade surplus with the US, tariffs will have to be anticipated and some tough negotiations will be inevitable. A shared understanding of the need to de-risk from China while hedging against the prospect of US tariffs is already animating discussions among the world’s other large economies: India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Europe. 

Immigration will be more dramatic. Indians will have to anticipate slowdowns and greater scrutiny in the processing of legal migrants – permanent residents, high-skilled professionals, and even students, tourists, and businesspeople. The rising number of undocumented migrants will almost certainly face harsher detentions. Overall, while India may be less directly affected than most other countries in the event of a Trump victory, the contours of his policies can already be anticipated. 


Areas of expertise: Indian foreign policy, politics, economics, and society