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From the economy to the climate crisis: key issues in the 2024 US election

<span>President Joe Biden, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.</span><span>Photograph: AP</span>
President Joe Biden, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.Photograph: AP

As a Joe Biden v Donald Trump election rematch looms, much is at stake. From the future of reproductive rights to the chances of meaningful action on climate change, from the strength of US support for Ukraine in its war with Russia to the fate of democracy in America itself, existential issues are set to come to the fore.

Related: Revealed: ‘extremist’ Trump economist plots rightwing overhaul of US treasury

Here’s a look at why.

Economy

“It’s the economy, stupid.” So said the Democratic strategist James Carville, in 1992, as an adviser to Bill Clinton. Most Americans thought stewardship of the economy should change: Clinton beat an incumbent president, George HW Bush.

More than 30 years later, under Biden, the post-Covid recovery remains on track. Unemployment is low, stocks at all-time highs. That should bode well but the key question is whether enough Americans think the economy is strong under Biden, or think it is working for them, or think Trump was a safer pair of hands (forgetting the chaos of Covid). According to polling, many do prefer Trump. Cost-of-living concerns dominate such surveys. Inflation remains a worry. For Biden, Republican threats to social security and Medicare might help offset such worries. For Trump, whose base skews older, such threats must be downplayed – even though they are present in Republicans’ own transition planning.

Immigration

Last month, House Republicans impeached Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s secretary of homeland security. Then, at Trump’s direction, the Senate GOP sank a bipartisan border and immigration deal. Last week, on the same day, Biden and Trump went to the southern border. Biden highlighted Republican obstruction but called on Trump to work with him, a political call meant to show voters which party wants to work on the issue and which doesn’t. Trump focused on denunciations of Biden and claims of border chaos stoked by sinister forces. Expect such contrasts on loop.

Equality

Ron DeSantis made attacks on LGBTQ+ rights a hallmark of his attempt to “Make America Florida”. The hardline governor’s failed campaign suggests how well that went down but Republican efforts to demonise so-called “woke” ideology should not be discounted as Trump’s campaign forms. Around the US, such policies have produced results: anti-trans legislation, book bans and restrictions on LGBTQ+ issues in education, the end of race-based affirmative action in colleges thanks to the supreme court.

Struggles over immigration, and Republicans’ usual focus on crime, show traditional race-inflected battles will play their usual role, particularly as Trump uses extremist “blood and soil” rhetoric. On the Democratic side, a worrying sign: Black and Hispanic support is less a sure thing than it was.

Abortion

Democrats are clear: they will focus on Republican attacks on abortion rights, from the Dobbs v Jackson supreme court ruling that struck down Roe v Wade to the mifepristone case, draconian bans in red states and candidates’ support for such bans.

For Democrats, it makes tactical sense: the threat to women’s reproductive rights is a rare issue on which the party polls very strongly and it has clearly fuelled a series of electoral wins, even in conservative states, since Dobbs. The recent Alabama IVF ruling, which said embryos should be legally treated as people, showed the potency of such tactics again: from Trump down, Republicans scrambled to deny they want to deny treatment used by millions to have the children they want.

Trump, however, clearly finds it hard not to boast about appointing three justices who voted to strike down Roe, and to entertain ideas about harsher abortion bans. Expect Biden and Democrats to hit and keep on hitting.

Foreign policy

For Biden, the Israel-Gaza war presents a fiendish proposition: how to satisfy or merely mollify both the Israel lobby and large sections of his own party, particularly the left and the young, more sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Continued protests against Israel’s pounding of Gaza show the danger of coming unglued from the base. So did the 100,000-strong protest vote against Biden in the Michigan primary last week. Republicans have no such worries: they are simply pro-Israel.

Elsewhere, Biden continues to lead a global coalition in support of Ukraine in its fight against Russia but further US funding is held up by Republicans seeking to have their way on immigration, some keen to abandon Kyiv altogether. Throw in the lasting effects of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan (teed up by Trump, fumbled by Biden), questions about what happens should China attack Taiwan, and the threat Trump poses to Nato, and heavy fire on foreign policy is guaranteed.

Democracy

If Biden is happy to be seen as a protector of democracy abroad, he is keen to stress the threat to democracy at home. After all, Trump refused to accept the result of the 2020 election, incited the deadly attack on Congress of 6 January 2021, is linked to plans to slash the federal government in a second term, and even says he wants to be a “dictator” on day one.

Trump will no doubt maintain the lie that his 2020 defeat was the result of electoral fraud as various criminal cases proceed towards trial, 17 of 91 charges concerning election subversion. For Biden, the issue has been profitable at the polls. But some doubt its potency. This week, David Axelrod, a close ally of Barack Obama, told the New Yorker: “I’m pretty certain in Scranton [Pennsylvania, Biden’s home town] they’re not sitting around their dinner table talking about democracy every night.”

Climate

From forest fires to hurricanes and catastrophic floods, it is clear climate change is real. Polling reflects this: 70% of Americans – strikingly, including 50% of Republicans – want meaningful action. But that isn’t reflected in Republican campaigning. Trump says he doesn’t believe human activity contributes to climate change, nor that climate change is making extreme weather worse, and is opposed to efforts to boost clean energy. Biden’s record on climate may be criticised by campaigners but his record in office places him firmly and clearly against such dangerous views.