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Let us finish the job, said Joe Biden in his re-election video. The rest of us, including Biden, could have been forgiven for thinking he had already done that by defeating Donald Trump in 2020. Yet here we are again: two bald men fighting over a comb, as Jorge Luis Borges depicted the British-Argentine war over the Falklands. America is no comb and Trump has plenty of hair. Nor is he certain to be the Republican nominee. But a repeat battle between ageing men would test America’s tolerance.

Many rashly assume that Biden can easily beat Trump. Nothing could be more certain in Biden’s mind. With some reason, he believes that had he, rather than Hillary Clinton, had been the Democratic nominee in 2016, Trump would never have become president. Those 77,000 votes that were Trump’s winning margin in a handful of mid-western states that tipped him over the electoral college line, included Biden’s native Pennsylvania. In 2020, of course, Biden was the only candidate to defeat Trump in an election.

Thinking history will repeat itself would be a dangerous mistake. Those around Biden have made it clear that his decision to run for re-election would have been far tougher had the likely nominee been anyone other than Trump. The latter is 76, not that far below Biden’s 80 (although the gap often seems wider). As a result, Democrats have been almost willing Trump to become the Republican nominee. That now looks probable.

The same thought patterns dominated Democratic thinking in 2015. If only Clinton could secure Trump as her opponent, her victory would be assured, the party believed. I struggle to recall a single Democrat who thought differently eight years ago. It was arguably the most costly example of political complacency in modern US history. That same mindset is now evident with Biden versus Trump in 2024.

There are three problems with it. First, almost every US presidential election starts off with 50-50 odds. The last time there was a landslide in the popular vote was in 1984 when Ronald Reagan almost swept the board against his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale. Before that was Richard Nixon’s heavy defeat of George McGovern in 1972 and Lyndon Johnson’s crushing of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Such sweeps no longer occur. America has been too evenly divided for too long to assume otherwise.

Second, Biden’s age will be a big factor. Last year, when he fell off a bike in his home state of Delaware, the clip went viral for days. A full month later, the Biden bike incident was still top of mind in a focus group privately commissioned by the White House, according to a senior official. This suggests that American voters are highly attuned to Biden’s allegedly waning capacities. Even if that is unfair — Biden’s stutter gave him a life-long tendency to mangle syntax — it will be electorally salient. Every time Biden runs on to the podium, or skips down the airplane steps, his aides’ hearts are in their mouths.

Republicans will therefore hammer the point that a vote for Biden would deliver the White House to Kamala Harris, his vice-president. Though Harris has stayed free of incident in the past few months, her approval ratings are not high. Major decisions are often taken without her substantive input. Put brutally, even Biden’s team does not seem to trust Harris’s political skills. In the coming months, the Biden-Harris campaign will undoubtedly seek to change that impression.

The third warning sign is the significant risk of a US recession in the next nine months. Even a slowdown to an anaemic growth rate of about 1 per cent would feel like one to most voters. The last time a president won re-election in spite of a recession in his last two years was William McKinley in 1900. In all the more recent instances — Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George HW Bush in 1992 — this has led to defeat. Given that US growth is largely in the hands of the Federal Reserve, which looks set to continue raising interest rates, there is little Biden can do about that.

On Biden’s plus side, there is Trump. Having already been indicted in New York last month — over falsification of hush money payment to a porn star — the chances that Trump will have picked up one or two more charges by the time election season gets under way are high. Being the subject of serial criminal investigations is not an ideal way of auditioning for the White House. Yet that only heightens what will be at stake in 2024. Biden has slain the Trump dragon once. In the waning years of his long career, he has made it his mission to do so again.

edward.luce@ft.com

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