The president of the United States delivered his annual address to Congress on Thursday night – except what Americans and an increasingly nervous world wanted to assess was less the state of the union than the state of Joe Biden. I don’t mean politically, I mean physically.

In the week that confirmed the November election will be a rematch of the 2020 contest – the current president against the former one – Biden needed to prove he was not the doddering, even senile figure of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and a thousand social media memes. In 68 combative minutes, he cleared that bar. He ad-libbed, he took on Republican hecklers and, often at high volume, jabbed at his opponent. The result: a performance that pundits described as “feisty” and “scrappy”, free of senior moments, and which prompted even Fox News to muse that Biden seemed “jacked-up” – which, from the network that likes to depict the president as a walking corpse, was a compliment.

Projecting vigour was essential because the mountain Biden has to climb over the next eight months is getting steeper. For one thing, this week established that Trump is not only the certain nominee of his party – crushing his last remaining challenger, Nikki Haley, in all but one of the Super Tuesday primary contests and forcing her out of the race – he is in total control of it. Republicans in Congress are supine before him, whether it’s outgoing Senate leader Mitch McConnell endorsing him this week – even though Trump has repeatedly insulted McConnell’s Taiwan-born wife in nakedly racist terms and the two men have not spoken in three years – or the Republican refusal to pass a border deal they’d agreed with Democrats, because Trump wants the issue of immigration to remain unaddressed so that he can attack Biden for failing to address it come November. Some had hoped a primary season against Republican opponents would batter and bruise Trump, weakening him ahead of the presidential election. It has not worked out that way.

Though that was not the only Democratic fantasy to be dented, if not dashed, this week. Many have hoped Trump’s undoing will come in the courts, where he faces a staggering 91 criminal charges. Indeed, judges in Colorado (and two other states) had removed Trump from the ballot, citing the constitution’s disqualification of anyone involved in insurrection, in Trump’s case the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021. But on Monday, the supreme court ruled unanimously against Colorado, ensuring Trump’s place on the ballot in all 50 states.

‘If the Democrats are to defeat Donald Trump, they will surely have to do it the way they did it in 2020: with votes.’ Trump holds a rally in Richmond, Virginia, 2 March 2024. Photograph: Jay Paul/Reuters

The previous week, the same supreme court, now dominated by the right thanks to three Trump appointments, issued a timetable that effectively slows down the most potent of the cases against the former president: the charge that he sought to subvert the 2020 election. That makes it much less likely that there will be a conviction this side of polling day, a realisation that hits Democrats hard. For years, they’ve longed for this or that judicial authority to solve America’s Trump problem: special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation into collusion between Trump and Moscow played that role for a while. Time and again, the dream evaporates. Democrats now face the awkward reality that, if they are to defeat Trump, they will surely have to do it the way they did it in 2020: with votes.

And that task is looking ever harder. It’s not just the headline figures from national polls in which Trump is often ahead, or even Trump’s lead in the battleground states. It’s the change afoot in key voting groups that were crucial to Biden’s victory in the last election. Trump is gaining ground among Black and Hispanic voters, regularly picking up 20% to 25% of the former. To be sure, Biden is still ahead – but not by the massive margins he once enjoyed and which he needs to offset Trump’s advantage with white voters.

Perhaps most alarming for Democrats is the defection of the young. Biden won voters under 30 by 25 points in 2020, now it’s neck and neck. A big part of that is the president’s support for Israel, with the appalling images coming out of Gaza outraging younger Americans especially. Mindful of them, and the disaffected Arab-American voters who could tip the balance in the critical swing state of Michigan, Biden announced a plan to create a floating pier off the Gazan coast, enabling maritime shipments of aid. Given that it will take weeks to build, and Gazans are desperate for food right now, and given too that there is obviously a simpler, swifter way to get aid in – by exerting full US pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding he stops the delays – the Democrats’ progressive wing is unlikely to be placated. Taking all these developments together, it is not too strong to say the Biden coalition is fracturing.

Many watching from afar are dumbfounded that Americans could be prepared once again, and despite everything, to make Donald Trump their president. How can that be? Surely they remember what it was like last time? To which the answer seems to be: actually, they don’t. This week, the New York Times wondered if Americans suffer from “collective amnesia” when it comes to Trump, pointing to polling data that suggests the years 2017 to 2021 have fallen into the memory hole. It’s partly that Trump’s outrages came so often, they created a kind of numbness: people became inured. And it’s partly that, thanks to a US media polarised on tribally partisan lines, there is no agreed, collective memory of what happened during those four turbulent years, even on 6 January. Add to that the inflation and border pressures of the Biden years and, as Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican consultant and convenor of focus groups, puts it: “They know what they don’t like about Biden, and they have forgotten what they don’t like about Trump.”

How can Biden hope to scale the daunting peak that confronts him? Plenty say the answer is a two-pronged message, “democracy and Dobbs”: focus on Trump’s dictatorial aspirations and his role in appointing the supreme court, whose decision, known as Dobbs, ended the constitutional right to an abortion. But there’s good evidence that that formula, which paid dividends in 2022’s midterm elections, is no longer enough, especially among the young.

Biden needs to do more. He can’t urge Americans to be grateful for what he’s achieved these last three years: they’re not feeling better off and, besides, voters are rarely grateful. Nor can he rely on memories of Trump, because those are fading. The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein is surely right when he says Biden has to let go of the past and focus on the future, framing the coming contest as “a choice between what he and Trump would do over the next four years in the White House”. Biden’s speech on Thursday nodded to that, vowing to defend social security and Medicare, while Trump eyes up a juicy tax cut for his super-rich pals – and casting himself as a decent man up against a would-be dictator.

It was a good start but, my word, it is a marathon climb that lies ahead. Joe Biden has lived a long life, punctuated by the severest challenges, but the one he faces now could hardly be tougher. And yet he cannot afford to fail. The world depends on it.

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