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US presidential race offers key lessons on leadership qualities

The great bastion of democracy, the United States of America, holds its presidential elections in about nine months.

In a country where the median age of the population is 38 years, the race will be, absent of unforeseeable occurrences, between two octogenarians.

By November 2024, Joe Biden, will be 81 years old while his chief rival, Donald Trump will just be slightly younger, at 77 years both aged well over 58, the median age of American presidents.

That vibrant America with its dynamic young population is destined to have either Biden or Trump as their president is a serious indictment on the Republican and the Democratic parties’ capacities for succession planning.

In decades past, both parties had a coterie of young capable candidates who had been apprenticed through the ranks to take over power. The Clintons, the Obamas, the Bushes, and many others had been part of their party establishment for years, waiting for the day they would be called up to serve.

Even more surprising is that as elections draw near, it is looking likely that Donald Trump will return to the White House to serve the term many of his supporters believe was stolen from him in 2020. Until the Israel Gaza war broke out in October, this looked like an impossibility.

However, Joe Biden’s bungling of the war has led to such disillusionment with key constituencies, particularly the young and liberal, that it may cost him the election.  Just this week, the President was heckled in a party event in Virginia, with rowdy supporters demanding a change of tact in his government’s handling of the war.

For many in this age group, the horrid images of Palestinian children dying under Israel’s bombardment is a red line. To them, Joe Biden’s tepid condemnation of Israel and failure to use America’s power and advantage to push Israel towards a more humanitarian execution of the war speaks to Biden’s weakness as a leader.

While the tone in the administration is changing as the number of deaths swell, it may be too little too late, and it may not be sufficient to help Biden’s fortunes. But nine months is a long time in politics.

What is amazing for many observers is the willingness of many Americans to give Trump a favourable pass despite his deplorable moral record, his vicious assault on those that disagree with him, his assault on American democratic institutions like happened with the January 6th insurrection, and even his erratic, and sometimes embarrassing, conduct on the international stage.

As we speak, Trump is undergoing four criminal trials and several civil suits on his conduct in the season he was President. Instead of bringing him down, these trials have become a badge of honour, with his support increasing the more he is sighted on the dock.

American politics, like the politics of much of the globe has become “tribal”. Once people are committed to a cause, not much rationalisation can persuade them away from their chosen position.

Politics has become like football; fans who commit to a team stay committed for life without having to rationalise their support. Granted, Trump had some good policies that had positive effects on the American economy, though the economy has done well even in Biden’s term.  

More important to his base were his appointments of numerous conservative judges to the Federal Appeals Courts and young “red meat” conservatives to the Supreme Court. These appointments will impact the tenor of American jurisprudence for decades.

Already the overturning of the abortion rights case of Roe V Wade, unimaginable 10 years ago, has sounded a warning on many left leaning positions that had been defined by the courts in its more liberal years.

For America and many other democracies, voters are increasingly aware that choices have real consequences, and the option of staying out of the electoral process is an irresponsible one.

What one hopes is that an increasingly unstable world, with wars in Sudan, Yemen, Gaza and Ukraine, Ethiopia and other forgotten places like Libya, Mali, and DR Congo, a Trump presidency, if it happens, will not add fuel to the fire but will be a destabilising influence. One can only hope.    

-The writer is an advocate of the High Court

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