If US President Donald Trump loses the presidential election next November, the US may have its first Chinese President or first homosexual President or first Jewish President.
Right now, Mr Andrew Yang (who is Chinese), Mr Pete Buttigieg (who is homosexual) and Mr Michael Bloomberg (who is Jewish) appear the most likely to become the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.
But that is a big if. Mr Trump stands a good chance of being re-elected. Despite the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives voting to impeach him on Dec 18, he continues to rise in the polls.
Mr Trump’s approval rating rose to 46 per cent in mid-December from 39 per cent in October, while his disapproval rating dropped to 51 per cent in mid-December from 57 per cent in October, according to a Gallup poll.
The Republican-dominated Senate is likely to foil the impeachment effort and reject his removal as President. Mr Trump’s re-election chances are boosted by the rising US stock markets, low unemployment and decent US economic growth.
The polls show Mr Joe Biden as the front runner among Democratic presidential candidates, followed by Mr Bernie Sanders and Ms Elizabeth Warren. Mr Biden is, however, tainted by allegations of impropriety involving his son Hunter over an energy deal in Ukraine and a US$1.5 billion joint venture fund with the Bank of China, a leading Chinese state-owned bank.
Although no illegal behaviour has been found in Mr Biden or his son, the former Vice- President’s reputation has suffered from these allegations. His image is not helped by his gaffes and stumbling statements which make the 77-year-old look aged and feeble.
As a sign of how badly Mr Biden is slipping, Mr Bloomberg decided to enter the Democratic presidential race, with the likely reason that the media tycoon probably perceives Mr Biden is unlikely to succeed as a moderate Democratic candidate.
Ms Warren and Mr Sanders are too left-wing to be accepted by Wall Street, the business community and centrist Democrats, not to mention right-wing Republicans.
That leaves Mr Buttigieg, Mr Bloomberg and Mr Yang, who follow Mr Biden, Mr Sanders and Ms Warren with the next highest polls among Democratic hopefuls.
In the debate among Democratic presidential contenders on Dec 19, Mr Yang wisely said: “What we have to do is we have to stop being obsessed over impeachment … and start actually digging in and solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place.”
Mr Yang, 44, enjoyed the biggest improvement in favourability rating among the seven participants in the Democratic debate in Los Angeles on Dec 19, according to a FiveThirtyEight survey of 3,543 likely Democratic primary voters. The technology entrepreneur’s rating rose by 6.3 percentage points to 22.4 per cent after the debate.
One solution that Mr Yang offers is a Universal Basic Income of US$1,000 per month for every adult American. His rationale for this plan, also called the Freedom Dividend, is his prediction that one of three Americans risked losing their jobs in the next 12 years to new technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI). This Universal Basic Income would give Americans the option to start their own business or learn new skills to survive job disruption.
One good thing about Mr Yang is he does not blame China for US job losses, unlike Mr Trump, but on AI and other technologies. Hence, he probably will not blame China for US woes, which would be positive for US-China relations. However, his Chinese ethnicity risks becoming a sore point in the election, given the strong anti-China mood among US politicians of both parties and many Americans.
The US has largely become a post-racial society, having elected an African-American, Mr Barack Obama, as President in 2008 and 2012. But the intensifying geopolitical contest between the US and China puts Mr Yang in an awkward position. It is little help for him to point out that his parents are immigrants from Taiwan, which is getting friendlier to the US but not China. Mr Yang’s Chinese background can be the biggest factor preventing him from becoming US President.
Mr Buttigieg commands the highest polls among Democratic presidential candidates after Mr Biden, Mr Sanders and Ms Warren. His status as a leading candidate is indicated by his receiving the most attacks during the Democratic debate on Dec 19. Ms Warren accused him of holding a fundraiser which had bottles of wine costing up to US$900 each in a “wine cave” with billionaires, but this is a sign that US billionaires see Mr Buttigieg as a moderate Democratic candidate they would feel comfortable supporting.
He boasts an impressive resume, as a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, having worked at McKinsey, a leading US consultancy, and served with the US military in places like Afghanistan for which he won medals.
What works against the 37-year-old is his youth and his homosexuality. Although many Americans can accept a homosexual President, some conservative religious Americans are uncomfortable with a gay couple in the White House. Another negative factor is his only political experience of being Mayor of South Bend, a small town with a population of about 100,000.
Compared to Mr Buttigieg, Mr Bloomberg, who is 77, has a far more distinguished track record as Mayor of New York, the most important US financial hub and the most populous US city with over 8 million people, for 12 years from 2002 to 2013. He also has a strong track record in business, having founded and built up Bloomberg, a financial news service with extensive operations around the world.
Like Mr Yang, the China issue might work against Mr Bloomberg. He has received flak for saying in a television interview in September that Chinese President Xi Jinping was “not a dictator” and the Chinese government “listens to the public” on issues like air pollution. Amidst the anti-China mood across party lines in the US, his rivals might accuse Mr Bloomberg of being beholden to Beijing, since his company has extensive business and employees in China.
With a booming US economy, Mr Trump appears on course to win a second term next year but unexpected things have happened in US politics. The US victory over Iraq in 1991 scared away many leading Democratic politicians from competing against President George H Bush in 1992, but a dark horse, Mr Bill Clinton, defeated Mr Bush by focusing on the dire state of the US economy.
Amidst this crowded field of Democratic candidates, a dark horse may emerge to beat Mr Trump next year.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG