It has been a grim week for Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden. Already weakened politically, both leaders were hit by brutal new polls.
Mr. Trudeau, for his part, would have grown accustomed to polls showing the Liberals trailing the Conservatives, and by a wide margin. This week, however, it got worse: an Abacus poll suggested the Liberals will struggle to turn things around so long as he is leader – but might have a shot without him.
So it cannot have been too surprising for either man to hear calls for him to step down rather than lead his party into the next election – calls not from their opponents, but from prominent members of their own party: David Axelrod, a former adviser to Barack Obama, and Percy Downe, former chief of staff to Jean Chrétien.
Will they? Should they? Perhaps it would be illuminating to compare their situations: why each is in such trouble, whether either can still win re-election, and whether their retirements would help or hurt their party’s cause.
There are some similarities. Both are centre-left leaders at a time when the right seems everywhere in the ascendant. Each is grappling with similar issues: lingering inflation, mounting public debt, immigration, housing, the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.
Still, it is the differences that are more striking. Mr. Trudeau oversees an economy that is not only inflating, but shrinking: bad enough that GDP has not grown since May, but in per capita terms it is no higher than it was in 2017. Unemployment has also begun to rise.
By contrast, the U.S. economy continues to grow at a torrid pace – 4.9 per cent, annualized, in the third quarter – while unemployment remains below 4 per cent, where it has been for 21 straight months: the longest such stretch since the 1960s.
Yet more subjective measures, such as consumer confidence, remain plunged in gloom. Analysts have never seen a wider gap between the perception of the economy and the reality. Mr. Biden’s popularity may be suffering for the same reason as Mr. Trudeau’s, though with less cause.
Or it may have nothing to do with the economy. While neither governing party is in good odour with the public, it is hard to escape the impression that the unpopularity of their leaders is more personal than partisan.
Again, however, there are important differences. Americans seem to like Mr. Biden – they just worry about his advanced age – whereas Canadians seem well and truly eager to see the back of Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Biden’s problem is that he seems tired; Mr. Trudeau’s is that Canadians are tired of him.
Yet each is still likely to lead his party into the next election. Both are veteran politicians, with big egos; it is in neither man’s nature to quit, nor can either realistically be forced out if he does not wish to go. Each can point to predecessors who faced similarly daunting polls at a similarly late stage, and prevailed.
Each, what is more, can make a good argument, if not for his chances of winning, then at least that it would be worse to try to replace him. Even assuming either went willingly, a leadership race would risk opening divisions within their parties that would be hard to heal by election day, especially since there is no obvious successor to either.
There is one last critical point of difference, however: the stakes. If Mr. Trudeau’s party loses the next election, it will mean a period in opposition. If Mr. Biden’s party loses, it could mean the end of American democracy.
Not only Mr. Trump but much of the Republican Party have persuaded themselves that, once in office, they are entitled to stay there, indefinitely: to seize dictatorial powers and use them to revenge themselves on their enemies.
Mr. Trudeau’s responsibility is to his party. Mr. Biden’s is to his country. Mr. Trudeau might best serve his party, oddly enough, by presiding over its defeat: if you are going down, better to go down under the old leader, arguably, rather than sacrifice the new one in a lost cause. In a “save the furniture” election, moreover, Mr. Trudeau would be more likely to hold onto the party’s critical Quebec base than any likely successor.
Mr. Biden, on the other hand, must be guided by one consideration only: who has the best chance of preventing Mr. Trump from returning to the White House. Mr. Trump may yet self-destruct: the odds are good that by this time next year he will have been convicted on one or more of the 91 felony charges facing him. He may even be in jail.
Until that’s settled, however, Mr. Biden is probably America’s safest bet.