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Eyeing re-election, Biden breaks with progressives on some hot-button issues

They're unhappy with the president's positions on immigration and crime, among other issues, but leaders on the left appear willing to give Biden space to maneuver in 2024.
President Joe Biden gestures in Baltimore on March 1, 2023.
President Joe Biden in Baltimore on March 1.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is breaking with progressives on some hot-button issues ahead of the expected launch of his re-election campaign, laying the groundwork to try to neutralize politically thorny issues that Republicans hope to use against him.

The president has said he'll sign legislation to overturn a new D.C. crime law that eased mandatory sentences and penalties, drawing a backlash from progressives who said the law was sensible — and meddling with it would undermine D.C.'s sovereignty.

Last week, NBC News reported that the Biden administration was considering a revival of family detention for migrants entering the U.S. unlawfully, which drew heavy criticism from immigration advocates who are already upset with Biden for adopting tough asylum policies that they say mirror Trump-era rules.

And on Monday, Biden’s administration greenlighted a major oil drilling project in Alaska, sparking pushback from environmentalists and Democrats who want to phase out fossil fuels.

Biden’s breaks with the left have a common thread: He’s mostly doing it on cultural issues where his party is politically vulnerable, seeking to choke off avenues for the GOP to make inroads with key swing voters. Instead, Biden is trying to keep his focus on economic issues facing the middle class where Democrats hold advantages, such as lowering drug prices and preserving Social Security.

In the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats lost voters who named immigration as their top issue by a 48-point margin and lost voters who cited crime as their top issue by a 16-point margin, exit polls showed. Voters trusted Republicans more than they trusted Democrats on immigration (by 6 points) and on crime (by 9 points).

“I would remind the administration that they’re the ones who ended family detention,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said. “It would be a horrible policy to reinstate. It would be an affirmation of Stephen Miller and his politics," he added, referring to the former Trump adviser.

"And I think there are much better ways to deal with the challenges that we have at the border, including the families, than that,” Menendez said.

Asked if reviving family detention would affect his support for Biden in 2024, the senator said: “We’ll see how how the administration acts, and then we can make all types of judgments about that.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in an interview that her members are "very frustrated" by Biden's position on the GOP-led D.C. crime rollback "because it feels like a betrayal of the fundamental principle of D.C. rule." She said that on immigration, a Trump-like asylum crackdown would be "betraying our base of immigrants." Jayapal said she's talking to officials directly and worries that "there are people within the administration who are giving very bad advice" to the president.

Still, she said she continues to support Biden for re-election, even as she'll continue to demand "better policy" from him in some areas.

"I still believe that in the vast majority of areas that he has been terrific. And he is the most progressive president we've had," Jayapal said. "So it doesn’t change my view — at this point, anyway. I still believe that he’s done phenomenal things for this country. ... I literally sometimes just sit there and cannot believe that we've made the kind of transformation that we've made."

White House defends Biden's stances

Asked about the progressive criticisms of Biden's recent actions, White House spokesman Andrew Bates said the party remains unified behind him and cited wins that have coalesced Democrats, from new judges to gun regulations to climate change to Medicare.

“President Biden’s values and agenda have demonstrably unified congressional Democrats across the full spectrum of the party — as well as the country more broadly — and are consistent with what he ran on and fought for over many years,” Bates said. “These same principles galvanized Democrats when President Biden won the most votes of any candidate in history, when he led the best midterm outcome for a new president in decades, and now.”

Republicans see political motivations for Biden to take his recent positions on the D.C. crime bill and immigration. Some see parallels with Bill Clinton's attempts to triangulate against his party's left after the 1994 midterms.

“Well, he said he’s running for re-election. It looks like a guy who is running for re-election,” Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said of Biden, who has not yet formally announced his plans for 2024.

During his first campaign, Clinton popularized the term “Sister Souljah moment” after he aggressively repudiated the hip-hop artist’s controversial comments on race. But Biden seems to be taking a quieter, policy-focused path to his independence.

On crime, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Biden is “just following common sense,” and added: “I think it shows that, one, he’s probably running; and two, that he is trying to find a way to protect his members more in the middle.”

“Now that they’ve lost the House, he’s trying to do the triangulation thing, which makes sense,” Graham said. Biden’s “first two years were unashamedly very progressive, very liberal. And now you see him making an adjustment.”

Progressives give Biden space

For the moment, the left seems willing to give Biden some space to position himself against a possible comeback by former President Donald Trump, without imposing strict litmus tests.

Many of Biden's former progressive rivals or skeptics are endorsing his re-election bid — including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Despite his more recent moves, they're pleased with his actions on issues like student debt relief, pandemic aid, safety-net expansion and firearm regulations.

Some Biden allies roll their eyes at left-leaning commentators lobbing criticisms at him, seeing parallels to those who wrote him off as an out-of-touch relic in the 2020 Democratic primary before he clobbered the field with a variety of center-left positions.

Still, it's a high-wire act for Biden to simultaneously unify the Democratic base and court swing voters. Moving too far from the party's core voters could demotivate some of them.

“I think that successful presidential candidates always zag from party orthodoxy,” said a senior congressional progressive aide, citing Trump on trade, Barack Obama’s early resistance to a health care individual mandate and George W. Bush’s support for a Medicare prescription drug program.

Trump might “get his mojo back” by straying from Republican orthodoxy as well, the progressive aide said, adding that “Biden needs to keep his credibility” on the issue of crime after he broke with elements of his party on it in 2020.