In recent weeks, US president Joe Biden has signed on to a familiar gambit. As his presidency has struggled after he sabotaged his own policy agenda, Biden is taking a page from the classics with a preelection right-wing turn.
At the start of the year, Biden replaced outgoing, progressive-curious chief of staff Ron Klain — who showed some inkling he understood we were living in different times from his and Biden’s heyday and felt the need to give progressives at least a token seat at the table — with former private equity maven Jeff Zients, maybe best known for his disastrous spearheading of the administration’s pandemic response. Given that Zients’s resume was defined by his love of austerity and corporate favors, it was a foreboding hint that the president may have tired of the progressive warrior image he had stoked for the first half of his term.
That hint seemed to have been confirmed by several recent moves by the administration. First, Biden abruptly reversed his pledge to oppose a GOP bill aimed at the District of Columbia’s recently passed rewriting of its criminal code, in the kind of classic tough-on-crime posturing that Biden himself helped pioneer several decades ago. The reality of the rewrite was nowhere near the portrait painted by cynical, fearmongering Republicans. But no matter: Biden folded quickly in the face of right-wing pressure and joined the GOP’s opposition to the rewrite. Long gone was the Biden of summer 2020, who saw political benefit in sharing photos of himself kneeling with black protesters and promising to “listen.”
Around the same time, the administration announced new, harsher immigration rules as he fended off similar Republican attacks on what they termed his “open borders” policy, turning away Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans who cross the US border from Mexico, even those seeking asylum — a violation of US law that Politico accurately described as “Trump-esque.” Even more Trump-esque was the administration’s headline-grabbing possible restarting of a literal Trump policy, that of detaining families that illegally cross the US border, something the president had also once condemned. That Biden, too, is gone.
And so, it seems, is the one who pledged to “put us back into the business of leading the world on climate change,” having vowed as part of this ambitious plan “no more drilling on federal lands, period.” Biden had already severely disappointed anyone hoping for a habitable Earth through several scandalous fossil fuel industry giveaways that directly broke this promise. But he upped the ante this month by approving the $8 billion Willow oil project in Alaska over copious objections. The largest such project on public lands, it will pump more than 260 million metric tons of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Labeled “recklessly irresponsible” by no less than Al Gore, it’s partly a sop to Alaska’s conservative congressional delegation, one of whom openly says it was motivated by “political interest.”
It’s not hard to see the logic, since it’s the same one Democrats like Biden have stuck to their entire careers: when you’re under attack from the Right, move to the center and adopt right-wing policies, giving yourself political cover while at the same time peeling off conservative voters.
How has this worked out? The answer comes in a recent, major poll, one conducted over March 16–20 — the precise period after which these high-profile right-wing pivots were announced and allowed to sink into public consciousness. Far from getting a polling bump, Biden has seen his approval rating plummet, from 45 percent to 38 percent, his second-worst rating in the AP-NORC poll, after the nadir of 36 percent recorded last July.
Worse, the strategic logic driving the White House’s rightward shift hasn’t been remotely borne out. Democratic voters, the group that should be most horrified by these policies, continue to support the president in high numbers, albeit vastly lower than at the start of his term. And Republican voters, the group meant to be won over by these moves, gave Biden a dreadful approval rating of 4 percent, which itself is an eight-point drop from a similarly dreadful GOP rating last month.
The problem, as ever, is the economy, whose impressive-sounding headline numbers — high growth, low unemployment, persistent job creation — mask what is in reality a slow-burning crisis that people are struggling through in the face of not just inflation, but the ongoing, long-term US economic precarity that Biden failed to reform. According to the same poll, a full 75 percent of respondents have a negative view of the economy, as high a number as it’s ever been in the poll, while 47 percent describe their personal financial situation as poor, the highest figure since at least June 2019.
Nevertheless, Democrats are continuing to stick with Biden as their “best bet” to win reelection in 2024. Any opposition has been completely neutralized, with even progressives rallying behind the president and his sole challenger coming from outside the party, ensuring he can continue to move rightward over the coming months without consequence.
Yet if this polling is any indication, those Democrats giving their assent to this strategy because they view Biden as the most likely to deliver the party victory next year shouldn’t just be asking themselves at what cost they’re doing so. They might want to ask if he’ll even deliver.