Biden Only Takes Risks When Furthering Right-Wing Policies

The US is facing a wide range of crises that are hurting average Americans and that demand bold action from the executive branch. Yet Joe Biden is only willing to take such action when capitulating to the Right on issues like immigration.

US president Joe Biden delivers remarks on an executive order limiting asylum in the East Room of the White House on June 4, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

With his reelection chances on an undeniable decline, Joe Biden has embarked on an audacious gambit. Looking at the sheer numbers of desperate people coming to the border and polling showing immigration is a leading issue on people’s minds, the president has taken a page out of Donald Trump’s book and made up for the failure of his far-right border bill to pass Congress earlier this year by sharply curtailing the right to asylum with the stroke of a pen.

Biden’s executive order will have a tough time in the courts, and he knows it. It relies on the same legal authority as both Trump’s Muslim ban and his attempt in 2018 to “close our southern border” in response to the migrant “caravan” being hyped by right-wing media at the time. Both were struck down.

In the second case, a federal judge explicitly said that Trump’s move to bar migrants at the southern border from even seeking asylum violated federal and international law, and “unlawfully conflict[ed] with the text and congressional purpose” of the law he was citing. Since then, courts have further narrowed the use of this legal authority that Biden is now using. Even Democratic Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, arguably the leading cheerleader of Biden and his party’s far rightward turn on immigration, has admitted he’s in “doubt that this is going to pass judicial muster.”

In short, the president has taken a performative measure that is probably legally doomed but is supposed to show the public that while Congress is blocking him, he’s doing whatever he can to try and fix the mess at the border — in this case, by doing what he once decried as “inhumane” and “cruelty” that “knows no bounds,” and promised to “eliminate” in order to “uphold our moral responsibility.”

There’s a lot you could say about this: that even cheerleaders like Murphy admit this won’t actually solve the problems at the border; that it legitimizes far-right talking points about immigration and sets debate on the terms Biden’s opponents prefer; that the generous framing and even praise of Biden’s Trump-like order from liberal groups and media outlets is an act of monumental hypocrisy; that we have copious data showing this kind of right-pivoting gambit rarely works for left-of-center parties. In fact, the most recent polling done after Biden signed the order doesn’t suggest it moved the needle at all in his favor, with voters evenly split between feeling positive and negative toward it.

But put that all aside for the moment and ponder this question: If the president is willing to take a legally dubious, controversial, and probably dead-on-arrival unilateral measure so he can perform vigorous presidential action for the public, why is he doing it just on immigration?

There is no shortage of problems that are bigger concerns for, and that more directly have an impact on, working Americans than immigration. You’ve probably heard the point that immigration has now become the US public’s biggest concern for three months running. That’s far from the case in every poll, but even in the Gallup poll that this statistic is based on, it’s only true because the economy and inflation (or cost of living) are treated as separate. When taken together, bread-and-butter economic concerns have consistently and by far been voters’ biggest concern. So why doesn’t the president do the same thing for those issues as he just did on immigration?

The United States is in an eviction crisis, with evictions in most cities higher than they were before the pandemic. This is partly driven by a wider housing unaffordability crisis, but it’s also thanks to the Supreme Court striking down the pandemic-era eviction moratorium three years ago.

Why doesn’t Biden simply issue another eviction ban, resorting to a similar kind of legal creativity that Trump’s team employed to lessen the number of people thrown out of their homes during the pandemic? The court will simply strike it down, goes the retort. Okay, but by setting up a very public battle over this, even if it’s a defeat, the entire country would watch Biden take decisive action to protect Americans in a time of economic struggle, only to be stymied by an increasingly unpopular Supreme Court.

Or why doesn’t he have legislation introduced for the kind of national cap on rent increases that Bernie Sanders ran on in 2020, or for price controls at a time when people struggle to afford groceries and Biden himself admits companies are ripping people off? He certainly believed in the second policy once upon a time, backing price controls when he was first elected to the Senate and fighting to keep them alive, and warning that losing them in a time of inflation would be devastating.

Yes, these polices are almost certain to go nowhere in Congress. But given the media coverage, political arguments, and national attention that trying this would be sure to inspire, there’s a real political benefit for Biden to the US public seeing him trying to do something, anything at all to fight for their economic security, even if it means trying and failing — especially since he’s asked voters in campaign speeches to give him a more cooperative Congress in November.

Again, we know Biden and his team understand this, since this is the exact gambit they tried back in February — but, once more, only on the issue of immigration, when Biden first tried to gut the right to asylum via legislation, daring Republicans to vote the bill down so he could frame them as the ones standing in the way of harsh solutions to the border problem.

These are just two examples, but you could do the same thing with any number of issues, whether expanding health care (say, by pushing for the public option Biden promised in his 2020 campaign) or agitating for a higher minimum wage (a popular measure that recently helped outgoing Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s party win a landslide election victory). The formula is simple: introduce a policy that benefits the majority of working Americans, relentlessly make the public case for it, even take unilateral action to make it reality, and if it fails, at least use it to point the finger at your opponents for killing the measure.

The president’s seeming crusade to kill asylum — his willingness to wage public, doomed political battles and even go beyond his legal authority to get this done — is proof positive the White House understands this. Biden and his team are very willing to use the power of the presidential bully pulpit, to make use of well-staged political theater, and to manufacture standoffs with their opposition to shore up his flagging reelection campaign — but only if it furthers far-right policy goals.