In 2021, Joe Biden was touted as a bold progressive president in the spirit of FDR. In 2023, he’s suddenly being cast as a center-hugging Bill Clinton.
Using the past to portray different Bidens also misses the dynamics of a political landscape transformed both by Donald Trump and by a stronger progressive movement inside the Democratic Party.
The two-Bidens theory, it should be said, doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s obvious that with a Republican-controlled House, Biden has no chance of enacting anything like the big legislative program he pushed through in 2021 and 2022.
But that describes a new congressional reality, not a new Biden. The president has re-upped his support for his earlier ideas on child care, elder care, health coverage and taxes. And he is aggressively contrasting his priorities with the slashing program cuts Republicans have begun to float (which, by next year, might invite new comparisons — to Harry S. Truman).
The evidence that Biden has veered to the center rests largely on three moves: his refusal to defend the right of the D.C. Council to rewrite the city’s criminal code and reduce penalties for some offenses; the apparent toughening of his stance on immigration (although the particulars are still under debate inside his administration); and his approval of oil drilling on certain federal lands in Alaska, which angered environmentalists.
Standing up for D.C.’s democratic autonomy against carping Republicans in Congress would have been the right thing to do, and most House Democrats voted against rescinding the code. One problem: The rewrite was vetoed by Democratic Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. Although she was overridden by the council, her stance complicates the home rule argument.
In going along with the Republican effort to scrap the reform, Biden’s defenders say he is simply being true to his history of toughness on law-breaking. But let’s face it: Most Democrats, including Biden, are adapting to an increasingly tough public mood on crime. If the 1990s metaphor works, it’s on this issue — although unlike then, every Democrat, including Biden, now feels obligated to address the deep racial injustices within the criminal justice system.
On energy and immigration, Biden’s latest initiatives have faced challenges from the left, but he was searching for a middle ground on these problems, particularly immigration, back when he was being cast as FDR redux.
Yet even if you stipulate that Biden is executing some tactical maneuvers to fend off Republican attacks, there is a forest-and-trees problem in using a handful of decisions to declare a wholesale change in his presidency.
That’s why, despite some grumbling, there is not a revolt against him among progressives. They see Biden as closer to their view than any president in decades on core economic questions, including taxes, trade, labor, inequality and regulation. So does the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
And there’s no going back to the ’90s, because opinion among Democrats and the public has shifted leftward on many issues. Among them: racial justice, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, abortion, heath care, worker rights, industrial policy, family leave and child care.
Biden’s approach reflects these shifts no less today than at the beginning of his term. While he is especially animated when talking about economics and lifting the fortunes of the working class, he has not been shy about addressing matters at the heart of the GOP’s culture wars.
Michael Donilon, a senior White House adviser, sees abortion rights as becoming an even more salient issue as Republican-led states enact new restrictions. Biden’s comments on “The Daily Show” about transgender people last week were strikingly passionate (and a shot at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who shows every sign of wanting to be his 2024 Republican opponent).
“What’s going in Florida is, as my mother would say, close to sinful,” Biden said. “I mean, it’s just terrible what they’re doing. It’s not like a kid wakes up one morning and says, ‘You know, I decided I want to become a man or I want to become a woman or I want to change.’ I mean, what are they thinking about here? They’re human beings. They love, they have feelings, they have inclinations. It just to me is, I don’t know, it’s cruel.”
It’s hard to think of any leader, in the ’90s or the ’30s, talking like that.
Sure, Biden is a proud politician all the way down, so he’ll do what he thinks he has to do to win. But a New Biden? Really? If any phrase were ever self-refuting, that’s it.