He distinguished between unity and bipartisanship — meaning support from Republican elected officials. While unity was his benchmark, he said, “I prefer these things to be bipartisan because I’m trying to generate some consensus and take some of the vitriol out of all this.”
At the time, it was obvious where a downside might emerge. Republicans, for example, could point to public support for something Biden didn’t want to do and use that to pressure the administration. But there was another downside, too: Policies that Democrats might support but that weren’t overwhelmingly popular could be tabled.
On Friday, the first such policy appears to have emerged.
As a candidate, Biden repeatedly pilloried President Donald Trump’s sharp constraints on refugee admissions. As a candidate, Biden used Trump’s policy as a foil to highlight his own approach to migration. In a CNN town hall broadcast a few weeks after becoming president, Biden reinforced that idea.
“We used to allow refugees — 125,000 refugees in the United States in a yearly basis,” he said. “It was as high as 250,000. Trump cut it to 5,000. Come with me into Sierra Leone. Come with me into parts of Lebanon. Come with me around the world and see people piled up in camps, kids dying, no way out, refugees fleeing from persecution. We, the United States, used to do our part. We were part of that. We were — and, you know, that’s — you know, ‘send me your huddled masses.’ Come on.”
Biden told Congress that he would increase the number of refugees admitted to the country to 62,500. As the weeks passed, though, no increase emerged. Reporters increasingly asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki about it. A week ago, she insisted that the 62,500-person increase was still coming.
“The president remains committed to raising the cap,” she said.
He wasn’t: The administration will hold the Trump limit in place at least until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
“People close to the White House’s decision-making have said they detected political concerns about expanding the refugee program at a moment when there is increasing pressure on Biden to be tougher on immigration and border security,” The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan wrote Friday. That mirrors reporting from the New York Times’s Zolan Kanno-Youngs, who cited an administration official in describing the administration as being “concerned that the surge of border crossings by unaccompanied minors was too much” and straining government capacity.
As The Post’s Nick Miroff notes, that rationale mirrors the rhetoric offered by former Trump administration official Stephen Miller.
We can say with some precision how popular refugee programs are. In a March Associated Press-NORC poll, a third of respondents said that allowing refugees to come to the country should be a high priority for the administration, with another 45 percent identifying it as a “moderate” priority. That was a lower level of support than providing a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally as children, but was viewed as a bit more of a priority than deporting those living in the country without documentation.
In a Pew Research Center poll conducted by Ipsos in February, the numbers were similar: 28 percent said that aiding refugees fleeing violence should be a “top priority,” while another 54 percent described such an effort as somewhat of a priority. Less than half of Democrats, 40 percent, viewed aiding refugees as a top priority. Only 14 percent of Republicans agreed.
We can interpret those poll results as reflecting general but often not enthusiastic support. Aiding refugees is not, in other words, an issue on which there is broad partisan unity to be found. It may be compelling in a lot of other ways — in reflecting Biden’s earlier pledges, for example, or the moral imperative he cited two months ago — but it is not something that reflects the stated goal of enacting the urgent demands of the public.
What is clear, of course, is that Biden isn’t going to win over any long-lasting Republican support from his position. He has, perhaps, avoided a brief, staticky confrontation with the right on the issue, but that void will simply be filled with some other staticky confrontation. Not a single Republican voted for the coronavirus relief bill, legislation that was broadly popular. Republicans are not going to hand Biden a political chit on something that doesn’t hit that mark.
As it turns out, this situation reveals another problem with seeking unity in politics. There are some issues that are broadly but wanly popular. There are some issues that are very popular with small groups of people but otherwise meet with a lukewarm response. There are some issues that aren’t very popular but are nonetheless important.
Framed like that, pushing for unity becomes the easy option.
Update: A few hours after the initial report, Psaki said in a statement that the administration would release a “final, increased” refugee cap by mid-May — at a lower level than previously promised. It seems likely that this particular small group was heard.