Wednesday, March 22, 2023
WASHINGTON: When President Joe Biden motorcades from the White House to an environmental protection event on Tuesday he will hear grumbling on the left and grumbling on the right. And the 80-year-old Washington veteran will be perfectly happy.
The country is still waiting for Biden to announce officially that he will seek a second term next year. But already the Democrat has made clear what path he intends to use to get there: down the centre.
In an era of intense blacks and whites, Biden wants grey.
So when he addresses the environment forum at the Department of the Interior, he will highlight what his press office calls the administration’s "historic investments to advance conservation, restoration, and stewardship."
He may mention that he oversaw Congress’ passing of the biggest green energy spending bill in history, the IRA. Or his raft of orders giving national monument protection to wild areas that Donald Trump — whom he beat in 2020 and could face again in 2024 — tried to open to development.
But Biden will also be speaking a week after approving a huge ConocoPhillips oil drilling project in the Alaskan wilderness that is projected to release the pollution equivalent of two million cars.
Biden has similarly baffled friends and wrong-footed enemies on his approach to the chaotic southern border with Mexico.
Last year, a constant flow of undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers left his administration looking near helpless. This year, strict new measures discouraging them from even trying have resulted in dramatic reductions.
"The Biden administration has really turned a corner," said Bilala Askaryar, an activist in the group Welcome With Dignity, demonstrating outside the White House.
Biden’s calculation seems to be that he can afford to annoy some of his most passionate supporters.
In a presidential election that could well see Trump or fellow right-wing populist Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as the Republican candidate, the left will have nowhere else to go.
And in the meantime, Biden hopes to build a consensus that the country’s often ignored centrists can embrace.
To some extent, the shift has been forced on Biden.
In the first two years of his presidency, Democrats held narrow majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives and managed to pass a surprising amount of legislation — including big-ticket items beloved on the left. But since last November’s midterms, Biden has faced the cold reality of a Republican-led House.
"Now that they’ve lost the House," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, on NBC News, Biden is "just following common sense."
Biden still takes stands — but he chooses his battles carefully.
While DeSantis and other Republicans get even more upset about "woke" Democrats, drag show queens and transgender rights, Biden went on the late-night Daily Show this month with an impassioned defence. Restrictions being enacted on transgender youths in DeSantis’ Florida, he said, are "close to sinful."
He’s also building an economic platform emphasizing fierce pushback against Republican pressure to slash social spending.
As the country lurches towards 2024, it seems for now that Biden’s succeeding in walking that tightrope.
On the right, it’s harder and harder to paint Biden as an out-of-control socialist.
As the conservative National Review wrote, the current White House and Biden’s new chief of staff Jeff Zients are clearly "either less instinctively liberal or less interested in fulfilling the progressive wish list in Biden’s third or fourth year in office."
And on the left, Biden simply has lots of political capital to burn.
"I still believe that in the vast majority of areas he has been terrific," Pramila Jayapal, chair of the leftist Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives, said on NBC.
Or as a longtime leftist Democratic pillar, Senator Elizabeth Warren put it: "We don’t agree on everything, but, boy, I’m glad he’s president."