While President Biden was in Philadelphia on Thursday touting a budget proposal with broad Democratic support but little chance of becoming law, a contentious piece of legislation was headed to his desk — one that had exposed rifts in his party over crime and self-governance in the nation’s capital.
Biden’s decision to sign the bill overturning D.C.’s new criminal law — after his administration initially opposed it — could help him fend off Republican attacks aiming to paint Democrats as soft on crime.
But it also sparked a rare rush of criticism within Biden’s party just as he was preparing to roll out a $6.9 trillion budget that managed to unite Democrats on a range of issues while putting Republicans on defense over popular programs like Medicare.
That dichotomy illustrates the opportunities and perils facing Biden as he cruises toward securing his party’s presidential nomination without a significant primary challenge while also presiding over a divided government.
As he gears up for a reelection campaign, Biden plans to use his presidential platform to attempt to exploit Republican weaknesses on kitchen-table issues like Social Security and drug prices while fending off attacks on crime, immigration and other areas where Democrats are vulnerable with swing voters, according to aides and allies, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.
In a campaign-style speech that included 16 references to “MAGA Republicans” on Thursday, Biden unveiled both his budget and his case for another four years in office.
“Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible,” Biden said at a Philadelphia union hall. “Not anymore. I promise you, I see you.”
As House Democrats adjust to life in the minority and as the White House undergoes staff changes in what some aides have deemed “Chapter 2” of the Biden presidency, the president faces the challenge of shepherding his party through a period of turbulence and transition while building momentum for the launch of his reelection bid.
Though an official announcement is likely weeks away and key decisions on the campaign’s headquarters and director remain pending, Biden has been sharpening his reelection pitch at presidential events across the country. He has spent the last few weeks contrasting his vision with that of Republicans and telling voters he’d like to “finish the job” by making progress on a range of economic issues.
Biden’s Republican detractors — empowered by a slim majority in the House and a sense that his age and low approval ratings make him a weak incumbent candidate — have sought to disrupt the president’s smooth glidepath to the general election. They are forcing votes on wedge issues to expose Democratic divisions, challenging Biden’s policies in the courts and using their oversight powers to investigate controversies and allegations of wrongdoing by the president’s administration and family.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) mocked Biden for “pulling a 180” on the D.C. crime bill in a floor speech last week, saying the president and Democrats were clearly “panicking” at the unpopularity of their stance.
“I think somebody at the White House may have shown the president his latest poll numbers on this issue,” said McConnell, one of several Republicans who have been excited to see their Democratic colleagues pushed into a defensive position.
After the White House released a statement on Feb. 6 opposing the GOP-led D.C. crime resolution as an infringement on the city’s autonomy — and after a majority of House Democrats voted against it three days later — Biden announced on March 2 that he would sign the bill if it reached his desk. The president said he continued to back D.C. statehood, but could not support the city council’s sweeping reforms, which included lowering statutory maximum penalties for offenses including robbery and carjacking.
“173 House Democrats voted for reduced sentences for violent crimes,” ads from the National Republican Campaign Committee state. “So crazy even President Biden won’t support the anarchy.”
Biden’s decision to sign the legislation left some House Democrats feeling blindsided. The perceived tack to the center on crime raised additional concerns because lawmakers have also felt surprised by recent immigration policies they say mark another abrupt rightward shift by the president.
The moves come as Democrats are experiencing vulnerabilities on both issues. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) recently lost her reelection in a race where crime was a key factor. The perception that Democrats were soft on crime may have also hurt them in several House races in New York last November. The Biden administration has also struggled to contain a record surge of migration at the border, and administration officials fear that the lifting of a key pandemic-era immigration restriction in May could fuel another rush of migrants.
Liberals, in particular, were incensed not only by the perceived shifts toward the center, but by the lack of consultation before the moves were made. Some pointed to the exit of former chief of staff Ron Klain as a turning point in relations with the White House.
“There are definitely some concerns,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “This is a very sensitive time, I think, with personnel shifts at the White House. Historically, I think progressives have felt very confident in being heard.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) echoed the sentiment, noting that there “is a transition” in the White House that coincides with a new House Democratic leadership team finding its own footing.
“I think it will take time for us all to get back on the same page,” she said.
Easing the concerns of liberals who make up part of the Democratic base was a priority for Klain. When it became clear that Biden would win the presidential nomination over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in early 2020, Klain took the initiative to ensure the campaign began to foment and strengthen relationships with congressional liberals.
His successor, Jeff Zients, is less of a known commodity among lawmakers.
“Out of the gate, since being named as chief of staff, Jeff has spoken with a wide range of lawmakers, including leading progressives, to express his interest in hearing perspectives and working together as part of our robust outreach,” said one White House official.
Administration officials said Biden continues to have strong support among Democrats, pointing to recent statements from a wide range of lawmakers supporting his reelection. And Biden is driving policy moves, not staff, officials said.
“President Biden’s values and agenda have demonstrably unified congressional Democrats across the full spectrum of the party — as well as the country more broadly — and are consistent with what he ran on and fought for over many years,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates. “That agenda has delivered the strongest legislative record in modern history, from judicial confirmations to gun reform to climate change and Medicare. It has also meant historic bipartisan progress.”
Chris Whipple, who has written books about White House chiefs of staff and the Biden presidency, said he was “skeptical” that the recent actions by the White House can be traced back to personnel changes.
“I think the notion that Joe Biden’s chief of staff calls the shots on decisions like the D.C. crime bill is overblown,” said Whipple, whose book “The Fight of His Life” chronicles Biden’s first two years in office. “That [bill] was politically radioactive. And I don’t think Joe Biden needed Jeff Zients to tell him that.”
Instead, aides said, Biden feels a certain level of confidence in his own political instincts after his party outperformed expectations during the midterm elections. He is positioning himself for the general election by taking positions that appeal to swing voters who may have concerns about crime and the border, they said.
Biden plans to spend the bulk of his time in public talking about issues where Democrats broadly agree — and touting accomplishments on issues like reducing drug costs, defending democracy and protecting the environment that highlight Democratic unity, one administration official said.
Stephanie Cutter, who helped manage former president Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection, said Biden has built up goodwill within his party after surviving internecine battles over policy and notching wins on key issues important to liberals and moderates alike.
“When we were negotiating ‘Build Back Better’ or infrastructure, everybody was talking about the divisions in the party,” she said, referring to Democratic infighting over legislation in 2021. “Now they’re not, because getting things done is the best medicine for division in a political party. And no one can say that this president hasn’t gotten things done.”
Biden’s recent public defenses of Medicare and Social Security, his stance against negotiating over the nation’s debt limit and his proposed budget raising taxes on the wealthy to fund social programs and reduce the deficit have all served to bolster support among various wings of his party, officials said.
Aides expect him to spend considerable time traveling the country talking about his budget and contrasting his views with those of so-called “MAGA Republicans,” who have called for drastic spending cuts to address the nation’s fast-growing debt. The broader goal is to frame the 2024 election as a binary choice rather than a referendum on his presidency.
Biden’s budget includes proposals for more than $2 trillion in new social policy initiatives, ranging from an expanded child tax credit to free prekindergarten and community college to paid family leave. It also includes a slew of new tax increases targeting corporations and the wealthy, which would help reduce the deficit by $2.9 trillion over 10 years.
Republicans have panned the budget, with House GOP leaders calling it “reckless” and likely to worsen the nation’s stubbornly high inflation.
“President Biden’s unserious budget proposal includes trillions in new taxes that families will pay directly or through higher costs,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), and GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.). said in a statement.
Biden has spent far less time publicly defending his positions on issues where his party is engaged in intense internal debate — a sharp contrast from the 2020 election that featured a competitive primary race. His announcement on the D.C. crime bill, for example, came in a tweet, and he has not addressed the controversy at length in public.
Immigration is another area where internal differences are beginning to erupt among Democrats, with even some vocal supporters of Biden’s reelection suggesting that his campaign bid may be forcing him to go too far in countering Republican attacks.
Members of the congressional Hispanic Caucus in particular have grown increasingly concerned after learning through reports that Biden was establishing a stricter system for undocumented migrants to claim asylum that echo decisions by the Trump administration. Biden’s actions restricting asylum — and reports that his administration may restart family detention at the border — have led to widespread outcry among immigrant advocates.
On a call Tuesday with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Democratic lawmakers expressed dismay that they were not given a heads up about the asylum changes and the prospect of family detention — a Trump policy that Democrats, including Biden, have vehemently criticized. Mayorkas said that family detention was just an idea that was floated, according to people familiar with the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose internal discussions.
White House officials say Biden has not changed his position on immigration, but is instead responding to changing migration patterns and court orders that necessitate a different approach.
Jayapal said the administration must remember that immigrant communities played a role in delivering Arizona to Biden in 2020, which clinched his victory.
“Nobody on the Republican side is ever going to say, ‘Thank you, Joe Biden for being so tough on immigration or crime or anything else,’” she said. “So that is not the right approach. It’s also not the values-based approach that we need to have as Democratic Party.”
With Donald Trump as a Republican front-runner, Democrats inside and outside the White House are confident that any internal party disagreements will fade once voters see the risks involved in allowing Biden’s predecessor or another Republican to become his successor.
“There’s still work to do to keep the party together and energize it and mobilize it,” Cutter said. “But it allows us to keep our sights on Republicans who will have to appeal to a MAGA base and will pose a real danger for the country. And that choice will be crystal clear.”
Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.