When he was running for president in 2020, Joe Biden promised “no more drilling on federal lands, period”. This month, he approved an $8bn oil project in Alaska, violating that campaign pledge.
Biden had said he wholeheartedly supports granting statehood to the District of Columbia. Last week, he signed a Republican bill overturning changes to the DC criminal code, which critics attacked as a violation of home rule.
Biden previously accused Donald Trump of waging “an unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants” because of his handling of the US-Mexican border. This month, reports emerged that the Biden administration has considered reinstating the practice of detaining migrant families who cross the border illegally. Immigrant rights advocates have denounced the idea, as well as another proposal to further restrict who can seek asylum in the US.
Biden’s recent policy decisions have sparked speculation that he is preparing for the launch of his re-election campaign for the 2024 presidential contest by moving to the political center on key issues like crime, immigration and energy. The potential pivot has frustrated progressives, who warn that the strategy risks alienating the voters who helped deliver Biden’s victory in 2020. Despite their concerns, progressive leaders say Biden still has time and options to deliver crucial policy wins.
“I would say the base isn’t overly enthusiastic about Joe Biden being the  standard bearer,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution. “So it would be important for the president to keep giving the base some red meat and keep folks energized early versus trying to deflate that.”
Although Biden has not yet formally announced his plans to seek re-election, he is expected to do so in the coming weeks. So far, he has only attracted one primary challenger – self-help author Marianne Williamson, who has launched a long-shot bid – and his likely nomination gives him the leeway to focus on the general election. Some have suggested that Biden’s recent policy decisions, such as his approval of the Willow project in Alaska, are a clear attempt to pick off centrist voters who may be up for grabs. The appointment of Jeff Zients as Biden’s new chief of staff has also been seen as a possible explanation for the president’s move to the center.
“Oil? Oh, I love oil, especially American production. Re-election? What re-election?” former Republican congressman Billy Long jested on Twitter earlier this month. “I’ve been a Willow fan all along, yeah, that’s the ticket, I love oil, I love the Willow project, yeah that’s the ticket!”
Moving to the center might actually not just dilute enthusiasm, but it might engender active opposition
But progressives say Biden is making an unwise and ultimately risky choice. They argue that the strategy could fracture the young, diverse coalition of voters who carried him to victory in 2020 and helped Democrats maintain control of the Senate in 2022. According to an analysis from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, 50% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 cast a ballot in 2020, marking an 11-point increase from 2016. The same organization found that the 2022 elections saw the second-highest youth voter turnout for a midterm in almost three decades.
“Moving to the center on issues like fossil fuel extraction could be problematic because it might actually not just dilute enthusiasm, but it might engender active opposition, when the president’s goal would be to keep the movement that he’s built in formation,” Geevarghese said.
The Willow announcement in particular attracted the attention and concern of progressive activists, who have emphasized the importance of reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Biden’s decision came days before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its report warning that the world must take swift action to address the climate crisis or risk catastrophic damage to the planet.
The White House has claimed that Biden’s options were limited in terminating ConocoPhillips’ leases because they were approved under prior administrations, but that explanation has not appeased climate activists, who have filed lawsuits to prevent the project from moving forward.
Michele Weindling, electoral director of the youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement, said the Willow decision was especially demoralizing for young activists, who took to TikTok to criticize the project. Videos with hashtags like #StopWillow were viewed tens of millions of times in the days leading up to Biden’s announcement.
“I think the Democrats’ only winnable strategy is to embrace and get behind the largest voting bloc for them, and that is young people. That’s people of color and working people,” Weindling said. “Casting our needs aside to appeal to a smaller faction of centrist voters is pretty foolish before a huge election cycle like 2024.”
While progressives express disappointment in Biden’s recent policy decisions, his apparent 2024 strategy is not wholly surprising. Biden has always identified as more of a centrist than some of his progressive opponents in the 2020 Democratic primary, such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Even so, Biden has secured some important policy wins for the more liberal wing of his party since taking office. Perhaps most notably, Biden successfully lobbied last year for the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which represented the US’s most significant legislative response yet to the climate crisis. His efforts to cancel some student loan debt have also won praise from progressives, although that executive order has faced legal challenges.
Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said he still considers Biden’s most recent policy decisions to be “exceptions” rather than the rule of his governing philosophy. Pointing to Biden’s State of the Union address in February, Green said the president still appears committed to economic populist proposals like affordable healthcare and paid family leave.
Casting our needs aside to appeal to a smaller faction of centrist voters is pretty foolish
However, Green added, Biden’s potential pivot to the political center could create an optics problem for the 2024 election if Trump wins the Republican nomination and “absurdly tries to claim the mantle of economic populism”. If Biden is perceived as being friendly with big oil or going soft on banking executives in response to the recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, then it could create an opening for Trump to challenge Biden’s economic credentials, Green warned.
With more than a year and a half to go until the election, Biden still has time to deliver more policy wins for his progressive supporters. Republicans now control the House of Representatives, complicating Democrats’ efforts to advance Biden’s legislative agenda, but the president still has the power of the executive pen. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is expected to soon release its updated list of suggested executive orders for Biden to sign, providing the president with an opportunity to shore up some goodwill with the more liberal members of his party.
Weindling already has some ideas for how Biden should put his executive power to use before his next election.
“He should use his full executive power to declare a climate emergency and to create bold solutions right now,” Weindling said. “2024 is still a little ways away, and our generation is looking for solutions.”
Geevarghese seconded that idea, and encouraged Biden to issue executive orders aimed at raising wages, strengthening union rights and lowering healthcare costs.
“You’re going to start to see, I think, progressives mobilizing to keep Biden’s feet to the fire,” Geevarghese said. “And if they are thinking about going centrist, they should think twice because we’re not going to pull our punches in this moment.”
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