The one issue where the White House plays defense
The pickings are slim for Republicans in Joe Biden’s Washington. For the past few months, the president has maintained a job approval rating in the mid- to low-50s. He has a net positive rating in the double digits. He gets good marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, for his distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, and for his (misguided) decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The American Rescue Plan is extremely popular, and the American Jobs Plan polls well. The rules of the House and budget reconciliation in the Senate mean that Republicans are powerless to stop major economic legislation from becoming law. Meanwhile, the conservative grassroots are more interested in election integrity and identity politics than in policy. GOP officials are frustrated. “It’s always harder to fight against a nice person because usually people will sort of give him the benefit of the doubt,” Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas) told The Hill recently.
There’s one issue, however, where the public has doubts. It’s the border. The surge in illegal immigration throughout his first 100 days in office has left Biden vulnerable to Republican criticisms and worried about the political implications. The crisis has exposed as false the idea that this administration is staffed with an “A-Team” of “hyper-competent” technocrats able to manage anything that comes their way. Leaks to the news media reveal an administration playing an internal blame game. The typically unflappable Jen Psaki has been caught up in spats with the White House press corps. The upshot is that Biden’s missteps have given the GOP an opportunity to unite around border security and tight labor markets.
The public doesn’t like the results of Biden’s asylum policies. Just 24 percent of adults in a late March AP-NORC pollapproved of Biden’s handling of the border surge. Last week’s Quinnipiac poll showed 29 percent approval. A Morning Consult survey conducted at the end of last month found that a majority of registered voters blamed Biden, not “seasonal migration,” for the spike in illegal entries. Participants in the Engagious/Schlesinger swing-voter focus group doubted that Biden’s emphasis on diplomacy and humanitarian aid would reduce the pressure on the border. “Swing voter support for Biden’s border policies is like sand falling through an hourglass,” Engagious president Rich Thau saidto Axios.
And Biden’s response isn’t helping. He put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of efforts to solve the problem, but Harris recognized the political peril involved and quickly made it clear that she would be engaged in diplomacy rather than emergency response. Harris will meet virtually with the president of Guatemala on April 26, two days after her in-person visit to New Hampshire. The southern border has yet to appear on her schedule.
With Harris burnishing her foreign policy credentials, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has been left to coordinate the administration’s efforts. One reason Republicans unanimously opposed Becerra’s confirmation was that he’s a lawmaker and activist in a job best suited for bureaucrats and wonks. They had a point. The press routinely depicts Biden as unhappy with Becerra and “frustrated” at his inability to house, care for, and resettle unaccompanied minors safely and swiftly. What did Biden expect? The moment demands a figure with the logistical brilliance of Dwight Eisenhower and the moral core of Albert Schweitzer. That description doesn’t exactly fit Becerra, who is best known for suing nuns.
Nor is the anti-Becerra leak campaign the only piece of evidence that the White House fears an immigration backlash. Last week, in the space of several hours, Biden flip-flopped on refugee admissions. First came the announcement that, contrary to his campaign pledge, Biden would not raise the cap on refugees. Democrats and progressives slammed the move as inhumane and illiberal. Then the White House, always keeping an eye on its left flank, said it would increase the number of refugees after all. Press secretary Jen Psaki blamed the confusion on “messaging.” She was right—the White House had two different messages in one afternoon. A week later Psaki was still trying to explain the discrepancy.
It turns out that Biden didn’t want to draw further attention to immigration by admitting more refugees during the border crisis. His political instincts may have been sound—but he wasn’t willing to test those instincts against criticism from his own side. The White House can’t even admit that what’s happening on the border is a crisis. When Biden toldreporters, “The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people, and we couldn’t do two things at once,” Psaki and other administration officials said he was referring to the “crisis” in Central America that is supposedly forcing migrants to seek a better future in the United States. Please.
Biden spoke the truth: There is a crisis on the border. What he can’t accept, however, is that his policies are responsible for it—and are making his political difficulties worse. And so he’s handed Republicans a powerful issue in an otherwise bleak environment. Now they have to use it.