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Why the narrative that Biden is drifting right for 2024 is closer to malarkey than reality

President continues to govern from the 'very, very far to the left,' GOP senator says

President Joe Biden shakes hands with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during an event in Kentucky hailing a bridge project funded by last year's bipartisan infrastructure measure.
President Joe Biden shakes hands with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., during an event in Kentucky hailing a bridge project funded by last year's bipartisan infrastructure measure. (AFP via Getty Images)

Beware false narratives. They often take root in Washington like a pesky but tough-to-eliminate weed in your flower or vegetable garden.

One recently sprouted, largely on social media and in some media reports, about President Joe Biden drifting rightward on policy matters as he inches — at a pace that some call strategic and others describe as snail-like — toward announcing a 2024 reelection bid.

One report earlier this year described the president as “quietly pivoting to the middle as he prepares for a 2024 run.” Biden took flak on social media when he appeared with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell at a January event in the latter’s native Kentucky to tout a bridge project made possible by last year’s bipartisan infrastructure act. One angry poster mused that Biden likely would name the bridge after his old pal McConnell.

But several Senate Democrats are eager to rip what they see as a weed from the political garden. They describe a president making pragmatic moves based on his years in the policy realm rather than a finger-in-the-wind politician — though they acknowledge he is mulling a possible reelection policy platform.

“I take the long view,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. “I would be absolutely certain that he’s thinking about 2024 right now, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that he’s moving to the right.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., agreed, saying: “Each of these decisions by the president needs to be viewed on a case-by-case basis and on the merits of each one. And I may agree with some and disagree with others, but I don’t think there’s any basis to say that there’s some kind of rightward tilt or trend.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., advised this approach: “If you look at Joe Biden as a senator and you look at what President Joe Biden is doing, I don’t think it’s dramatically different on the D.C. criminal code bill.” Biden and Senate Democrats, joining hundreds of House and Senate Republicans, blocked a District of Columbia Council bill they said would lower sentencing standards and clog the local courts.

Kaine, a former governor in a state that has had three Republican and four Democratic governors since 1994, said these issues were all policy one-offs that happened to hit the Resolute Desk in close succession.

“That was a very unusual situation, where you have the mayor of D.C. — and President Biden’s close to the mayor — saying this was a bad idea,” Kaine said. “It was not going to make the city safer and he said he was opposed. I think all that makes it a very unusual one.”

The president last month also approved the Willow oil project on Alaska’s petroleum-heavy North Slope. And the administration is reportedly considering whether to restart a program under which migrant families were detained on U.S. soil.

On the drilling policy decision, Kaine added this caveat: “He also took a lot of public lands off the potential drilling list in Alaska,” noting the restrictions or outright ban on drilling across millions of acres in the area.

The bottom line, according to Kaine: “Look, he’s a political guy. So, I mean, I know he is a competitor and wants to be successful. But he’s not trying to be successful by being out of character for Joe Biden.”

Those Democratic senators have a point.

After all, most congressional Democrats have never described Biden as some kind of guiding light on progressive policy whims — though some influential far-left members say he has had a successful presidency.

For instance, though Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and some other progressives have yet to endorse Biden’s expected 2024 reelection bid, she did say last year that he has been “doing a very good job so far.” She also praised the president and his hand-picked Health and Human Services secretary, former California Rep. Xavier Becerra, for their efforts to block a conservative Texas federal judge’s decision to outlaw an abortion medication during an April 9 television appearance.

“I commend the Biden administration for appealing the decision. And I believe that Secretary Becerra has been doing a phenomenal job in his role,” Ocasio-Cortez said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

AOC is not alone in praising Biden and his team. Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., has endorsed a Biden reelection bid. “He was not my first or second choice for president, but I am a convert,” she said in November, according to reports. “I never thought I would say this, but I believe he should run for another term and finish this agenda we laid out.”

What’s more, congressional progressives have never come close to calling for a substitute nominee in 2024. It all made for a brow-furrowing notion that the man some have dubbed “Scranton Joe,” was drifting rightward on policy.

Some progressives have groused. “I hope he’s paying attention,” Hannah Riddle, director of candidate services for the activist group the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told The Associated Press of progressives’ desire for Biden to publicly tout their policy preferences on the campaign trail. “Running on economic populism is a winning strategy. And that model can be replicated all over the country.”

But, notably, no progressive lawmakers or groups have aggressively blasted the president nor called for him to quit after his term ends. They also were mostly satisfied with his fiscal 2024 budget proposal.

‘Campaign spin’

And if Republican leaders sense Biden has been tracking to the right this year, they are not letting on publicly.

Sen. James Lankford laughed when asked about the Biden-drifts-rightward narrative on Tuesday. “It certainly doesn’t have any appearance of that. That might be interesting campaign spin for him to say, ‘Look, I’m going to try to run as more of a moderate after being very, very far to the left for the first two years,’” the Oklahoma Republican said. “So, no, I’ve not seen any rightward shift.”

Notably, Lankford pointed to the same environmental parts of Biden’s Alaska energy decision as Kaine. But he said Republicans vigorously opposed them. “So, no, that’s definitely not a rightward shift,” he said, acknowledging that Biden has and will make some moves aimed at keeping the moderate GOP and independent voters who swung in his favor in 2020 in a handful of key battleground states. “But the reality, overall, is different than actually what may be spun.”

McConnell, in his first floor speech since being sidelined after a nasty fall, on Monday did not describe a centrist, deal-making president: “The president’s economic advisers say the deadline for a solution is not far off. But his political advisers apparently think the White House position should be, listen to this, no talks and no reforms.”

That highlights another reason the rightward-turning Biden narrative was off base: The president continues to reject Republican demands for federal spending cuts to offset any debt ceiling increase.

But, wait, there’s more. Biden in recent weeks has bucked the right-turn narrative in some not-so-centrist ways:

  • The administration last week proposed the strictest auto emission standards in U.S. history, a big win for environment-minded progressives on and off the Hill.
  • The president criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul plan that prompted mass protests across the Jewish state.
  • Biden has proposed protecting transgender student athletes from across-the-board bans on participating in sports with the gender with which they identify.
  • His budget plan proposes raising taxes, albeit on the extremely wealthy.

Just look at Biden’s schedule this week. He visited a union training facility in Maryland on Wednesday and blasted Republican and MAGA policy priorities, and was scheduled to deliver remarks Friday about new actions he’s taking to advance environmental justice. Hardly rightward moves.

“I don’t think the president is changing his basic stance on issues,” Blumenthal said. “And he’s continuing to stand up on health care, on education, speaking out against hate crimes and racism, and in favor of democracy and our values.”

The rightward-drift narrative, to borrow a favorite Bidenism, is closer to malarkey than reality.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.

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