Published March 10, 2023
History, as we know, never fully repeats itself, but it can sometimes rhyme a little. And a few surface-level parallels between President Joe Biden and his Democratic predecessor in the 1990s suggest some perils for Republicans expecting a primrose path to the White House in 2024.
Many in the GOP see Biden as politically vulnerable, suffering from what they see as unpopular cultural baggage, high inflation and the undeniable fact he will be pursuing reelection as the nation’s first president over 80. But they look past his recent shift toward the center at their peril.
Ever since last month’s State of the Union, the Biden administration has been taking intentional steps to appeal to moderate voters. In doing so, it is echoing the successful path walked by President Bill Clinton on his way to reelection in 1996.
Clinton started his time in office stumbling over hot-button social issues, attempting an ill-fated health care reform proposal and signing a crime bill that divided his party and energized his opponents. Stung by a historic congressional loss in the 1994 midterms, Clinton famously started encroaching on traditional Republican issues, talking about the need to reform welfare, reducing the budget deficit and declaring “the era of big government” over.
In addition to this strategy of triangulation, Clinton outlined a series of small-ball but popular cultural initiatives aimed at capturing people’s attention: He endorsed school uniforms, endorsed a V-chip that purported to block violence on TV, asked for a national pledge to end violence against women and pursued a campaign against teen pregnancy.
Biden’s political fortunes aren’t as dire as Clinton’s were in 1995. He has racked up meaningful bipartisan wins on infrastructure, gun safety and semiconductor manufacturing, and advanced progressive priorities like health care and green energy spending. His party’s unexpected success in the midterms also gave him some political wiggle room.
But he, too, has markedly, if less ostentatiously, tacked toward the center to prepare for an impending reelection bid. From issue to issue, the Biden White House is preparing for the upcoming campaign by creating some daylight between its stance and the progressive left.
Most notably, Biden’s announcement last week that he would not veto Republican-led legislation to rescind a controversial Washington, DC, crime law was clearly intended to take a tough-on-crime stance. On immigration, the White House has angered immigration activists by remaining open to reinstituting some of the Trump-era policies they once decried — including the detention of migrant families that cross the border illegally.
Biden even backtracked on his 2020 campaign pledge to not permit new fracking on federal land. While this annoyed climate groups, it demonstrated that he recognized the need for, in the words of Washington Monthly’s Bill Scher, “a pragmatic attitude” toward keeping America’s energy supply secure.
In some ways, Biden isn’t so much homing in on Republican turf as he is reclaiming ground Democrats had quietly ceded in recent decades. Requiring federal infrastructure projects to “Buy American,” while economically questionable, is the type of policy that could make inroads among blue-collar voters, who have trended rightward.
Boasting, as Biden did last December, about how many jobs for workers without a college degree his administration’s legislative packages will create is a strong rhetorical tack. As The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein has written, the president’s focus on blue-collar work harkens back to an older tradition among Democrats and “separates Biden from the past two Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.”
At the same time, Biden has prioritized some Clinton-esque quality of life issues that could appeal to political agnostics, such as strong-arming airlines into letting families sit together and encouraging Congress to take action to protect kids’ privacy online.
It’s a mix of big-picture rhetorical shifts and smaller, tangible initiatives — a close cousin to Clinton’s successful triangulation in the mid-1990s. And it should make Republicans think a little harder about how they might campaign against a second Biden term in next year’s general election.
Republicans will likely turn to some familiar tools in the playbook. Congressional Republicans will hold hearings into Hunter Biden’s financial dealings and anything else that has the whiff of scandal. They will continue to make hay with any steps that suggest the administration is beholden to activists outside of the ideological mainstream, like replacing “mothers” with “birthing person” in federal documents. And they will continue to slowly ratchet up the rhetoric around Ukraine, trying to find fault with the Biden administration’s handling of the war as it grinds into its second year.
But the tried-and-true messaging that excites the base will not be sufficient to combat Biden’s political pivot to the center. And on the campaign trail, former President Donald Trump is promising to be “retribution” against the “Deep State,” overshadowing his more creative and laudable policies like new cities and baby bonuses.
To muster an effective response, Republicans need not and should not be afraid to counter with their own proactive agenda. If Biden is going to propose popular, even populist, economic policies like infrastructure spending and curbing “junk fees,” the GOP should prioritize politically-salient issues of their own.
A strong federal effort to give families more tools to keep their kids safe online would resonate with a majority of parents across the political aisle. Committing to extending or improving the Child Tax Credit would give parents peace of mind and a positive reason to vote for Republicans.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed eliminating sales taxes on baby supplies, diapers, wipes and strollers, and states with Republican legislatures, like Texas and Georgia, are contemplating similar bills. Those are the type of visible, tangible policies that can connect with voters’ values and their pocketbooks. Trump’s futuristic agenda, if it could be plausibly spelled out in detail, offers another forward-looking approach.
Republicans in the mid-1990s thought Clinton was up against the ropes, only to see him recover and win convincingly. Those who expect Biden to fade quietly may be similarly disappointed.
Pointing out the flaws in the White House’s agenda and priorities is the basic blocking and tackling of politics. To truly make a play for independent and moderate voters, the GOP will need to develop a policy agenda that similarly goes on the offensive.
Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.