Joe Biden is a reluctant culture warrior. For the first half of his presidency, Biden’s theory of politics was based on the idea that Democrats could best rebuild from their losses of the last decade by winning back white working-class voters. This required focusing on bread-and-butter issues while treating culture war topics as distractions. Before the Dobbs decision last June elevated reproductive freedom to a dominant election issue, Biden was notoriously reluctant to even say the word “abortion.” Writing in The Atlantic in March, Ronald Brownstein observed that at the start of his term Biden was “betting that the non-college-educated workers, especially those who are white, who constitute the principal audience for the Republican cultural offensive will prove less receptive to those divisive messages if they feel more economically secure.”
The “dominant view” of Biden’s “inner circle,” Brownstein argued was that “the best way to respond to the culture-war onslaught from Republicans is to engage with it as little as possible. Those around Biden do not believe that the positions Republicans are adopting on questions such as classroom censorship, book bans, LGBTQ rights, and allowing people to carry firearms without a permit, much less restricting or banning abortion, will prove popular with voters beyond the core conservative states.”
In February, the centrist pundit Matthew Yglesias, who reportedly enjoys a following in the White House, expressed the logic of this position by arguing that critics of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis should focus on his proposal to raise the age for access to Social Security and Medicare to 70 rather than on “identity politics for librarians.”
Yglesias was offering a false choice, since there is nothing to stop opponents of DeSantis from attacking both his plutocratic economic policies and his reactionary social policies. Still, something like the Yglesias position seemed to be guiding the White House, which until recently hesitated to address, for example, the surge of public school and public library book banning encouraged by Republican governors like DeSantis, Greg Abbott of Texas, and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia.
All that has changed over the past few weeks. On April 25, in the video announcing his run for reelection, Biden spoke about both economic and social issues, uniting them in the theme of “liberty” under siege by MAGA extremism. According to Biden, “around the country, MAGA extremists are lining up to take on those bedrock freedoms, cutting social security that you’ve paid for your entire life, while cutting taxes from the very wealthy, dictating what healthcare decisions women can make, banning books and telling people who they can love all while making it more difficult for you to be able to vote.”
Underscoring this new turn in White House thinking, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at Howard University on the very day the video was released and touched on many of the same themes. The major part of Harris’s speech dealt with abortion (a word she seemed to have no difficulty uttering). Harris also warned that Republicans had “a national agenda when they start banning books. Banning books to stand in the way of teaching America’s full history so the truth can be spoken, so we can learn and do better.” Harris also attacked Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law for making life harder for LGBTQ teachers.
Biden and Harris now give every indication that they will run on both economic and social issues. This development is surely a product of the Dobbs decision, which has energized support for abortion rights and helped Democrats stay competitive in the midterms, doing far better than they normally do in non-presidential years. The White House is also likely responding to polls showing that GOP support of book banning is overwhelmingly unpopular. The polling on trans issues is more ambiguous—but the actual election results of the past few years suggest that the GOP’s embrace of virulent transphobia has backfired and often led to Democrats winning in tight races.
There’s a legitimate concern on the left, voiced by Senator Bernie Sanders before the midterms, that the focus on issues like abortion might come at the expense of having an economic agenda. But this would happen only if Democrats choose to abandon their economic agenda. So far, that doesn’t seem to be happening.
Instead, there are heartening sign that Democrats have found a way to combine social liberalism with economic populism, particularly in Midwestern states such as Michigan—as Greg Sargent writes in The Washington Post: “After flipping the state legislature and reelecting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year, Democrats opened their legislative session with a barrage of culturally liberal legislation, including new LGBTQ protections and repeal of an onerous antiabortion statute, which Republicans had blocked in the majority.”
“Along with culturally liberal legislation,” Sargent added, “Michigan Democrats are pushing bills to reverse an anti-union ‘right to work’ law and require union wages for construction workers. Democrats hope to move the state in a socially liberal direction while boosting working-class-economic prospects.”
The question is whether Biden can maintain the same balance as Whitmer. In his first two years, the president was surprisingly successful in passing major economic legislation, notably the 2002 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), that answered at least some of the demands of progressive Democrats for robust spending on social policies and climate change.
But with Republicans now controlling the House of Representatives and using the debt ceiling as a hostage, there’s a real danger that Biden (like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama before him) will cave to claims of deficit reduction and austerity. Writing in The Lever, David Sirota noted that Biden’s own history of supporting austerity makes him a less than reassuring leader at this moment. Sirota called attention to a recent Biden speech where the president seemed to buy into the logic of austerity by saying, “We should be cutting spending and lowering the deficit.” To be sure, Biden balanced that with an attack on Republican calls for major spending cuts.
That Biden has a record of supporting austerity might indeed auger problems. But it should be noted that Biden has always shifted his stances to align with where the Democratic Party stands. The party as a whole has moved to the left. Biden’s current stance as a Democratic president dealing with a GOP House has led to conflicting policies. Student debt relief, to cite one major policy, is currently up in the air, pending both a Supreme Court decision and congressional funding. Thanks to the IRA and CHIPS act, Biden will be able to inject more money into infrastructure and semiconductor research and development. In the current budget dispute, Biden has said he won’t allow any cuts to Medicaid—but he has also indicated that he might be receptive to work requirements for aid, as he had been in the 1990s. In sum, Biden seems to be wavering between two separate political identities: the austerity supporter he was in the past and the more progressive Democrat he ran as in 2020. It is unclear which side will win.
The current battle over the debt ceiling has the real risk of derailing Biden’s reelection bid. In announcing his intent to run again, Biden laid out a robust freedom agenda that combined social liberalism with progressive economics. Surrendering to the Republicans by embracing austerity would completely undermine the economic half of Biden’s platform. If that happens, Sanders’s warnings about the midterms may turn out to be prophetic regarding the 2024 presidential race.