President Joe Biden is signaling an election-year shift to the center, embracing a strategy he hopes will protect fragile Democratic majorities in Congress. But he's risking a revolt from key voices across his party's sprawling coalition.
In his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, the Democratic president embraced Republican calls to strengthen the nation’s southern border and barely mentioned climate change. He glossed over concerns about voting rights and spent little time heralding his historic decision to nominate the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. On domestic issues, he was perhaps most blunt in disavowing the push from some Black Lives Matter activists to “defund the police.”
The calculated messages, threaded through one of the most important speeches of Biden's young presidency, marked a clear effort to reset the political climate for Democrats. Polls suggest the party is losing support from almost every demographic at the outset of the 2022 campaign. But Biden's effort to stabilize the party could alienate the coalition of Black people, young people, progressives and independents who delivered him the presidency in 2020 and will be needed again this year.
His address intensified a debate inside the party about how best to proceed this year, with many veteran lawmakers embracing Biden's tone while younger, more progressive critics on the left warned he wasn't connecting with the Democrats' most loyal voters.
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There was particular frustration with Biden's declaration that the nation's police need more funding, seen by some as a tone-deaf overture to white voters at the expense of millions of Black Americans still waiting for the president to deliver promised policing reforms almost two years after George Floyd's murder.
“Our party often, we target the white moderate, we target the white independent. And I get it, right. Those are the swing voters and we want to get them. But we continue to underestimate Black and brown people," said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. “I liked 95% of the speech, maybe even 97%, but he missed an opportunity to bring Black voters in more and voters of color in more.”
Beyond Washington, Melina Abdullah, a grassroots director for Black Lives Matter, was more frank in her criticism. Slapping down those on the left wanting to “defund" the police, Biden three times called for funding as Democrats and Republicans gave him a standing ovation.
“It’s appalling that he would say it, that he would repeat it, and he would say it with such exuberance,” Abdullah said, warning of dire political consequences. “They think we don’t have a choice. Maybe we won’t vote for Republicans, but we will stay home. And that’s something that Democrats can’t afford to have happen.”
For now, the White House is betting that Democrats have more to gain by siding with voters in the middle who are worried about the nation's rising crime rates than with those focused on police brutality. And public polling indicates that a significant portion of voters of color do support increased funding for law enforcement.
“That’s absolutely fine,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said of Biden’s explicit opposition to calls for defunding the police. “First of all, nobody in our caucus ever said that before the last election. But the Republicans wanted to tattoo something that was said outside to our members.”
“I think he spoke for all of us,” said No. 2 House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
“He was trying to dispel what is a false scenario that the Republicans have tried to create since a couple of our members out of 223 or 4 said they were for defunding the police,” Hoyer said. “Democrats are not for defunding the police.”
But some of the most prominent progressives in Congress insisted Biden wasn't speaking for them when it comes to policing.
“I’m not going to change how I feel," Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., said Wednesday. “I’m not going to stop saying defund the police at all.”
Only 34% of Americans say the things Biden has done in office are good for Americans, according to a February AP-NORC poll. Nearly as many — 29% — say he's been bad for Black Americans. Another 36% say he's been neither good nor bad.
That’s a decline from the first few months of his presidency, when 50% said in a poll in late April and early May that things he was doing were good for Black Americans.
As the midterm campaign begins, such tension within the Democratic Party is unlikely to subside. In a potential preview of what's to come, nine-term incumbent Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar failed to clear the 50% threshold in Tuesday's Democratic primary and will face progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros in a runoff election in May.
Despite an energized progressive wing, Democratic pollster Jeff Pollock suggested Biden's focus on the center is smart politics.
“The data shows if there is softening in Biden's numbers, it is coming from the middle: centrist Republicans, centrist Democrats, independents who are in the middle,” he said. “And they’re also the ones who happen to swing the elections, including the midterms.”
“If Joe Biden is aiming things at the center, I’m all for it,” Pollock added.
Even under the best of conditions, history suggests that Biden’s party is likely to lose its House and Senate majorities come November. If the Democratic Party cannot unify its disparate factions, the losses could be staggering.
And even as the Democratic strategists applauded Biden, younger African Americans and progressive activists said his strategy left them feeling angry and alienated.
John Paul Mejia, a spokesman for the Sunrise Foundation, a national youth organization focused on climate change, criticized Biden for largely ignoring that issue and other priorities for young people including student loan debt.
“Biden needs to have some respect for the people and issues that got him into power,” he said.
And like other activists, Paul Mejia said he was most disturbed by Biden's call to fund the police. He called it “absolutely disgusting.”
“I understand the messaging tactic there," he said. “But I don’t think Biden should be stabbing the backs of loads of organizers and activists who participated in the uprisings over the summer and got him into office.”
Peoples wrote from New York. Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report.