Is he running? On crime, the border and the budget, Biden signals his reelection bid

No formal announcement yet, but Biden has all but planted a "Four More Years" lawn sign outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Susan Page
President Joe Biden speaks at the Democratic National Committee Winter Meeting, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Philadelphia.
  • Biden has outlined the ideological shape of a campaign that hews to the center.
  • One risk: Disenchanting the liberals, Black voters and others who comprise the Democratic base.
  • His budget plan, submitted Thursday, was a spotlight on contrasting policy priorities.

Is he running?

Watch what President Joe Biden has been doing, not what he hasn't yet said. 

In just the past week, the president has shored up his tough-on-crime credentials and signaled a new willingness to crack down on illegal immigration. On Thursday, the White House submitted a 2024 spending plan that was less a realistic budget blueprint and more a declaration of partisan contrast and combat.

On crime, the border and the budget, Biden has all but planted a "Four More Years" lawn sign outside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

His actions in recent days illustrate where the president believes he is politically vulnerable and how he plans to exploit Republican weaknesses. He has outlined the ideological shape of a reelection campaign that hews to the center – despite protests from the progressive Democratic base – and portrays Republicans as dangerous extremists. 

The strategy isn't without its risks. 

For one thing, his most fundamental task during a campaign will be defending his record as president. Making that case will depend in large part on an improving economy, one in which inflation is under more control and a recession, if there is one, is only a memory by Election Day. 

Remember this: Since 1900, no president has been reelected during or in the immediate aftermath of an economic downturn. (The last one: William McKinley.)

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For another, Biden's efforts to target moderate swing voters – disproportionately white, female and suburbanite, some of them blue-collar workers – could disenchant the liberals, Black voters and others who comprise the Democrats' most loyal supporters.

So far, Biden has said only that he is "inclined" to seek a second term, insisting that he hasn't made a final decision. An announcement is expected this spring, perhaps in April, the month that former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama announced their reelection bids.

Is he running?

It sure looks that way.

Address a problem #1: Crime

Biden enraged House Democrats and drew accusations of hypocrisy last week when he unexpectedly announced that he would sign a Republican-backed bill to block an overhaul of the District of Columbia's criminal code. Critics complained that the overhaul, designed to modernize the code and address social justice concerns, would reduce the penalties for carjacking and some other crimes.

The Senate joined the House Wednesday in passing the bill.

The president's decision to sign it represents a reversal. Last month, the White House said it opposed the measure. Signing it would also violate Biden's long-standing commitment to respect home rule in the district.

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That said, ideological consistency collided with political reality, including Biden's anemic approval rating on law and order. In an Ipsos/ABC News poll in January, Americans disapproved of his handling of crime by double digits, 58%-40%. Escalating concerns about carjackings and gun violence have dominated local elections in Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere.

For Biden, signing the bill will rob Republicans of some fodder to attack him as being soft on crime.

It will do nothing to protect the 173 House Democrats who voted in support of the D.C. law before they knew the president was going to change course, however. On Wednesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee cut digital ads targeting 15 of them from swing districts.

They are "too extreme for Joe Biden," the ads declared, saying the Democrats had cast a vote that "cemented their standing with the most radical, pro-crime wing of their party."

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser listens as President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting on reducing gun violence, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, July 12, 2021, in Washington.

Address a problem #2: The border

Biden's ratings on immigration are even worse than those on crime and are the subject of unrelenting Republican attack.

By more than 2-1, 67%-31%, Americans in January disapproved of the job the president was doing on handling immigration and the security of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Since then, the White House has moved to adopt tougher policies to staunch the flow of illegal migration, in some cases adopting strategies similar to ones Biden once denounced during the Trump administration.

In January, the president unveiled a plan to turn back from the border migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela without allowing them to claim amnesty. It also established a program that makes it easier for them to seek legal entry from their home countries.

In February, the administration announced a crackdown that would disqualify the vast majority of migrants from being able to seek asylum at the border. The new policy presumes that they are ineligible for asylum in the United States if they have traveled through a third country and failed to seek safe haven there.

And on Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas confirmed reports that the administration was considering a plan to reestablish detention centers for migrant families that illegally cross the border. Biden as a candidate had denounced as inhumane the practice of holding families with children.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, left, listens to Anthony Crane, deputy patrol agent in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol, as he tours the section of the border wall on May 17, 2022, in Hidalgo, Texas.

No decision has been made, Mayorkas told CNN, but he has said he has encouraged officials to put "all options on the table."

Hispanic legislators and immigrant advocates called the news alarming. “We should not return to the failed policies of the past where families are detained in substandard conditions with long-term damage to children,” said Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a Biden ally.

But the tougher policies won praise from some unexpected places. "Good," said Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, one of the president's fiercest critics on Capitol Hill. "A small step in the right direction."

Put your money where your mouth is? 

Biden's $6.8 trillion budget was declared dead on arrival even before it was formally delivered to Congress Thursday, but passage wasn't really its purpose.

Instead, the hefty set of documents spotlights the contrast between Biden and the Republicans who control the House – and, presumably, the Republican who will claim the GOP nomination next year. It also sets the stage for what is expected to be an intense debate this spring over raising the nation's debt ceiling.

Both the president and Republicans are pledging allegiance to reducing the deficit, now projected by the Congressional Budget Office to reach $1.41 trillion this year.

Live updates:President Biden's 2024 budget released. Boosts taxes on the rich, cuts the national deficit

Biden would reduce the red ink by nearly $3 trillion over 10 years by raising taxes on billionaires and corporations. He would protect Social Security and Medicare, extending the solvency of the health care program for the elderly by increasing taxes on those who make more than $400,000 a year. He would boost spending on the Pentagon, climate change and child care.

House Republicans have promised to eliminate the deficit entirely within 10 years, though they haven't yet detailed the specifics. They oppose raising taxes, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has ruled out cuts in defense, Social Security and Medicare. Those commitments would translate to deep cuts in domestic discretionary spending – on the Affordable Care Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, food stamps and student loan relief, for instance. 

Those stark differences in priorities are a comparison Biden is welcoming. "Show the American people what you value," he tweeted on Wednesday. 

To be clear, neither side has any realistic expectation of enacting agenda on spending, though. That is, not until after the next election.