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Why Doesn't the Biden White House Ditch Its Unpopular Border Policy?

A Commentary By Michael Barone

For three and a half years, the Biden White House has seemed remarkably leakproof. Even amid popular backlash to administration policies -- the spending splurge in 2021 that was followed by sharp inflation in 2022 and 2023, the changes in enforcement of immigration laws that have produced numbers of incoming illegal immigrants unmatched even in border boom periods in the 1980s and '90s, and the endorsement of policies allowing biological men to compete in women's sports -- top officials have stuck to talking points and avoided finger-pointing.

It has not been clear who -- Top aides? Cabinet appointees? Family members? -- has urged the president on these unpopular courses, which are out of line with his responses over many years in the Senate and seem at odds with his 2020 campaign presentation as a return to normalcy from the volatility of the Trump administration.

Or is it just President Joe Biden himself, feeling free in his final years to indulge liberal impulses he squelched for prudential reasons in half a century of public office-holding and office-seeking?

But there have been signs that, facing this one last election and trailing in the polls, at least some in the administration have been having second thoughts. Take immigration.

"President Biden has come to recognize that the surge of undocumented immigration during his presidency is a threat to his re-election," the lead sentence of an article by The New York Times' David Leonhardt reads. "The administration is now considering policies that would undo some of its initial loosening of immigration rules."

Attached to the article is one of the Times' fine graphics showing that annual southern border apprehensions averaged 1.97 million in Biden's first three fiscal years. That's a huge increase over the 300,000 to 750,000 annually in every year since the 2007-08 financial crisis.

Leonhardt gave short shrift to the administration's talking point that those results are somehow Republicans' fault because of their refusal last year to back a so-called compromise immigration bill. That's not persuasive, as Leonhardt suggested, because the president has "significant flexibility" to change immigration procedures, which he loosened upon taking office and could tighten at any time.

Examples include restricting the right to claim asylum for those who cross the border illegally and going back to granting parole, release from custody, "only on a case-by-case basis." That which can be done by executive order can be undone by executive order.

But what's the evidence the administration "is now considering" different policies? Leonhardt's article appeared on Feb. 26, over three months ago. "Biden and his senior-most aides are united on the need to push for greater border security," Politico reported last week. But as immigration restrictionist blogger Mickey Kaus, referencing the Leonhardt article, replied, "Yet they've done nothing, despite a long-rumored crackdown, for 7/8 of his term in office. What kind of WH is this? United on need to act. Doesn't act!"

Perhaps not united. Politico noted that White House senior counselor Steve Ricchetti, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama White Houses, has been "advocating for more toughness on the border," but his advice has not been taken. Presumably, those with different views have prevailed -- unless this is just an example of the torpor sometimes seen late in an administration.

One possibility is that Biden, at this stage of his life anyway, strongly believes in what amounts to an open-border policy. What may have started as a knee-jerk rejection to every Trump administration policy, and what has become a political liability, may, in the process, have become the conscious preference of this chief executive. That would mesh with reporting that Biden and some around him don't believe the polls showing him behind.

Strengthening that hypothesis is the response to the House Republicans' impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) got his Democratic majority to shut off debate abruptly, presumably in coordination with the Biden White House.
Is there any reason to expect a different policy in a second Biden term? A president committed enough to an unpopular policy to have spurned advice to change it as he trails in polls before an election is not likely to abandon it after he has won a second term and cannot seek a third.

In time, we may learn more about what has been going on in a surprisingly leakproof White House, one about whose inner workings much of the overwhelmingly Trumpophobic press seem not much interested. They may fear exposing, in former special counsel Robert Hur's words, a "sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory." But maybe that's who's really in charge.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. His new book, "Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America's Revolutionary Leaders," is now available.


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See Other Commentaries by Michael Barone.

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