Joe Biden hopes to eke out a reelection win by raising alarms about the threat Donald Trump poses to democracy. Yet on immigration, Biden has pointlessly moved closer than ever to Trump’s cruel border policy.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign rally on December 17, 2023, in Reno, Nevada. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

It has become commonplace to emphasize the extent to which the US political world is polarized. Politicians and partisans of each party don’t simply have differing solutions to the country’s problems — they often seem to live in separate and fundamentally incompatible versions of reality. But on one thing, nearly everyone can agree: Donald Trump is still the center of the country’s political universe.

Trump is cruising to victory in the Republican presidential primary despite barely campaigning and remaining the subject of numerous major criminal and civil trials. GOP voters strongly preferred him over Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who essentially ran on Trump’s program, but with fewer personal scandals and a severe charisma deficit. DeSantis dropped out in January, as did Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor whose more strongly anti-Trump campaign barely registered.

Last week, Trump won 60 percent of the vote to defeat Nikki Haley, his only remaining opponent, in her home state of South Carolina. He went on to beat her with 68 percent of the vote in Michigan a few days later. Whatever Haley’s motives for remaining in the race through Super Tuesday (March 5, when fifteen states will hold primary elections), there is next to zero hope that anyone besides Trump will be the Republican presidential nominee. The Supreme Court’s decision today to reverse Colorado’s move to exclude the former president from the ballot just delivered the Trump campaign even more good news.

Even Joe Biden appears to be letting Donald Trump set the agenda for political discussion in the presidential election. Despite four years of incumbency, the president has largely focused his reelection campaign on Trump — in particular the threats he poses to democracy and abortion rights, as well as the many instances of legal jeopardy in which Trump is entangled.

Most elected Democrats have followed suit: rather than make a case for Biden based on his record of the last few years, they point to the risk Trump presents. Anyone who raises concerns about Biden “might as well just get your MAGA hat,” in the words of Pennsylvania Democratic senator John Fetterman.

The Trump Effect

Perhaps the most egregious example of letting Trump set the terms of debate is Biden’s immigration policy. Here, Biden has not only used Trump as a bogeyman, as he has on other issues. As Jacobin staff writer Branko Marcetic, among others, has reported extensively, Biden’s immigration plans since he took office have been an extension of Trump’s, particularly with regard to the southern border. Not content with aping Trump’s policies, Biden was desperate enough for a “win” on immigration — and predictably denied one by Republicans in Congress — that he told Trump on a recent trip to Texas, “Join me, or I’ll join you” in fortifying the border and making it virtually impossible to apply for asylum.

So Democrats have staked retaining the presidency on framing Trump as an existential threat to democracy — and possibly, he really is one. But if Trump is such a danger, why are Democrats ceding him so much political initiative? If Biden actually believes he presents the type of threat he and Democrats say he does, why is the president bending over backward to enact draconian legislation on Trump’s signature issue?

The most generous interpretation of Biden’s border theater is that he hopes to call Trump’s bluff with some persuadable group of undecided voters. “Trump had the opportunity to get the border done, but he blocked it, so I’m going to support Biden,” this imagined group will say. Setting aside the immense human toll a Biden-Trump border bill would take, it strains credulity that any appreciable number of votes are going to be swung by this tactic.

The Fruits of Triangulation

So far Biden’s strategy of moving toward the “center” to win over voters does not appear to be bearing much fruit. A recent New York Times/Siena poll gives Trump a 48-43 lead over Biden nationally. Fifty-three percent of the poll’s respondents thought Trump had committed “serious federal crimes” — down from 58 percent in December. And Trump has consistently led in key swing states where the election will ultimately be decided.

Despite his welcome appointment of a more labor-friendly National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and investments in green energy, Biden has largely failed on delivering serious wins for working people (and in some cases actively harmed them). The president doesn’t have much of a record to run on, and he can’t even make a convincing case that he tried very hard to do many popular things.

Biden certainly faced constraints in enacting his agenda. But voters see that he pushes much harder against those constraints when the issue is something he really cares about — like sending bombs to support Israel’s genocide in Palestine or making life hell for migrants — compared to when it’s something he doesn’t really want to do — like following through on promises for a public health insurance option or serious student debt forgiveness.

Now, he and Democrats like Fetterman are mostly just trying to bully traditional Democratic voters into supporting him for four more years. While Trump’s threat is real, it’s hard to believe Biden takes the threat seriously when his strategy to beat him involves capitulating to his centra ideas — when he tries to enact Trump-like legislation with more energy than he tries to deliver something his supporters actually want. As a result, there is a very strong chance that Biden will lose to a man who, on paper, should be the weakest presidential contender in decades.

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