How a beleaguered Biden can bust a move

·Senior Columnist
·7 min read

A president should be cautious. The white-knuckle Trump presidency taught us that. Voters chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 election in good part because they thought Biden would lower the volume and end the self-serving recklessness of the Trump years.

Biden has. But with inflation swamping family finances, gun violence surging, the Supreme Court negating personal rights and a major war gripping Europe, Biden now seems too quiet. His incremental solutions to big problems are woefully insufficient. Repurposing last year’s social-welfare agenda as this year’s inflation-fighting regime is a lame political stunt that fools nobody. Voters are telling Biden to do more—a lot more—via his dismal 39% approval rating. Even Democrats are now complaining that Biden is too timid, the surest sign yet that Biden needs to shake things up.

Biden won the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 2020 by running as a moderate opposed to the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren far-left agenda. But as president, Biden has drifted left and endorsed many policies of “progressive” Democrats, while abandoning more centrist positions. It’s not working. Support for progressive policies such as a major expansion of the social-safety net is as marginal as it was in 2020, while inflation has come from nowhere to become many Americans’ dominant concern.

Biden needs to shift to the center on the economy, and he can still placate the left with vigorous new action on social issues, such as abortion. Here are some ways how:

Give the oil and gas industry some of what it wants. Biden desperately wants fossil-fuel drillers to produce more oil and natural gas to lower gasoline and household energy costs. But he’s also loath to undermine his own green-energy agenda or, just as important, upset environmentalists. The result is a standoff with Biden and the energy industry bad-mouthing each other, while oil and gas production creeps upward at a pace too slow to make a noticeable difference.

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Biden can do two seemingly contradictory things at the same time. So why not make a concession to the energy industry? He could, for instance, grant a few of the requests in a June 14 letter to the White House from the American Petroleum Institute. Sensible ones: Speed up permitting for natural-gas pipelines and other types of infrastructure. Repeal the Trump-era tariffs on steel imports, which raise energy-production costs. Protect the flexibility of refining companies to make fuels most in demand.

Biden could also halt the Securities and Exchange Commission’s new effort to account for carbon emissions at every phase of operations for every publicly owned company in the nation. A recent Supreme Court ruling could tie that rule up in court anyway and ultimately invalidate it. Killing or halting the rule would signal a friendlier government attitude toward fossil fuel investments, which industry executives say would encourage more funding for new drilling operations.

Environmentalists would howl. But Biden shouldn’t blink. And instead of making such concessions at midnight on a Friday night, to minimize news coverage, Biden should do so as publicly as possible, saying an energy affordability crisis requires expedient new policies. Then he should tell the industry he's doing his part, now it's time for them to produce more oil and natural gas. At the same time, Biden should demand anew that Congress pass generous green-energy tax credits and other measures to aggressively address climate change. There’s a big difference between the energy we need now and the energy of the future. Biden could position himself as a defender of both instead of picking sides.

Go all in on Ukraine. It’s now clear that sanctions on Russia, no matter how tough, are not going to end the barbaric invasion of Ukraine any time soon. The United States and Ukraine’s other allies should continue trying to choke off Russia’s energy revenue, but the way to beat Russia is on the battlefield in Ukraine. Biden and Congress have approved more military aid for Ukraine than any other country, but Biden has also been careful about provoking Russia by going too far. He can pick up the pace by dropping objections to longer-range weapons, air-defense systems, combat aircraft and decisive intelligence. Quiet assistance is best. Tell us later, if necessary, just tap the maximum amount of U.S. resources needed to end the war as quickly as possible.

Do something—ANYTHING!—on student debt. Biden's debt-cancellation plan is the new Infrastructure Week: An endless discussion with no deliverable. Biden has been “considering” some kind of executive action on the issue for months, but the only moves so far have addressed debt for the relatively small number of students defrauded by for-profit schools. As aid programs go, student-debt relief is a lousy idea that would direct billions of federal dollars to people with a full or partial college education, and nothing at the lesser-educated. Biden is right to have misgivings. But teasing something for months on end has become ridiculous.

Biden should simply decide one way or the other. The best choice would be doing nothing and telling Democrats who control Congress to pass a law if they want to write off student debt. That would enrage progressives, because Democrats don't have the votes. Too bad. Many centrists hate this type of giveaway and they’d appreciate Biden saying no, for once, to the liberal wing of his party. If Biden plans to go the other way and forgive a meaningful amount of debt by executive action, he should stop dithering, own it and accept the support it will cost him among moderate Dems and Independents who were important to his victory in 2020.

End the labor union veto on everything. The Biden White House vilifies business geniuses like Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos because their companies resist unionization. This is absurd. Biden should be in regular contact with business leaders across the spectrum, especially given all the economic problems that are wrecking his presidency. Biden, who fancies himself Mr. Civility, can certainly have polite conversations with people he disagrees with. He invites Republicans to the White House all the time! Yet his business contacts have to pass a unionization litmus test. This violates Biden’s own ecumenical leanings.

Go nuclear on social issues. As Biden pulls away from the left on economic issues, he can placate progressives by lining up with them on social issues. Biden said recently he supports a “carveout” of the Senate’s filibuster rule to restore nationwide abortion rights. This is classic Biden incrementalism. Why not just ditch the carveout part and say he has decided the nation’s political problems have become so profound that he now believes the entire filibuster should be scrapped, so a minority of lawmakers cannot continuously block new laws on abortion or gun violence or immigration that the nation wants? Washington eggheads would warn that this “nuclear option” could produce destabilizing politics for years to come. Biden could say, so what: We’ve got tactical nukes going off in America every time some loner with an assault weapon opens fire on peaceful civilians.

Biden is an establishmentarian whose long career in Washington finally landed him in the White House. He probably thinks his respect for institutions and tradition account for his success, so why change now? The answer is the voters who sent him to the White House don’t think those institutions work any more, and they’re largely right. If Biden’s ever going to hear that message, now’s the time.

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