On Monday, the Biden administration released its proposed budget for the next fiscal year, and it shows a president and a party tracking rightward, toward the political center, just seven months out from the midterm elections. That marks a significant departure from the two most recent Democratic presidents.
Bill Clinton spent much of his first two years in office attempting, and failing, to pass health-care reform. This was followed by a wipeout in the 1994 midterms that saw Democrats losing control of the House to Republicans for the first time in 40 years. Barack Obama likewise focused on passing the Affordable Care Act during the opening years of his presidency — and then saw Democrats suffer their worst midterm losses in 62 years. Both electoral setbacks augured a shift to toward the center as both presidents began to strategize for re-election two years later.
Biden's budget proposal shows that he's following a somewhat different course.
The president's signature piece of legislation, the Build Back Better bill, failed to pass the Senate within Biden's first year in office, thanks to his party's extremely narrow majority. That was early enough to permit a course correction months out from the midterms. Hence the budget announced on Monday, which includes significant spending increases for the military, Customs and Border Protection, and federal law enforcement. The military increase also boosts the nation's nuclear weapons program.
Why make this kind of move now? Perhaps to try and avoid a bloodbath for Democrats in November. The administration may be wondering if Clinton or Obama might have prevented their midterm shellackings by getting out in front of the wave from the right. Yet leaving key Democratic groups feeling demoralized and ignored could be a recipe for low turnout in elections that are often decided by who shows up at the polls. The president could well be in a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't situation where pivoting toward the center ends up keeping moderates on board while alienating the most committed progressive activists on the left precisely when they're needed to motivate people to vote on Election Day.
Or maybe there's something else going on. As The Week's Peter Weber recently suggested, the Biden team may be trying to woo West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D) with more moderate budget proposals in the hope that he can be persuaded to support other administration priorities, such as passing legislation to address climate change.
That might make more sense than trying to placate centrist voters more broadly, but there's no guarantee it will be any more likely to work.