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Immigration, Israel, and Lesser Evilism — Biden’s Plan to Win

Biden’s path to winning the 2024 election is becoming clearer. It will require a multipronged approach to get dissatisfied voters to support the Democratic Party.

Sybil Davis

April 4, 2024
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Andrew Harnik/AP

After months of floundering and despite the ongoing international crisis facing the United States, President Biden has finally had a good couple of weeks nationally. Beginning with the State of the Union, Biden has begun to lay out a path to counter his many weaknesses and overcome Donald Trump in November. To do this, however, the Democratic Party and its allies will all have to play different roles in order to address the many weaknesses in Biden’s campaign. But, as compared to a few weeks ago, when Biden’s hopes of a second term seemed nearly impossible, a path for Biden’s victory is becoming clearer. So what is Biden’s strategy to win a second term?

The State of the Union and Biden’s campaign announcement speech in Valley Forge offer a glimpse at Biden’s pitch to voters. It will entail a multipronged approach of lesser-evil rhetoric around protecting democratic rights (with a special focus on abortion); an economic populist message that rests on a high degree of nationalism; a rightward turn on immigration; and rhetorical moderation in how they talk about Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. The Democratic Party and its allies’ are having to divide the different “tasks” amongst themselves in order to reach out to the different sectors of the party’s base — including those who are threatening to withhold support from Biden. In this division of labor, the Democratic Party’s allies in the union bureaucracy and NGOs will play a crucial role in turning out voters for Biden and in persuading them to overlook the Biden administration’s many weaknesses. UAW president Shawn Fain’s presence at the State of the Union demonstrates what a cozy relationship the union bureaucracy has with the Biden administration and the role that it will play in getting Biden over the hump of voter disapproval. The NGOs will also need to play a big role in the Biden coalition in linking social movements and the fight against Trump to Biden’s campaign in hopes of once again diverting the struggle into the Democratic Party.

In addition, a crucial role will be played by the “uncommitted” campaign, which will channel disaffected voters’ back into the Democratic Party by convincing them that the best way to express their dissent is by voting in a Democratic primary in an attempt to pressure Biden to adopt a better policy. Simultaneously, the Biden administration is shifting its rhetoric on the war on Gaza and supporting an incredibly limited and temporary cease-fire. Nonetheless, Biden’s advocates can point to the State of the Union — in which Biden said the word “cease-fire” for the first time — and say, “Look, everyone! Voting uncommitted worked! Biden supports a cease-fire now.”

This interplay of criticizing the Biden administration while driving people back to supporting it was evident in Bernie Sanders’s video calling on his supporters to vote for Biden in November. In the video, Sanders says that he disagrees with the administration on several points, that its position on Gaza has been “dead wrong,” but that his supporters must vote for Biden anyway. Sanders’s justification for this falls in line with one of the main prongs of Biden’s 2024 pitch: lesser evilism and the defense of democratic rights.

Lesser Evilism and the Defense of Democratic Rights

Biden’s Valley Forge speech in January marked the official launch of his campaign. There, he made his pitch to voters: Trump represents an existential threat to democracy, and Biden is the one who will protect it. This argument centers on the January 6 storming of the Capitol as well as on defending voting and abortion rights, both of which are under attack by the Right. Not mentioned explicitly but sometimes hinted at is also the defense of trans rights — which the Democrats are trying to ignore in hopes of not alienating voters who might oppose trans rights.

This rhetoric of defending democratic rights was central to Biden’s 2020 campaign — and all other Democratic campaigns of the Trump era — and it is a clever way to address the real fears of the voting base. Trump’s time in office was chaotic and featured many attacks on the rights of the oppressed, such as the Muslim ban and his hard-right border policy. Trump’s first term in office was capped off by the January 6 riot, which shook many as a strong expression of what the mobilized Far Right can do, especially when emboldened by a president who was urging them on. Added to this are Trump’s many statements on the campaign trail for 2024 about how he wants to take an even more authoritarian approach to his second term — including infamously declaring that he wants to be a “dictator” for his first day in office — and his continued insistence that the 2020 election was “stolen,” despite all evidence to the contrary.

Added to this fear over Trump and his authoritarian bent is the assault on democratic rights, which has escalated over the past period. In 2022 the Dobbs decision — which was made possible by Trump appointing several ultraconservatives to the Supreme Court — opened the door to abortion bans in 14 states and to severe limitations in 11 others. The assault on voting rights has also escalated, with attacks on the 1965 Voting Rights Act from “every possible angle.” Meanwhile, trans rights are under attack in over half the country, with incredibly repressive laws having been passed in several states. So fears about defending our basic democratic rights are justified. But the solution isn’t to give Biden support because he and the Democrats have proved, yet again, that they will not defend our rights when they are under attack.

When it comes to democratic rights, the Democratic Party’s classic strategy is to raise their defense every election as a reason to vote for them — normally taking the form of “vote for us in order to keep abortion legal.” Once the party gets into office, it feigns helplessness — “Oh, we would defend abortion, but we don’t have enough votes for it.” Then, in the next election cycle, the party repeats the same pitch — “vote for us so we can defend abortion this time.” This is a cynical formulation from a party that could have protected abortion when it had a majority at the beginning of Biden’s term or when it had a supermajority at the beginning of Obama’s first term. But, in both cases, it did nothing to protect our rights. Rather, it watched the overturning of Roe, and used it to generate more support in the midterms. The NGOs that raise millions to defend abortion rights did the same thing. Planned Parenthood and others turned their attention away from fighting Dobbs and toward the Democratic Party. Our rights are a game to them, and we must break the cycle.

Indeed, in some cases the Democrats are actively participating in attacks on our democratic rights. The Democrats and Republicans have been united in repressing the Palestine solidarity movement such as when they voted in the Senate to condemn anti-Zionism as Antisemitism. This can also be seen in the militarization of the NYC subways, overseen by Democrats Eric Adams and Kathy Hochul, or in the attacks on freedom of information in New Jersey. In addition, the hard-right turn the Democrats are taking on immigration shows that they have no intention of protecting oppressed people from an insurgent Far Right.

The Biden era has shown us that voting doesn’t defeat the Far Right. Rather, the attacks on our rights were strengthened under Biden. To protect our rights and defeat the Right, we must rely on our own power and organize ourselves — in our workplaces, schools, and communities — to build a movement that will stop the advance of the Right and protect our rights. Biden is an impediment to this process. Both he and the Democrats try to channel our rage, fear, and desire to defend ourselves back into the hamster wheel of elections.

Nationalistic Economic Populism

The State of the Union represented a shift for the Biden campaign, because it was one of the first times in 2024 that he put forward a positive proposal for the election, rather than relying purely on fearmongering about the Right. That proposal, like “Bidenomics,” is a mix of populism and nationalism.

In the State of the Union, Biden tried to frame himself as the defender of the worker — even going so far as to invite Shawn Fain and a UAW worker. He postured himself as a fighter who would take on the corporations and force the rich to “pay their fair share.” This is an attempt to co-opt the phenomenon that we have been seeing in the labor movement and drive it into the Democratic Party. Once again, we only need to look to Fain’s attendance to see what a central role the union bureaucracy’s central role in driving people back to Biden.

We have written before that this election is going to be a “battle for the working class,” with both Trump and Biden trying to appeal to working-class voters who have “de-aligned” from the Democratic Party. Trump’s strength in the polls is, in part, a reflection of the fact that working-class voters — including working-class voters of color — are beginning to look to Trump as a possible solution to the long economic crisis that has persisted since the 2008 crash and intensified after COVID.

While Biden is seeking to paint the economy as strong — and, on paper, it is — the reality for many working-class and poor Americans is that inflation is still high, the cost of living has soared, and housing prices remain a great burden. While Trump is offering his flavor of nationalistic right-wing populism to address this discontent, Biden is trying to paint the current moment as an “American comeback.”

Biden’s pitch is also dripping with nationalism. In the State of the Union, Biden touted that “instead of importing foreign products and exporting American jobs, we’re exporting American products and creating American jobs — right here in America where they belong!” Further, he declared that “America’s comeback is building a future of American possibilities, building an economy from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down, investing in all of America, in all Americans to make sure everyone has a fair shot and we leave no one behind!”

This hypernationalism is an attempt to compete with Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, which targets sectors of the working class who are turning to nationalistic solutions to neoliberal globalization. In this sense, Biden’s turn is meant to drive voters further to the right and to give weight to the idea that workers in other countries are the enemy, rather than class siblings whom we need to work with to bring down the capitalist system that exploits us all.

A Right-Wing Immigration Policy

An area where Biden has gone hard to the right is immigration. Polls are showing that immigration is increasingly becoming a top issue for many voters. The Republicans are exploiting this and the supposed “migrant crisis” at the border to paint the Biden administration as having “given up” the fight against illegal immigration. They claim, falsely, that Biden and the Democrats support open borders. This is personified in the ongoing stand-off in Texas between Governor Greg Abbott and federal authorities over taking down razor wire at the border. In this struggle, every Republican governor but one has signed a letter siding with the Texas governor and denouncing Biden for doing nothing to stop the “invasion.”

Biden is trying to combat this by moving to the right on immigration. This marks a very hard-right turn, because the Biden administration already has a quite right-wing immigration policy, one that reflects more continuity than discontinuity with the Trump administration’s policy. Now Biden is touting that he is trying to pass “the toughest” immigration bill in history and saying that it is the Republicans who are blocking it. He has even called on Trump to help him make the bill a reality. So, in other words, Biden is asking Trump to work with him on immigration. So much for being the lesser evil on immigration.

This hard-right turn goes hand-in-hand with the nationalistic bent of Biden’s populism. He is trying to win this election by appealing to some of the worst biases in the American electorate while making a huge concession to right-wing ideology. On the question of immigration, Biden is proudly standing on the right of even his own party. Thus, any talk of him being the lesser evil on immigration as compared to Trump is just that: talk. The Biden administration’s actions speak for themselves. The administration is proud to be pushing the “toughest” immigration policy in history. It is proud to be making things harder for migrants, and it is perfectly willing to polarize the country against migrants. In the State of the Union, Biden even talked about how “illegals” are murdering Americans.

A Shift in Rhetoric on Israel

We have previously written about how one of the biggest barriers to Biden’s 2024 campaign is the movement for Palestine, which has made Biden its primary target. His events are constantly being disrupted by protesters, he’s been branded “Genocide Joe,” and many voters (especially in the swing state of Michigan) are refusing to vote for him over his policy on Gaza. It remains an open question whether Biden will overcome this movement and bring its adherents back into the Democratic Party.

The “uncommitted” campaign is one way that the Democrats are trying to bring these voters back. Another way is by shifting how they talk about the conflict. Over the past few weeks, the Democratic Party leaders have begun expressing their opposition to elements of the war. Kamala Harris, for example, called for a “cease-fire for the next six weeks”; in the State of the Union, Biden said he was trying to get a cease-fire; and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gave a speech denouncing the Netanyahu government.

All these moves are rhetorical concessions to the movement, made in an attempt to bring voters who oppose the genocide back into the party. They are, moreover, an attempt to co-opt the demand for a cease-fire and frame the “problem” as Netanyahu rather than the broader policy of Israeli colonization and occupation. The Democrats might now be saying “cease-fire,” but they have no interest in protecting Palestinians. Their calls for a cease-fire don’t even include a demand to withdraw Israeli troops from Gaza. Essentially, the Democrats are trying to transform the assault into an escalated and extended occupation of Palestinian territory. This might be an effective rhetorical shift, but it doesn’t offer justice for the Palestinians who have been brutalized by Israel since 1948 and were under the boot of imperialism before that.

The shift, however, comes at a price. By positioning themselves as being opposed (in an extremely limited way) to Netanyahu, Biden and the Democrats have put themselves in a position in which Netanyahu can (and seemingly will) openly defy the administration’s wishes and invade Rafah, despite its warnings not to. This makes the U.S. and Biden look weak on the international stage, as if they can’t even control one of their main allies. In the ongoing war on Gaza, there is no easy way out for Biden, and his attempts to cool his rhetoric at home are exposing his weaknesses abroad.

Our Tasks

In this context, the Right is a real concern, but the Democrats can’t be trusted to defend us. Biden is even calling on Trump to help make immigration policy, so clearly lesser evilism is a fallacy. There is a reason both candidates are hugely unpopular: people realize that neither is offering real solutions.

If we are to defeat the insurgent Right then we will need to organize ourselves to take up the fight. This means building our movements and seeking to massify them, but it also means building democratic forms of self-organization so these movements can decide on the way forward collectively. 

Self-organization of the working class and oppressed is a vital tool for fighting the advance of the Right, defending our rights, and opposing the capitalist system more broadly. Without self-organization — like workplace assemblies where workers can openly discuss and vote resolutions — we are unarmed in the face of the well-organized capitalist parties. To resist co-optation and to defeat the Right, we need to organize ourselves and break the cycle that has led us to this moment.

But we need to go further than just resisting. We need to organize ourselves into a fighting force that can go further and actually pose the question of power. We deserve better than the endless stream of attacks and exploitation that capitalism offers. To defeat the bi-partisan regime and overthrow capitalism, we will need a party of our own that unifies the different struggles and is able to define the strategy needed to overthrow the capitalist state. 

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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