As the president readies a reelection bid, his every word is being scoured for progressive purity – and a dispute over local government in the nation’s capital is threatening to draw him in.
On Monday afternoon, President Joe Biden was buttressing his labor union credentials, emotionally accepting the heavy praise of the firefighters union.
“You get us. You get us,” International Association of Firefighters General Manager Edward Kelly told Biden after the president addressed the IAFF’s legislative conference – the first time in 25 years a sitting president has addressed the conference. “You have clearly established yourself as the greatest president firefighters have ever had.”
Hours later, the White House was defending Biden’s vow to refrain from vetoing a Senate resolution that undermines home rule for the District of Columbia, a move that irritates liberals.
As Biden prepares for an anticipated campaign for reelection, his every speech, statement or view on even a local legislative action is scoured for progressive purity.
Is the candidate who was not the first choice of the left wing of the party acceptably liberal enough for the party base? And if he appeases that segment of his party too much, will he alienate middle-of-the-roaders he’ll need to win a general election?
Those questions are dogging Biden, who spent Sunday defending voting rights in a speech in Selma, Alabama, to mark the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a historic civil rights protest, and Monday tying himself tightly to organized labor.
But meanwhile, he has aggravated liberals on a measure that may not have any practical meaning anyway.
It started last year, when the D.C. Council passed a measure remaking the city’s criminal code, which had not been comprehensively changed since 1901. The measure lowered penalties for such crimes as carjacking. Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed it, and the council overrode her veto.
The House of Representatives then voted – with 31 Democrats on board – to disapprove of the District’s criminal code overhaul. That matters because Congress must, at least passively, approve legislation for the District of Columbia since it is a federal enclave without full voting representation in Congress.
The Biden administration put out a statement disapproving of the disapproval resolution – then later flipped and said Biden would not veto the measure if it got to his desk.
The Senate may take up the measure as soon as Wednesday – even though D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson attempted to withdraw the legislation before a Senate vote could occur.
The battle between local and national lawmakers in the nation’s capital doesn’t have much practical impact on voters outside D.C. But the messaging is potent for a president seeking to walk the line between progressivism and pragmatism.
Biden backs efforts to make the District of Columbia a state, a progressive cause, and blocking the District’s legislative moves – whether or not he approves of the specific legislation – also undermines the autonomy of local D.C. government.
But Biden must also be cognizant of public worries about crime, an issue that contributed heavily to the loss of Democratic Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot loss last week in her bid for reelection. Vetoing the congressional resolution disapproving of the District’s revised criminal code would surely end up in campaign ads accusing Biden of being soft on crime.
Sen. Bill Hagerty, Tennessee Republican sponsoring the Senate resolution, wants a vote despite Mendelson’s efforts to take the matter off the table.
“This desperate, made-up maneuver not only has no basis in the DC Home Rule Act, but underscores the completely unserious way the DC Council has legislated. No matter how hard they try, the Council cannot avoid accountability for passing this disastrous, dangerous DC soft-on-crime bill that will make residents and visitors less safe,” Hagerty said in a statement.
At least five Democratic senators – including Montana’s Jon Tester, who faces a tough reelection campaign next year – have signaled they will vote for the resolution. That gives Biden some cover but may not smooth things over with a progressive wing that has already battled with Biden before.
In 2021, progressive House Democrats held up the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act for a while in an unsuccessful attempt to make another sweeping spending bill, the Build Back Better Act, bigger and more comprehensive.
As Biden’s promised reelection campaign announcement nears, progressives are standing by him. Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairperson Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who backed democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for president in 2020, has since called herself a Biden “convert,” saying he should run for reelection.
“I promise you: You have my back, and I’ll have yours,” Biden said to the firefighters union. He’ll need it – along with the votes of crime-weary voters – in his reelection effort.