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Why Biden needs to be a centrist, for a while

As he campaigns for reelection, President Biden is telling voters he’s a “president for all Americans.” If red states benefit more than blue states from legislation he’s signed, that’s fine with him.

Biden supporters, meanwhile, are praising him as a centrist who can easily win crucial swing voters in 2024, just as he did in 2020. The center-left think tank Third Way recently proclaimed that Biden is “the most successful moderate President of the modern era.” Among his supposed accomplishments: a manufacturing renaissance, a rejection of “Medicare for all,” 70 record stock market closes, and 10.5 million new-business starts. Biden sounds downright Reaganesque.

He’s not, of course, and the shape-shifting reflects fresh concerns about Biden’s appeal to the near-majority of voters who consider themselves Independents, with built-in loyalty to neither political party. Biden did well enough among middle-of-the-road swing voters in 2020 to win a decisive electoral college victory over Republican Donald Trump. But it was a lot closer than many people remember.

Biden won three states — Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona — by less than one percentage point, and those states gave Biden the electoral votes he needed to win. Had those states gone to Trump instead, the 2020 election would have been a nightmarish 269-269 tie. Less than 1% of voters in three states swung the 2020 election to Biden.

Small blocs of swing voters could be just as important in 2024. Plus, there’s a new X factor: plans by the third-party group No Labels to field its own ticket if the Democratic and Republican candidates turn out to be unappetizing.

No Labels, led by former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman and the former Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, emphasizes pragmatic bipartisanship and anti-extremism in politics. It says it will field a “unity ticket” for the 2024 presidential nomination if one of the two major parties fails to muster a candidate that represents the “commonsense majority.”

President Joe Biden gives a thumbs up as he walks with first lady Jill Biden to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 14, 2023, as they head to Camp David for the weekend.
For the foreseeable future, Biden will be a self-described moderate with crossover appeal to centrists in both parties. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The group hasn’t said whether Biden and Trump are acceptable candidates. Voters don’t want a Biden-Trump rematch, but that doesn’t mean Biden and Trump are equally objectionable. Biden is unpopular, yet he has scored several major legislative successes, led the Western coalition supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia, presided over a relatively healthy economy, and run a stable administration with little scandal. Trump, by contrast, went down in disgrace after the Jan. 6 riots at the US Capitol, and he’s likely to be facing indictments in four separate criminal cases by the end of the summer.

Democrats worry that if Trump becomes the GOP nominee, No Labels will have the pretext it’s looking for to field a ticket. There’s no way the party could win the White House without the backing of a formal party apparatus. But it could siphon crucial centrist votes from Biden, the way Ralph Nader’s independent bid in 2000 may have cost Al Gore some vital votes. “Many on the left are apoplectic that the group could wind up costing President Biden the election,” Beacon Policy Advisors wrote in a recent analysis.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the moderate Democrat who vexes the party’s liberal wing, appeared at a No Labels event in the early-voting state of New Hampshire on July 17. There’s speculation Manchin might want to be the No Labels nominee, though he said he’d only consider it if he saw a way of winning, and there isn’t a way of winning. So Manchin might be toying with Biden, rather than seriously considering a third-party presidential run.

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The Biden team, however, wants to completely preempt a third-party run and make sure there’s no bipartisan ticket for voters to contemplate as an alternative to Biden-Harris. So for the foreseeable future, Biden will be a self-described moderate with crossover appeal to centrists in both parties.

It’s not totally farfetched. Biden championed and signed the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed with a meaningful degree of Republican support. Some Republicans supported the 2022 CHIPS Act, as well. And there’s independent research showing Republican-leaning states and districts are benefiting more from legislation Biden has signed than Democratic ones, as Biden has acknowledged.

Biden has also pushed for more liberal policies he hasn’t been able to get. The Supreme Court struck down his huge effort at student debt forgiveness, forcing Biden to adopt a Plan B that’s far less ambitious. Biden wanted Congress to raise taxes on businesses and the wealthy and roll out a bevy of social programs, but the votes weren’t there. Congress has essentially prevented Biden from being more liberal.

It’s also true that the traditional concepts of liberal, conservative, and centrist politics are shifting, with Biden himself powering some of the change. Biden signed into law massive tax credits to subsidize new investments in certain sectors of the economy, a form of “corporate welfare” Republicans often stand accused of. Yet Biden is doing it to speed the transition from carbon energy to renewables, a liberal priority.

Republicans, meanwhile, attack businesses for being too “woke” and liberal on social issues, sometimes trying to strong-arm firms into adopting more conservative policies. That’s government intrusion. Biden is laissez-faire by comparison. Republicans also attack the FBI and other law enforcement agencies for investigating or prosecuting Trump and other conservatives, despite clear evidence of wrongdoing. That has left Democrats standing as the law-and-order party, by default. If the fog of politics leaves some voters thinking Biden is the man in the middle, he probably won’t complain.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman

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