A potential default on the national debt and a surge of migrants following the end of a border-control policy known as Title 42 have presented President Biden with two difficult challenges at a crucial moment in his presidency.
Having launched his reelection bid last month, Biden will seek to convince Americans, as he successfully did in 2020, that he has the experience to manage the country through domestic and international tumult. His administration oversaw the end of the pandemic in 2021. Last year was marked by invasion (in Ukraine) and inflation (in the U.S.). Both of those concerns have receded, too, at least for most Americans.
But the president’s promise of competent leadership is now being tested as strenuously as at any point during his time in the White House.
The year of inflation and invasion
Last year began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and attendant fears that the crisis could spiral into a broader European conflict, perhaps even a nuclear confrontation.
The war in Eastern Europe continues, but the international coalition in defense of Ukraine that Biden leads has consistently sapped Russia’s military strength, making an outright Kremlin victory highly unlikely in the near future.
And back home, there was another threat to tame: a historic inflation spike that, by June, had reached record levels, depressing the daily purchasing power of Americans’ salaries. But the inflation rate has been steadily declining.
Biden cannot credibly claim full credit for solving either challenge, but he has argued that presidential leadership requires steady resolve, and he will almost certainly repeat that point on the campaign trail. He will surely contrast that with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s freewheeling approach to governing.
The year of borders and limits
The debt limit standoff and the border crisis precipitated by the expiration of Title 42 are both questions of limits — and of who is willing to cross them. Both challenges were also long coming, raising questions about whether the administration was adequately prepared for either development.
Unless Republicans in the House agree to raise the debt ceiling, the United States will default on its debt for the first time in its history, with potentially devastating economic consequences.
“If we default on our debt, the whole world is in trouble,” the president said earlier this week.
Having managed the economy through the back end of the coronavirus pandemic and the disruptions caused by the war in Russia, Biden now faces a familiar yet intractable foe: the Republican Party.
Biden is currently in the midst of negotiations with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, but their talks have yielded no real progress so far. With only two weeks left until June 1, the projected date for when the government will no longer be able to borrow, the two men have precious little time to strike a deal.
Republicans want caps on future government spending as a condition to avoid economic disaster; their proposal would eviscerate Biden’s signature policy commitments, such as the Inflation Reduction Act. But even if McCarthy were to extract painful spending concessions from Biden, default would remain an all-too-real possibility, because the Republican conference in the House includes hard-liners who have opposed McCarthy’s leadership from the start. They may ultimately listen to Trump, who welcomed a default in a CNN town hall earlier this week.
“Democrats know McCarthy is not a negotiating partner who can deliver the votes for a deal, hostage as he is to the radicals in his caucus,” columnist Jackie Calmes recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
Then there is the expiration of Title 42, which is not only an enormous logistical challenge but a potential political disaster, given how incendiary the debate over immigration has become. Images on cable news of migrants surging across the southern border could damage the image of calm expertise that Biden spent the last two years so meticulously cultivating.
“People hate when things are out of control. No matter who is the president, when things are out of control, the president tends to lose,” the Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told NBC News.
During the COVID pandemic, migrants who were apprehended attempting to cross into the United States could be swiftly expelled under a public health provision known as Title 42. But the public health emergency ended earlier this week, meaning that border policy will be guided by Title 8, which still allows for expulsions but lacks the expediting provisions of Title 42.
An estimated 660,000 migrants are currently in Mexico, moving north, with “tens of thousands” reportedly at the border. Biden has said that the border could be “chaotic for a while,” but as the strain of the migrant influx spreads across the country, the calls for a solution are likely to grow ever louder.
To some of the president’s opponents, that solution is the wall that Trump promised and never fully built. Or, failing that, some other articulation of don’t-come-here toughness.
Some Democrats have tried to adapt that message, but it comes far more naturally to Trump and his allies. “On the issue of immigration, Trump and his Republican cohorts are winning,” writes Arizona Republic columnist Phil Boas.
The politics of it all
“We want Congress to act,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Friday. “We want Congress to take action.”
Jean-Pierre was referring to the immigration impasse, but she could have just as easily been speaking about the debt limit—or, for that matter, gun control, environmental regulation or any number of unresolved, pressing matters.
To be sure, Republicans deeply disagree with Biden on these issues, but their opposition seems just as rooted in political consideration as in ideological differences. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell once said he wanted to make Biden’s one-time boss Barack Obama a one-term president, and while the GOP failed on that order in 2012, they believe they have an opportunity to make good in 2024, especially if headlines like “Biden is stuck in a no-win political mess after ending Title 42” and “Debt ceiling talks kick off with little signs of progress” persist.
When it comes to both the debt limit and the border, Republicans may find that being stubborn may redound to their benefit — at a considerable human cost.