Biden Moves to Recapture the Centrist Identity That Has Long Defined Him

WASHINGTON — In his announcement video kicking off his presidential campaign in the spring of 2019, Joseph R. Biden Jr. never mentioned the word “deficit.” Nor did the word escape his lips when he accepted the Democratic Party nomination a year later. Nor did it appear once in the party platform he approved.

But as he unveiled a budget proposal on Thursday, Mr. Biden made curbing the budget gap one of his centerpiece promises. The budget plan, the White House said in a statement, would strengthen the country by “reducing the deficit by nearly $3 trillion over the next decade.”

The newfound attention to the nation’s fiscal health comes as Mr. Biden for the first time faces a Republican-controlled House bent on forcing him to pare spending, and shortly before he is expected to announce a campaign for a second term. After two years championing some of his party’s top progressive priorities, the president lately is speaking more to the concerns of the political middle, seeking to recapture the more centrist identity that long defined him.

Not only is he increasingly focused on deficit reduction, Mr. Biden last week abandoned fellow Democrats by rejecting a new District of Columbia measure reducing mandatory minimum sentences for some violent offenses, rather than be tagged as soft on crime. And more and more, his administration is turning toward tougher policies to stem a near-record-high tide of illegal immigration, including possibly reviving the practice of detaining migrant families who cross the southwestern border illegally.

“It’s a good day to be a moderate Democrat,” said Matt Bennett, head of Third Way, a centrist Democratic advocacy group. “We’re back, better than ever.” The White House, he said, understands the need to avoid allowing Republicans to outflank Democrats. “They get the necessity of keeping the high ground on culture war issues like crime and immigration.”

That does not mean Mr. Biden has suddenly found common cause with Republicans by any means. After signing legislation adding nearly $5 trillion to the deficit in the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Mr. Biden proposed erasing some of that red ink by raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, not through deep cuts in spending.

Moreover, in a speech in Philadelphia mapping out his budget plan, Mr. Biden focused on liberal goals like restoring a poverty-reducing child tax credit, shoring up the long-term solvency of Medicare and providing paid family and medical leave for all workers.

And Republicans were hardly willing to accept that Mr. Biden was moving to the center. Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his House leadership denounced the budget plan for “doubling down on the same far-left spending policies that have led to record inflation and our current debt crisis.” Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, said, “Biden’s reckless budget proves how out of touch his administration is with reality.”

Not that Republicans showed much interest in controlling the deficit while President Donald J. Trump signed laws adding nearly $7 trillion to the debt in his four-year term. But their ascendance in the House, and Democratic concerns about ceding swing voters next year, have shifted the debate in Washington and Mr. Biden appears intent on owning the center as much as he can.

President Biden shifted around the political spectrum over the years to wherever he found his party’s center of gravity at the moment. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Biden was never a favorite of the progressive left during his 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president, but he shifted around the political spectrum over the years to wherever he found his party’s center of gravity at the moment. He was a vocal champion of tough-on-crime legislation in the 1990s and a leader of the get-out-of-Iraq-and-Afghanistan camp in the 2000s.

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During the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, he overcame liberal rivals like Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and positioned himself as a sensible centrist in the fall campaign when he defeated Mr. Trump. After taking office, however, he adopted some of the more expansive policy goals of the progressive wing. He cast himself as a new-generation Franklin D. Roosevelt pressing for a modern-day New Deal, with large-scale spending on climate change, social welfare programs and student debt relief that will add trillions of dollars to the national debt in years to come.

But Democrats have grown increasingly wary of hot-button issues like crime and immigration even before Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago lost re-election last week amid a voter backlash to homicides, carjackings and shoplifting. Crime ranks second among issues cited by voters as their top concern behind the economy in the latest Reuters-Ipsos poll, and immigration is fourth.

In his speech on Thursday, the president boasted about “the Biden crime bill” from the 1990s, from which he had sought to distance himself not that long ago because of criticism that it led to mass incarceration of Black Americans.

And he tried to turn the issue around on Republicans by accusing them of wanting to “defund the F.B.I.” following Mr. Trump’s jeremiads against the agency for executing a search warrant on his Florida home to retrieve classified documents he was not entitled to keep. As he has consistently, Mr. Biden rejected liberal calls to defund the police. “I don’t want to defund them,” Mr. Biden said. “They need more help.”

Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey and one of the leaders of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said that for Democrats the lesson of last fall’s midterm elections, when Republicans only narrowly took the House as their anticipated “red wave” failed to materialize, was to occupy the mainstream.

“The country wants common sense; they don’t want extremism and I think the president gets that,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “And the country wants fiscal responsibility and the president, in taking on the deficit, understands that.”

Some on the left end of his party rejected the idea that these goals were in conflict. Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington state and chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said worthy policy goals can be pursued in fiscally responsible ways.

“If a progressive policy happens to lower the budget, we think that is a fine thing,” she said. “But we do believe in lowering drug prices and raising taxes on the wealthy as good ends unto themselves because they further equality and help people afford their lives — and we know that the president believes that too because these things have been part of his Build Back Better and tax reform agenda for the past two years.”

But some Democrats have been watching Mr. Biden’s actions lately with trepidation. His decision to reverse himself and agree to sign Republican-led legislation overturning a new law passed by the City Council in Washington reducing penalties for carjackings and other crimes angered Democrats who voted against the bill in the House. At the very least, they argued, he should have let them know he would take that position before they took what could be a politically damaging vote.

Some liberals were similarly disheartened by the news that the Department of Homeland Security might reinstate family detention at the border, seeing that as a betrayal of the president’s vow to enact more humane immigration policies out of what they consider political expediency. Officials are exploring what would need to be done to restart temporary family detention by May 11, although no final decision has been made.

The budget plan released on Thursday, of course, will never be enacted as written with Republicans in charge of the House. Instead, it is only a starting point in negotiations with Republicans and a “messaging document,” in Washington parlance, to showcase what the president wants the public to see as his priorities.

White House officials argued that Mr. McCarthy’s Republicans have talked a lot about cutting the deficit but have yet to produce a plan for how they would do it without raising taxes or cutting Social Security, Medicare or military spending, as they have vowed.

The White House eagerly distributed poll findings indicating that various individual policies embraced by Mr. Biden have strong public support while asserting that Republicans would actually add to the deficit with their plans to cut taxes and rescind legislation that included health care savings passed last year.

“That’s what we’re going to talk about over the coming months,” said Shalanda Young, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. “And we’re happy to have that debate.”