From the Center

In the days after Joe Biden officially announced his candidacy for re-election, he made two notable decisions with the potential to profoundly affect his prospects for 2024. First, he named Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the granddaughter of the late organized labor icon Cesar Chavez, as his campaign manager. A few days later, his Defense Department confirmed that the military was deploying 1500 active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The one that is remembered longer may determine the outcome of next year’s election.

Rodriguez was the deputy campaign manager for Biden’s 2020 campaign and has served since as the Director of the White House Department of Intergovernmental Affairs. She is a respected and skilled political operative who would have been a smart choice to run this campaign regardless of her gender, ethnicity or family lineage. But naming a Latina, especially one who began attending rallies and protests with her grandfather while still in elementary school, sends a powerful message to a key voter constituency with which Biden has struggled in the past.

Four years ago, Bernie Sanders outworked Biden’s campaign for Latino support in the Democratic primary and Donald Trump made significant gains among Latino and Latina voters in the general election. Many community leaders felt that the Biden team did not devote sufficient time and attention to their priorities: naming Rodriguez is an important step toward addressing those concerns.

But policy outweighs personnel. While immigration is not the most important issue to most Latino voters, it carries a tremendous amount of symbolic and real-world importance for a community that is arguably most greatly impacted by changes in U.S. border and naturalization policy. As the Biden Administration prepares to lift pandemic-era emergency health asylum restrictions this week, media accounts describe a situation in which thousands of migrants are gathering just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Title 42 mandate required that those seeking asylum would be automatically sent back across the border for Covid-related health reasons. But Title 42 will be lifted this Thursday evening, and immigration officials are braced for a massive influx of undocumented individuals and families.

The Biden Administration has made it clear that the troops will not be directly involved in intercepting the migrants, but rather assisting border personnel in their administrative functions. But photos and video of 1500 armed soldiers at the border is not going to help with the Latino voters who Biden badly needs to turn out in large numbers next year.

This past weekend’s Washington Post-ABC News poll illustrates how much Biden must rely on support from non-white voters. The president is running six points behind Trump in a head-to-head matchup and while he maintains advantages with Black and Latino voters, the numbers also reveal a substantial lack of enthusiasm for Biden from these key constituencies. Latino voters prefer Biden by only a nine-point margin over Trump, and when respondents were asked which of the two most recent presidents did a better job of handling the economy, Latinos picked Trump over Biden by a margin of 55-36 percent.

While issues such as health care, abortion and the pandemic are also very important to these voters, it won’t be surprising if further polling demonstrates that his lead in the Latino community depends heavily on immigration-related issues. Again, troops at the border aren’t likely to increase that support, either in persuading undecided Latinos or motivating those whose support for Biden is relatively tepid.

But Biden can’t afford to look weak on these issues either. Not only are Congressional Republicans planning to introduce an aggressive border security bill on Thursday – the same day that the Title 42 restrictions are lifted – but growing numbers of moderate Democrats are criticizing the Administration for its lack of preparation for the likely influx of migrant crossings. Democrat-turned-Independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and her Republican colleague Thom Tillis of North Carolina are proposing a two-year extension of the Covid border restrictions. And the GOP is also threatening to begin impeachment hearings against Biden’s Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.

The immigration debate is about to get much louder and uglier – and it is going to get much worse for Biden before it gets better. The president and his re-election campaign will be forced to choose between disillusioning Latino voters and driving away centrists. His best bet is to change the subject to issues that work to his benefit, but that’s not going to happen this week.

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Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center Bias).