AP Photo/Evan Vucci

From the Center

For those of us who are less than enthused about the prospect of an eight-month general election campaign between the two oldest and two least popular presidential candidates in American history, last week gave us a glimpse of what we’re in for. The economy gave off mixed signals, Joe Biden and Donald Trump traded shots on the non-economic issues that will define the election … and the nation sighed.

The parameters of the fall campaign have begun to crystallize at an unusually early time on the calendar. This became especially clear last Thursday, when both Biden and Trump traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border and held dueling events just a few hundred miles away from each other. Trump attacked Biden for presiding over an explosive increase in the number of undocumented immigrants now traveling into the country, which is true. Biden assailed Trump for undermining bipartisan efforts to address the border crisis, which is true. Neither man offered much hope that the growing problem would be effectively addressed anytime soon… and the nation sighed.

Trump enjoys a clear advantage on this issue. By large numbers, voters see him as being more likely to successfully confront border-related issues than Biden: the former president is clearly interested in continuing to maximize that advantage all the way to Election Day. Biden recognizes that Americans have turned decidedly toward the type of restrictionist policies that Republicans have historically championed, and he has been scrambling to reassure voters that he is equally committed to securing the border. The debate was framed in the context of these two dueling events last week, and while no new substantive ground was broken in either, it did highlight the degree to which border and immigration policy will dominate the fall campaign.

Public opinion polls are already showing immigration as the issue of greatest concern to voters for the first time in many years. Biden and many other Democrats have been working hard to address those concerns, by supporting a bipartisan foreign aid bill that includes not only large amounts of additional border security spending but additional barriers for entry to asylum-seekers. When congressional Republicans rejected the proposal at Trump’s urging, Biden doubled down on the issue, first harshly criticizing his predecessor as an obstacle to necessary progress and in his Thursday remarks, challenging Trump to work together to secure the border.

Unsurprisingly, Trump did not bite on Biden’s offer. The likelihood of bipartisan compromise is exceedingly small in an election year, even less likely when it requires the cooperation of two candidates running against each other, and less likely still when one of those candidates is Trump. By the weekend, Trump had raised the rhetorical stakes, accusing Biden of undermining democracy through his inability to stem the migrant flow that Trump argues has compromised the safety of Americans.

If the language is already this heightened in early March, it’s reasonable to assume that the debate will become even angrier and even more divisive as November draws closer. Trump’s characteristically aggressive approach leaves little opportunity for Biden to get off the defensive, a challenge for the current president that will be even more difficult given the number of progressive Democrats who are already angry at how much ground Biden has ceded on this issue.

The president will deliver his State of the Union speech later this week, in which he is widely expected to promise several executive orders designed to discourage undocumented immigrants from continuing to flood the border. No matter how stringent his proposals, they will not be sufficient to placate Trump and the Republicans. No matter how delicate they are, it will further inflame his party’s base. These are the voters who Biden needs to win back – young people, Black and Latino voters, and single women. They are upset with him about what they see as unacceptably slow progress on climate change, abortion rights, police reform, voting protections and most of all, the war in Gaza. They are not going to feel any better about him after hearing his plan for securing the border in a more measured way than Trump.

Biden will not win the immigration debate: his best hope is to avoid losing it by overly large margins. So he will continue to talk tough on the border, and hope he can convince disillusioned Democrats to look past their concerns to avoid a second Trump presidency. That’s why abortion will be a key aspect of the State of the Union too, and of the campaign going forward.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

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).

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci