In mid-March, the Biden administration formally approved the Willow oil drilling project on federally owned landed in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. The ConocoPhillips-led effort is a massive operation, with the potential to produce 600 million barrels of crude over 30 years and release an additional 9.2 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually. It is also a major campaign promise betrayal, one that came as a surprise: “No more drilling on federal lands,” Joe Biden said in 2020. “Period. Period. Period. Period.”
In fact, the Biden administration has recently been doing quite a few things seemingly out of character with the first two years of his presidency. That change is especially confounding given that his embrace of a series of progressive policies in his first half-term preceded a historic overperformance in November’s midterm elections. Despite his reputation as a centrist, Biden has pursued an agenda—from climate to labor to judicial appointments—well to the left of his reputedly progressive Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. But now Biden seems to be tacking to the right, embracing policies that look much more like those championed by the 44th president.*
Perhaps that’s no surprise: These Obama-style policies have coincided with a major change atop the White House hierarchy of personnel. In late January, progressive ally Ron Klain announced he’d be stepping down as chief of staff; he was replaced by former corporate consultant and Obama apparatchik Jeffrey Zients. Zients has also brought Obama alums Anita Dunn and Steve Ricchetti—both effectively former lobbyists who have been criticized for evading the ethics constraints put on lobbyists—into greater decision-making positions.
From the moment Zients has arrived, the administration has either reversed course or leaned further into conservative policies. On Arctic drilling, immigration, and more, the White House has staked out new positions fiercely at odds with activist groups and with many members of the Democratic caucus. Those same policies, though, would have been very much at home in the Obama administration, which expanded Arctic drilling and pursued punitive action on immigration.
The Willow debacle was not the only time national Democrats used the word betrayal to describe the Biden team’s recent dealings. The repeal of D.C.’s criminal code revision was the first such incident, one that still has many Democratic groups stewing.
According to Politico, Zients was at the center of that saga. In the first days of Zients’ tenure, most House Democrats came out against a Republican-led effort to repeal D.C.’s rewrite. The administration appeared to support the District’s democratically decided changes at first too, even releasing a statement that said as much.
But weeks later, with Zients settled in, Biden did an about-face, pledging to sign the GOP’s repeal. Biden “made no mention of his newfound support for the bill during a private meeting with House Democrats only the day before, nor had any White House officials offered preemptive warnings,” Politico reported. That responsibility would have fallen to Zients and his team, but when congressional Democrats pressed the White House for information, they got nothing. House Dems, predictably, seethed. Politico, citing unnamed Biden aides, claims that “Zients has since ordered changes to the communication process.”
That pattern played out another time this month, when Democrats were shocked to discover that the Biden administration was considering reimplementing a plan that critics have described as “de facto family separation” at the border to deter immigration, and similarly got little guidance from Zients’ office as to what was going on with the hard-right swing in policy.
The Politico piece, at pains to show diplomacy, finds Zients’ work most worthy of complimenting in the government’s recent bank bailout—another policy that could have been written in the Obama administration. The “sprint to stabilize the banking sector following Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse offered a clear example of the management skills that catapulted Zients into the highest ranks of government,” Zients allies told reporters.
But the Biden administration has taken heat for that decision as well, given the politically toxic nature of bailing out banks and their super-rich depositors; its solution has been to avoid using the word bailout altogether.
Progressives have been hesitant to criticize a White House that has, in its first two years, established a closer working relationship with them than at any point under Obama. But it’s unclear how long this will last with Zients at the helm. The Obama White House, especially under chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, maintained a bitter, often antagonistic relationship toward activist groups, and often froze progressives out of crucial decision-making. The lack of communication between Zients and the party’s left has an eerie familiarity.
Is this all a canny show of political triangulation for 2024? That would be hard to believe. The election remains more than 18 months away. And just a few months ago, Biden actually tacked left, announcing student-loan debt cancellation and signing a massive climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, in the run-up to Election Day 2022, all to great effect. If anything, he would be unlearning the lessons of his own political success.
And there’s little reason to believe that the new posture is working. A new poll by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed the president now sitting on a 38 percent approval rating, down considerably from the 45 percent mark in February and 41 percent in January. The president is nearing an all-time low mark of 36 percent.
There are plenty of good reasons to quibble with approval polls. But the numbers show support for Biden sagging in particular with Republicans, all the way down to 4 percent. In any case, the president’s willingness to team up with Republicans on crime, immigration, and drilling has endeared him to them not one bit. It’s another reason Biden should be skeptical of copying his erstwhile running mate’s outreach efforts to his right: Recall that Democrats lost seats at a historic clip during Obama’s presidency.
Despite some fits and starts, Biden has charted a different path for the Democratic Party, welcoming the party’s activists and establishing some working comity between the moderate and progressive flanks. But that balance is being threatened by a haunting of Obama-era officials and impulses that seem to be rising from the dead. Thus far, they’re only making Democrats’ lives more difficult.
Correction, March 27, 2023: This piece originally misstated that Barack Obama was the 43rd president of the U.S. He was the 44th.
Update, March 27, 2023: This article has been updated to clarify that a migrant detention policy being considered by the Biden administration is being described by critics as “de facto family separation” but is not the same as the Trump-era family separation policy.