Joe Biden’s honeymoon as president of the United States barely outlasted his inauguration. While the inaugural speech was widely praised for its message of unity, decency and healing and its appearance of normality, some of his very first actions in office have drawn accusations of inflaming the culture wars — not from hard-core supporters of Donald Trump or other far-right commentators, but from centrists who strongly supported Biden during the campaign.
Last Friday, veteran pundit Andrew Sullivan published a blistering assessment of Biden’s first initiatives in his Weekly Dish newsletter. While he praises Biden’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and steps to expand health care access, he is highly critical of his moves on immigration, racial issues, and LGBT rights — actions that he believes are misguided and polarizing.
Sullivan warns that Biden’s shift to the left on immigration — a proposal for amnesty for all illegal immigrants and a moratorium on deportations, with no steps to strengthen border enforcement — is likely to result in a new surge in illegal border crossings and spark a backlash that empowers the far right. He also believes that Biden’s executive order on "advancing racial equity" is a call for reverse discrimination, since "equity" (rather than "equality") is a term often used by activists to denote equality of outcomes.
Biden’s executive order targeting discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, issued on his first day in office, has also been sharply criticized by Sullivan — one of the foremost advocates for same-sex marriage since the 1990s — and other commentators. The order appears to say that transgender individuals, including those who have undergone no medical reassignment, should have full access to single-sex spaces and team sports in accordance with their gender identity. Many argue this will place female athletes in high school and college at a severe disadvantage. (For a while, the hashtag #BidenErasesWomen trended on Twitter.)
More broadly, Biden’s critics — including ones who, like Sullivan, stress that they want him to succeed — believe that his recent words and actions belie the moderate persona that propelled him to victory. It’s not that they think the 78-year-old career politician, a lifelong moderate, has turned out to be a radical in disguise; rather, they believe he is pandering to the Democratic Party’s progressive base, at least on social issues. Such a stance, they warn, will be the death knell of the unity and healing Biden has promised to seek.
While I share some of those concerns, I think it’s too early to give up on Biden’s promise. On immigration, measures that would allow most illegal immigrants to stay legally in the United States are broadly popular (according to a Pew poll last June, such policies are supported by three-quarters of all adults, including 57% of Republicans). The deportation moratorium — already halted by a federal judge in Texas — is meant to be a 100-day pause to allow a review of Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations and does not apply to dangerous felons.
On racial equity, Biden promises action to identify and combat systemic bias in government policies. Such a goal seems consistent with old-fashioned liberalism. But how it will be implemented certainly bears watching: the assumption that all disparities prove bias can lead to heavy-handed interventions and, yes, reverse discrimination.
The order on transgender rights, while mostly focused on the laudable goal of nondiscrimination, does have high potential to backfire. A full conversation on areas in which gender identity protections may clash with equal opportunity for women and girls is essential.
The progressive base certainly exerts a strong pull. Now, centrists should make sure Biden hears their voices.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.