A fiery speech in Philadelphia that called far-right Republicans a threat to democracy. A $400 billion executive action canceling student loan debt for tens of millions of Americans. A mass pardon of thousands of people convicted under federal marijuana laws and a potential end to prohibition.
After decades of campaigning, legislating and governing as a moderate, President Joe Biden is now signaling that in the final weeks before the midterm elections, it’s all about the base.
Thursday’s executive order on cannabis possession—which also included a directive for the drug to be rescheduled, allowing federal authorities to expand access for medical and scientific use—was the latest in a series of “promises made, promises kept” actions on issues of major importance to Democratic voters, whose enthusiasm has flagged ahead of what are expected to be challenging midterms.
For a president who has been criticized for being too beholden to the most conservative members of his party, his recent pivot to issues that are enormously popular with younger and more left-leaning Democrats has the potential to be a major animator in the final weeks before November. Historically, the party of reigning power in the White Houses suffers from waning enthusiasm in midterm elections.
“The fact that Biden is doing so many things that Democrats do like is a way to counter that,” said Marcella Mulholland, political director of the left-leaning polling firm Data for Progress.
Biden’s pivot to the base has resulted in a major upswing in approval from Democrats in recent months. In July, as high gas prices and inflation brought him to the lowest ratings among fellow Democrats of his presidency, Biden’s job approval has grown by nearly ten percent, according to Gallup. The rise has coincided with the accomplishment of multiple major priorities, including passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in August and the death of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the same month.
But Biden’s increasing willingness to push issues of major importance to Democratic voters has also been a factor, one longtime advisor told The Daily Beast.
“Many of these actions aren’t just popular with Democrats or liberals. Marijuana legalization—not just decriminalization, but legalization—is stupendously popular across nearly every demographic, particularly young people who are hard to turn out.”
“It’s a no-brainer, or it should be,” they added.
Surveys demonstrate that the argument is solid. Even in an increasingly polarized political climate, pardons for nonviolent drug offenses are stupendously popular. According to a poll conducted in March by Data for Progress, voters approve of such pardons by a 45-point margin. Among Democrats, the margin grows to more than 70 percent.
“I was so hype to see the announcement come out,” said Mulholland. “I think this is in-line with where the Democratic base has been moving.”
Jim Kessler, executive vice president at the moderate-Democratic think tank Third Way, said he too expects the marijuana play could boost enthusiasm among younger voters, though he noted there are plenty of older stoners out there to be appeased, too.
“There is a middle-aged independent male voter who [is] using recreational marijuana… this industry is not banking on 20 year olds,” Kessler said.
Biden’s rhetoric, too, has grown more enthusiastically partisan. In September, the president traveled to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to deliver a primetime address to the nation, but the tone was not one of “brotherly love.”
Instead, flanked by Marine guards and backlit with ominously crimson uplighting, he painted the Republican Party as in thrall to former President Donald Trump’s politics of grievance and vengeance. The remarks, which outraged Republicans and sparked an increase in the use of the phrase “civil war” on social media, described Trump and his acolytes as representing “an extremism that threatens our very republic.”
Democrats, many of whom had grown frustrated with Biden’s, long-standing politics of conciliation and compromise, were largely pleased with the speech, which they viewed as an overdue rebuke of an increasingly extreme Republican Party.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, have accused Biden of using issues like canceling student loan debt and marijuana pardons as a distraction from kitchen-table issues like high energy prices and a sinking stock market.
“In the midst of a crime wave and on the brink of a recession, Joe Biden is giving blanket pardons to drug offenders—many of whom pled down from more serious charges,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said after Biden’s executive orders were announced on Thursday. “This is a desperate attempt to distract from failed leadership.”
Kessler said that sort of reaction from the GOP is to be expected. On the weed decision, he suggested Republicans could wield the pardons to fit their broader narrative on crime.
“Republicans will try and make hay on the other side in this—and they’re obviously focused on the crime message this time, and they’ll use that to further the crime message,” he said.
The White House pushed back on the notion that Biden’s recent actions on drug offenses amounts to a change in position or strategy, noting that the president—despite longtime personal misgivings about marijuana legalization—had called for the end of jail time for marijuana possession in 2019.
Despite those denials, the wink-and-nod towards key Democratic constituencies was easy to spot on Thursday afternoon. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, tasked with potentially rescheduling marijuana, tweeted that he looked forward to answering Biden’s “call to action to review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”