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Biden's new move is playing offense on border politics. But will voters be swayed?

President Biden delivered remarks at the White House before the Senate killed the bipartisan bill that would provide funding for border security, Israel and Ukraine.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden delivered remarks at the White House before the Senate killed the bipartisan bill that would provide funding for border security, Israel and Ukraine.

As Republicans in Congress tanked bipartisan legislation this week on beefing up border security, President Biden took the opportunity to do something he hasn't done before when it comes to handling the politics over the crisis at the U.S. southern border: he went on offense.

Biden said the bill would have let him "temporarily shut down the border" when migrant numbers overwhelmed resources — but said Republicans were running scared from former President Donald Trump. Biden said Trump wanted to keep border issues alive as an election issue rather than see a compromise deal.

"Every day between now and November, the American people are going to know that the only reason the border is not secure is Donald Trump and his MAGA Republican friends," Biden vowed.

Biden now has someone else to blame for the border

Border security has become an increasingly difficult issue for Biden, given the record number of migrants coming across the border, overwhelming the ability of communities to house and help them.

In a recent NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll, only 29% of respondents said they approve of how Biden is handling immigration. And Republicans win over Democrats by 12 points on which party is better at dealing with the issue of immigration.

While those sentiments are unlikely to shift wholesale, the GOP's rejection of a bill that would have addressed the issue gives Biden a powerful new argument, said Republican strategist Alex Conant.

"He was on defense three months go. He's on offense today," said Conant, who previously worked for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

It's a message that has the potential to resonate with Democrats who are concerned about the number of migrants, as well as some independent voters, Conant said.

"He has a story to tell. He has an excuse for why things are what they are and he can blame Trump for it," Conant said of Biden. "Every time he gets asked by a voter, or a reporter, or a debate moderator in his campaign about immigration, he now has something to say."

But Biden's new message concerns immigration advocates

Beatriz Lopez, deputy director at the Immigration Hub, has been hoping for months that Biden and Democrats would address immigration issues, worried that misinformation was filling the vacuum.

"I have long supported an offensive strategy where Democrats call out Trump and MAGA Republicans for their rhetoric on immigration, for their policies on immigration," Lopez said.

"There's so many critical voters, particularly swing voters, who need to hear the Democratic message on immigration, who need to hear that they are offering something different from Trump," she said.

But Lopez said she is concerned at Biden's choice in rhetoric, noting that Trump also has advocated for shutting down the border. She said Biden shouldn't try to "out-Trump Trump."

Vanessa Cárdenas, the executive director of America's Voice, said she is also concerned about the concessions Democrats made to Republicans in the failed border bill. For example, there was nothing in the bill on finding a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, something Democrats have been pushing for for years.

"It is not helpful when you have the president, or other Democrats for that matter, sort of amplifying the use of language that the right is using," Cárdenas said.

"The president needs to get his act together. Democrats need to lead. They need to stop bending to the will of the GOP," she said.

Other Democrats are also picking up this attack line

Biden also faces an uphill battle to take any actions on immigration reform or border security without help from Congress. Millions of migrants are trying to cross the U.S. southern border, and communities along the border, and across the country, have felt the impact.

"No executive action, no matter how aggressive, can deliver the significant policy reforms and additional resources Congress can provide, that Republicans have rejected," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday.

She said the administration is evaluating options, but would not get into specifics.

In the meantime, though, blaming Republicans isn't a message that only Biden will be using. Other Democrats are using it, too.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that even with the unprecedented level of migrants crossing the border, the issue is on Republicans now.

"They own the problem. From this point forward, congressional Republicans own this problem," Peters said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.