Biden’s Day One Actions Haunt Him Still

Column: The president blunders from one self-inflicted crisis to the next

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
October 7, 2022

President Joe Biden was outraged on October 5 when the oil-and-gas cartel OPEC+ announced that it would cut production by two million barrels of oil per day. He had reason to be angry. The dis was personal. And the move has global implications. OPEC+ includes Russia, and rising oil prices will help Vladimir Putin, undermine Europe’s ability to keep the lights on, and reduce food supply in the Global South. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and National Economic Council director Brian Deese released a joint statement slamming the decision as "shortsighted" and harmful for "lower- and middle-income countries that are already reeling from elevated energy prices."

Yet the White House’s true worry is domestic. Here is how you can tell: Sullivan and Deese mentioned Ukraine only once in their 311-word missive. But they brought up the proverbial gas "pump" twice and U.S. "gas prices" three times. President Biden has been around long enough to understand the special relationship between fuel prices and presidential job approval. He’s incensed that OPEC+ may have helped the Republican opposition weeks before the midterm election.

Biden really ought to look in the mirror. The OPEC+ embarrassment was the latest reminder that he, not Putin nor Saudi Arabia, is the chief author of the Democratic Party’s current woes. On issue after issue, the instructions that Biden gave at the outset of his presidency have made America less prosperous, less independent, and less secure.

Energy and immigration tell the tale. Biden signed 17 executive orders on his first day in office, and two of them dealt with U.S. oil and gas production. One order pledged that America would rejoin the Paris climate accords and commit to the deal’s targeted reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. The other order blocked oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, forbade drilling in large parts of Utah, and canceled the Keystone XL pipeline between the United States and Canada. One week later, Biden stopped issuing new oil and gas leases on public lands.

Biden knew what he was doing. The "clean energy transition," as Sullivan and Deese put it, is among the top priorities of the Democratic Party. The transition involves hiking the cost of carbon-based energy to the point where renewable alternatives become affordable by comparison. You decrease supply of oil and gas until prices rise enough for the average consumer to search online for a Tesla.

Retail gas prices rose steadily between Election Day 2020 and June 2022. Midway through his first year in office, Biden’s energy-dampening regulations contributed to and interacted with the general price inflation he mistakenly assumed to be "temporary." The president panicked. Rather than confront the green crusaders who fund his party, he opened the spigots of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) and pleaded with OPEC+, especially with America’s Persian Gulf allies, to increase production. Gas prices fell between June and September. They settled where they were earlier this year and have ticked upward since.

Biden’s strategy of dependence has run aground. The SPR has been drained to its lowest level since 1984. OPEC+ has told Biden no. The nuclear deal with Iran is in limbo as the mullahs fend off the most significant challenge to their rule in years. And a Wall Street Journal report that the administration was looking into easing sanctions on Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela so that Chevron could increase output brought jeers from Republicans and a hurried denial from the White House.

Biden’s regulations and restrictions accomplished what he wanted: more expensive oil and gas. His problem is that voters do not want the future the climate Cassandras have in store for them. Voters blame him for the inflation they encounter as commuters and consumers. He can’t go back in time to his early days at 1600 Pennsylvania any more than he can betray the progressive base of his party. He’s left to stew in a crisis of his own making.

The southern border has left him in a similar situation. On day one, Biden stopped construction of the border wall, ended restrictions on migration from 13 countries associated with national-security threats (the so-called Muslim ban), reduced the scope of interior immigration enforcement, and protected special classes of illegal immigrants, including Dreamers. He began the process of ending the "Remain in Mexico" policy, whereby applicants for asylum in the United States had to wait elsewhere until their claims were decided. He terminated "safe third country" agreements—which mandate that asylum seekers must apply for protection in the first place they reach before making their way to the U.S. border—with El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

The consequences have been massive. U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended more than two million migrants at the southern border in fiscal year 2022, the most in history. That number outpaced the previous record of 1.72 million set during the prior fiscal year. Remember: These are the illegal immigrants the government knows about. There have been an estimated 600,000 "gotaways"—individuals who evade apprehension—this fiscal year alone.

It will take generations for the legal, social, and economic effects of Biden’s policies to run their course. The immigration and asylum systems are overwhelmed, long past the point where they can function as intended. Violent criminals, narco-traffickers, and human-traffickers cross the border with impunity. The families and single men and women fleeing to the United States in search of a better life are easy prey for cartels, coyotes, and the vicissitudes of nature. It’s a humanitarian disaster that affects frontline communities in Texas and Arizona, where schools, hospitals, and municipal services are stretched beyond capacity. Recently the emergency has spilled over into deep blue enclaves such as New York City and Washington, D.C.

Biden has tried to distance himself from the border crisis. He barely discusses it. His fall girl—excuse me, the head of his "Root Causes Strategy"—is Vice President Kamala Harris. In an interview with Meet the Press last month, she made the ridiculous statement that "the border is secure." Maybe she should talk to the Venezuelans that Governor Greg Abbott (R., Texas) keeps dropping off outside her house.

Very soon, Biden will be confronted with the political fallout from choices he made in January 2021. The October 3 Monmouth poll found that 82 percent of Americans say inflation is extremely or very important. Biden’s approval on inflation is 30 percent. According to Monmouth, 67 percent of Americans say immigration is extremely or very important. Biden’s approval on immigration is 31 percent. "A major problem for Democrats," poll director Patrick Murray said in a release, "is their base messaging doesn’t hold as much appeal for independents as the GOP issue agenda does."

How could it? You just can’t wave away the reaction to stagflation and unchecked immigration. You must deal with them realistically and pragmatically. For Biden, that means revisiting his first day in office and making up for past mistakes. Before voters make a correction of their own.