“I will await his apology!” — former president Donald Trump, this week, on Truth Social.
President Biden didn’t hold a press conference to announce he will build up to 20 new miles of Trump’s border wall in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, or that he will waive 26 federal laws, including ones designed to protect endangered species and drinking water, to do so.
That would have been foolish.
But even with that, the obvious about-face was bad enough.
The Wall Street Journal quoted U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which issued a statement saying the administration had no choice but to resume construction because Congress had allocated $190 million, under the previous administration, for that purpose.
As the Journal noted, no one has yet answered why, if that’s true, construction hadn’t been done sooner. Instead, Biden canceled all wall construction during his first months in office.
In answer to a question, the president later said he didn’t believe a border wall would work. But his own Homeland Security Department said, “There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads ... to prevent unlawful entries into the United States in the project areas.”
For many presidents, the time inevitably arrives when realities, either on the ground or of the political kind, run smack into campaign promises. The next step is a political calculation. Is the problem to be confronted so dire as to outweigh the consequences of stubbornly sticking to a promise? Also, was the original promise so memorable that voters will think of it when at the polls?
The first President Bush confronted this when, after months of negotiations, he realized he couldn’t get a budget deal through Congress without a tax increase. For him, the problem was that his “Read my lips: No new taxes” promise at the Republican convention had been too powerful, and too memorable. He lost re-election.
Going back to 1932, Franklin Roosevelt won the election by promising to end the Depression by drastically cutting spending and balancing the budget. Once elected, he dramatically changed course, increasing spending and devising New Deal programs that multiplied government controls over the economy.
As the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby once put it, FDR’s original plan probably would have ended the Depression sooner. As it was, however, the public’s general fear over failing banks and high unemployment overshadowed the memories of any campaign promises.
As for Biden and the wall?
Here’s the reality on the ground: Border patrol agents caught more than 200,000 people illegally crossing the Mexico-U.S. border in September, which was the highest total in 2023. A senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told CNN he expects that figure to remain high in the near future. That problem is now too big to ignore.
And here’s the political reality: The waves of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers crossing the border hasn’t helped Biden’s sagging approval ratings heading into an election year. Even some Democrats, such as Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, have begun to pressure the president over the leaky border.
Pritzker is angry because Texas has sent more than 15,000 migrants to his state via buses over the past year, but he blamed the president for a “lack of intervention and coordination at the border.”
Actually, just about everyone in Washington is to blame for that.
Walls in strategic border locations never should have been as polarizing as they became. But the border crisis might have been averted if Congress and White House had found a way to compromise on common sense goals, such as to allow guest worker permits and to devote greater funding toward an independent immigration court system that could more quickly adjudicate asylum requests and other border matters.
Plenty of reasonable reform ideas exist. The libertarian-leaning Cato Institute published several three years ago, all based on the idea of creating a system that’s flexible, not restrictive or punishing. At a time when many parts of the country are suffering from labor shortages, why not form a system that could send migrant workers where they’re needed, quickly?
And yet, Congress has done nothing.
It’s questionable whether voters will believe Biden’s story that he had to build the wall because Congress never rescinded its 2019 allocation of funds. But it may not matter.
Yes, harsh words will fly among politicians. You can count on that. But dig deeper and all this really means is that voters now have two presidential candidates who have overseen border wall construction while, like the congresses they worked with, failing to push for any real solutions.