Biden’s right turn ‘a slap’ to young voters

by Will Bunch

If you’ve never heard of the Willow project — the massive, up-to-600-million-barrels oil-drilling venture on federal lands in the Alaska wilderness that was greenlighted this week by the Biden administration — then you’re probably also not a teen or 20-something who spends a good chunk of your day on TikTok. 

The ConocoPhillips drilling proposal — largely ignored in the places where boomers get their news, like MSNBC or CNN — became a viral sensation for the smartphone set as the White House decision drew closer, prompting an unprecedented 50 million views of #StopWillow or related TikTok posts. Many were teens anxious about climate change and their future if the project goes ahead. More than 3.8 million people have signed a Change.org petition to stop Willow. 

It’s doubtful that 80-year-old President Joe Biden saw these videos, and now that his administration has said it will approve the fossil fuel project, he definitely wouldn’t like some of the things that young Americans are saying about him on social media. 

“Biden just slapped young people in the face,” a 20-year-old University of California, Berkeley student named Elise Joshi, who’d made one of the most viewed #StopWillow TikToks, said in a new video this week. “This is not the last he’s heard from us. Because I want to be 30 and live in a world that I can recognize.”  

Biden’s Willow move — which breaks a 2020 campaign promise to block any drilling on federal lands — is also significant as the definitive proof of a midterm course correction that you don’t need Google Maps to track: The Democratic president is veering to the right on some of America’s environmental and social problems as the 2024 election looms. 

The president’s growing chorus of critics on his left has sounded even more alarm about the administration’s harsher immigration policies, meant to turn away migrants fleeing crime and despair in Central America. Pro-refugee advocates call the new Biden border moves “an asylum ban” that is no different from Donald Trump’s policies that they fought against for four years, and now there is growing concern that even more draconian measures — including the controversial policy of “family detention” — are in the works. 

Politically, Biden is following the well-worn road map that flourished during the years he served in the Senate (1973-2008) — moving to claim the political center ahead of a difficult reelection fight.  As 2024’′s political maneuvering begins, both the GOP fight between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to claim the extremist flank, and the lack of a big-name primary challenger to Biden, is giving POTUS 46 a lot of room to move right. 

“Biden absolutely needs the youth vote,” Dana R. Fisher, University of Maryland sociologist and leading researcher on U.S. protest movements, including youth climate activism, told me. Fisher pointed to studies showing that the youth voting bloc of Gen Z and younger millennials will be the largest by the mid-2020s. 

“The biggest threat they have is that they’re not going to support Joe Biden for reelection,” she said. “But are they going to vote for Ron DeSantis? I’m sure that’s the conversation they had in the White House — ‘You know these young people on TikTok, they’re going crazy,’ and then somebody said … ‘Are they going to vote for DeSantis?’ (But) they could not turn out, and there could be a red wave in 2024.”  

The numbers say that’s a very real threat. An in-depth look at the 2020 results by Tufts University researchers found that a sizable bump in youth voter turnout over the more apathetic levels of the 2010s, and a whopping 61% tally for Biden among that demographic, gave him his victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona, without which we would now be living through a second Trump term. 

But how that dynamic might play out in 2024 — even if oil drilling in Alaska commences and student-debt payments resume — isn’t totally clear. Experts like Fisher note that the anger over the Willow decision that has electrified TikTok hasn’t led to more sustained political organizing that might move policy makers. A lot could change in the next year, but right now the only primary challenger to Biden is 2020 retread Marianne Williamson — a leftist, but also a boomer whose past statements on things like vaccines could be problematic for young voters — and there is no prominent progressive running as an independent, either. 

I’ve closely tracked the last decade’s spike in progressive activism, reporting in depth on key moments like 2011′s Occupy Wall Street protests and the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the left so boxed in. Both the threat of right-wing authoritarianism from the likes of Trump and DeSantis and the current détente with a centrist Biden — who in his first two years worked with the left on issues like climate and college debt — seems to have stymied full-throated progressive action. 

I reached out to one of the leading left-wing Democrats in Congress, Rep. Ro Khanna, the Bucks County, Pa., native who now represents California’s Silicon Valley. In 2020, Khanna was a major congressional backer of the Sanders campaign, but recently he was named one of Biden’s 20 key surrogates heading into the 2024 race. He acknowledged that he also disagrees with the president on Alaska drilling, calling it “a big problem” and “a mistake.”  

But Khanna also argues that a Biden second term still remains the best real-world option for young voters. He said he sees the current president as “a bridge” to a future where left-wing goals like Medicare-for-all are possible. 

“We have to continue to push for these progressive policies, but there’s no doubt in my mind that having Joe Biden as a bridge will make it easier to have the beginning of a progressive era — rather than having a DeSantis or a Trump,” Khanna argued.  

Supported by a new, more center-right chief of staff in Jeff Zients, the president’s 2024 strategy has come into clear focus: an FDR-style pitch to the middle class on economics — creating jobs, preserving Medicare and Social Security — but rightward policy shifts to fight off Fox News chyrons about the border, urban crime and gas prices. 

Yet the 18- to 29-year-old vote is the wild card. It’s far too easy for young voters feeling “slapped” by Biden to slap back on Nov. 5, 2024 — by staying on their couches. 

Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.