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12 January 2022

Progressives vowed to push Joe Biden left. What happened?

Progressives have notched up some wins but Democrats are divided ahead of November’s midterm elections.

By Emily Tamkin

When Joe Biden became the Democrat presidential candidate, besting the progressive senator Bernie Sanders in the party’s primary, the two men vowed to campaign together. Many Sanders supporters, and American progressives more generally, saw the Biden administration as an opportunity to push the president and the Democratic Party to the left. And for a while, with comparisons between Biden and ambitious past presidents like Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) and Lyndon B Johnson, and the quick passage of a stimulus to get Americans through the pandemic, it looked as though that might happen.

But the first year of the Biden administration has painted a more mixed picture for progressives. The threat for Biden is not so much that he is credibly challenged from the left in 2024 – though progressive candidates have successfully beaten long-time Democratic incumbents in primary elections in Congress, and may well do so again in the midterm elections this November – but rather that party infighting hurts his perception in the mind of the public, or that disenchanted left-leaning voters stay home instead of going to the polls. The threat for progressives, meanwhile, is that what is perhaps the best opportunity in their lifetime to see the centrist status quo broken will go unrealised.

Biden unveiled a genuinely ambitious domestic legislative agenda. The Build Back Better plan included far-reaching language on (and money for) childcare, education and climate change – as 2021 drew to a close, Build Back Better had $555bn earmarked for clean energy and clean transport. “President Biden’s agenda in Build Back Better is a working-class agenda,” said Representative Ro Khanna of California, who worked as co-chair for the Sanders campaign. A potent combination convinced Biden to pursue genuinely progressively policy, he said: the anger and frustration of the working class in 2020, the realities of the pandemic, and the memory of a too-moderate recovery after the 2008 financial crash. “I’m convinced that in his gut, in his heart, that’s what he wants to do,” Khanna said.

The Build Back Better legislation, however, is stalled in the Senate, where Democrats have the slimmest of majorities, a reality made more complicated by the fact that Democrats on the right of the party, like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have repeatedly intimated that they are unlikely to support the bill.

“I genuinely believe, having spoken to the president… [that] Biden wants to have a FDR-like agenda,” said Khanna. “That’s his aspiration. If he had larger majorities [in the House and Senate] he would do it.”

There are also those who wonder why the White House, appreciating the limits presented by minimal majorities in Congress, doesn’t use more of the powers of the presidency.

The case of student debt provides as clear an example as any. As a candidate, Biden promised to forgive $10,000 per student in loan debt (for context, the average total student loan debt is around $30,000, according to data from US News). As president, he has taken some steps cheered by progressives, like continuing to extend the pause on student loan repayment because of the pandemic. However, an extended pause and cancellation are not the same thing.

For their part, activists do still want and expect loan forgiveness, as Cody Hounanian and Natalia Abrams from the Student Debt Crisis Centre said. They maintain that, according to lawyers they have consulted, and contrary to the insistence of figures like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the president can, in fact, cancel student debt.

Still, they believe, public pressure is working: witness the administration’s decision to relent and extend student loan forgiveness again this winter. And while pressure from progressives may be an annoyance, Abrams said, it ultimately provides the administration cover for the work they promised to do.

The picture is even muddier on foreign affairs.

The Biden administration has pursued some genuinely progressive policies in its first year. Many on the left had long pushed for a withdrawal from Afghanistan and an end to the US’s endless wars. The treasury department championed a global corporate minimum tax. The Biden administration placed Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO Group on a blacklist after learning that its spyware, Pegasus, was allegedly used by governments around the world to place dissidents and journalists, among others, under surveillance.

But after pledging on the campaign trail to quickly rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, the Biden administration took a slow start, and negotiations may now be breaking down. While candidate Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah”, President Biden completed a $650m weapons sale to that country. Defence spending has further increased. To some on the Hill, it seems as though the Biden administration wants to take the path of least resistance on foreign policy, upholding Washington’s status quo. But as one senate staffer said, anonymously so as to speak freely, “If you want to do big things, you’re going to have to pick and win fights.”

“I think that the domestic agenda has been more progressive,” conceded Khanna.

Here too progressives acknowledge that, though they haven’t pushed as far as they wanted, the administration won’t move further without additional pressure.

“Ultimately, time will tell whether he lives up to campaign promises like restoring the Iran nuclear deal, ending our endless wars and centring human rights in our foreign policy,” said Stephen Miles, executive director of Win Without War, a network of activists pushing for a more progressive foreign policy. “But we can be sure that, without progressive pressure, the Blob will ensure the failed status quo continues.”

All of which is to say that progressives have, in some ways, pushed Biden left. The administration hasn’t gone as far as they might like, but the alternative to pushing with some political wins isn’t not pushing with big wins. And so, as they head into its second year, progressives prepare to do the only thing they can at this time: keep pushing.

[See also: After Bernie: where next for the US left?]

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