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29 April 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 1:52pm

For US progressives, Joe Biden has both surprised and disappointed

The president has exceeded some expectations, but also fallen short on issues ranging from student debt to the climate crisis.  

By Emily Tamkin

In his first 100 days in office, US President Joe Biden has moved more quickly, boldly and progressively, than his earlier record in the Senate and as vice-president might have foretold.

In January 2021, Biden said the US would reverse a stalled vaccination roll-out by delivering 100 million doses in his first 100 days, and ended up distributing 200 million. His $1.9tn dollar COVID relief stimulus bill (which included a child tax credit that, if made permanent, could cut child poverty in half), has been lauded by progressive Senator Bernie Sanders. He has also rolled out a $2tn infrastructure bill, or American Jobs Plan; established a commission to examine expanding the Supreme Court; called for Washington, DC to become a state; and his American Families Plan, announced this week, would make food benefits available to those who have been convicted of drug-related felonies.

Biden is now the most popular president with the country’s youngest voters in over two decades, despite the fact that the demographic did not vote for him in the primaries. His highest approval ratings came from young black and Hispanic voters (77 and 70 per cent, respectively).

[See also: Leader: A man of action]

Yet while Biden may be doing better or more than expected, particularly in the domestic sphere, many progressives argue that still isn’t good enough. They don’t want Biden to just be better than they thought; they want him to be what they believe the country and the world need.

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One of the most salient domestic areas where the new president has so far failed to deliver is student debt.

“We do not think he has exceeded expectations,” said Braxton Brewington, press secretary of the Debt Collective, a debtors’ union that campaigns against student loans. By failing to immediately cancel some existing debt, as he had promised he would, the Debt Collective feels that Biden broke a pledge. And more than that, they feel he missed an opportunity. One hundred days may be an arbitrary marker, but it’s also “a moment to set the tone” for what type of administration a president will have, and how ambitiously he will serve the American people, Brewington said.

Brewington also noted that, in a town hall in February, Biden repeated centrist talking points about debt forgiveness, saying that cancelling $50,000 in student debt would benefit students from “elite” universities. When in fact, Ivy League graduates who have been beneficiaries of robust financial aid programmes owe some of the lowest amounts of student debt.

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While organisers don’t mind debunking right wing talking points with citizens, Brewington doesn’t feel he should have to explain them to the president. “We’re not talking about average Joes,” he said. “We’re talking about president Joe.”

When it comes to foreign policy, which often takes longer to shift than domestic matters, progressive enthusiasm for Biden wanes further.

Biden was slow to rejoin talks on bringing the US and Iran back into compliance with the Iran nuclear deal and has broadly continued Donald Trump’s line on China and US hawkishness toward Russia, though there are rumours of a summit of sorts between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin later this year. Biden announced the end of US support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, but is continuing arms sales to the United Arab Emirates.

“We want to see a stronger understanding of how much the reality has shifted, and how much more is necessary to bring actual accountability and save lives,” said Stephen Miles, executive director of Win Without War, a network of activists and organisations aimed at pushing progressive foreign policy.

Earlier this month, Biden did announce a withdrawal from Afghanistan, but now he “needs to execute the withdrawal,” said Stephen Wertheim, author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy. This will mean resisting political pressure as conditions in the country change between now and 11 September 2021, the date by which Biden promised US troops would be gone.

More generally, Wertheim, who is also director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, is keen to not only see US troops leave Afghanistan, but for the US to re-examine all of its anti-terror operations: “I would like to see a blueprint as to how the war on terror comes to an end.”

[See also: Joe Biden’s first 100 days have been action-packed, but on foreign policy he is moving more slowly]

Above all, however, it is perhaps the climate crisis on which progressives are disappointed by a lack of dramatic change.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came out immediately after Biden unveiled his infrastructure plan to say that it wasn’t nearly enough or immediate enough.

“I think it’s been an area of great disappointment for anyone who thinks the climate crisis is existential,” said Thea Riofrancos, a political scientist at Providence College and co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. She believes Biden is doing more than many thought he would on the subject, and more than past presidents have done – but that his record must be measured “against the planetary situation”. 

Biden’s infrastructure deal doesn’t offer nearly enough on climate change, Riofrancos said, echoing criticism from many economists, and adding that his announcement at the global climate summit doesn’t assign enough responsibility to the US, historically the world’s largest emitter of air pollution (now second only to China).

Riofrancos is concerned that Biden’s putting out proposals that he sees as being as far left as he can go and working down from there. Instead, she said, she would like to see Biden “frame it [ambitiously addressing the climate crisis] as what urgently needs to be done”.

That will mean more than spending more money. It will mean more than, as Wertheim put it, “pursuing policies that simply have broad popularity among the American public”. The success of Biden’s next 100 days, and the country and the world, depend on his ability to pursue what is not only popular, but visionary.

[See also: How ambitious is Joe Biden’s pledge to cut emissions by 50 per cent?]