Biden Honeymoon With Liberals Fades as Priorities Downplayed


Joe Biden’s honeymoon with the most liberal wing of his party risks an abrupt and politically damaging end, with rising anxiety among progressives that the president won’t fulfill their aspirations for climate policy or expansions of voting rights and spending on social programs.

As Biden tries to hold together a $579 billion bipartisan infrastructure deal, progressive lawmakers and the leaders of several major liberal interest groups are publicly calling out his White House for what they regard as insufficient efforts to pursue a more liberal agenda.

The bipartisan agreement Biden cut with a group of moderate senators doesn’t include many progressive priorities, in particular aggressive policies to curb climate change. The White House has meanwhile failed to persuade Congress to pass voting rights legislation that would counter new laws in Republican-controlled states that limit ballot access.

Biden hasn’t joined liberals in calling for the Senate to make filibusters more difficult. His proposed immigration overhaul never got off the ground. New limits on police powers failed to pass Congress by the anniversary of George Floyd’s death -- a deadline Biden set -- and now look stalled.

The political consequences could be severe for Biden and his party. Democrats hold just a nine-seat majority in the House and control the Senate only by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 chamber. They’ll need enthusiasm among Democratic voters -- including progressives -- about Biden and his policies to get out the vote for midterm elections that incumbent presidents typically lose.

Biden seemed to allude to that concern at a virtual Democratic National Committee fundraiser on Monday night. “We won in 2020 as a unified party. We need to stay unified, keep doing the big, consequential things,” he said.

Progressives, though, worry Biden isn’t moving aggressively enough to do the big things they want.

“I don’t know how voters will come out and vote for you in 2022 and 2024 if you don’t deliver on anything you promised. What President Biden and the Democrats do now is determinative,” said Tré Easton, senior adviser to the Battle Born Collective, a group of Capitol Hill alums devoted to steering progressive policies through Congress.

One key ally, NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Derrick Johnson, cautioned fellow liberals to consider how much better off they are under Biden than his predecessor.

“On balance, we are much better than we have been compared to this time last year,” he said in an interview. “There is still more work to do, but I don’t want to be overly critical. There is always a balance. Should there be more done? Absolutely.”

White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement that “in partnership with the progressive community, the president is proudly continuing to deliver historic change.” Biden’s infrastructure plan “will make unprecedented clean energy investments,” and the president will be pushing “for additional key climate priorities and his Families Plan in the budget resolution,” Bates said, referring to congressional Democrats’ work on a bill that would forgo GOP support.

Lobbying Effort

Bates added: “He’s also fighting for voting rights reform that every Democratic senator voted to advance and for police reform to stop tragic violence against people of color and restore trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

Fearful they won’t get what they want, progressives are starting to lobby the White House more aggressively. The Sunrise Movement and Evergreen Collaborative, two prominent liberal groups, launched a website called “No Climate, No Deal” to call attention to what they see as the need for spending to fight climate change in legislation Democrats intend to fast-track alongside the bipartisan infrastructure bill that would dedicate trillions more to progressive priorities.

Biden Honeymoon With Liberals Fades as Priorities Downplayed

“It’s very important that we pass a reconciliation bill and a families plan that expands childcare, that lowers the cost of Medicare, that supports families in the economy,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, one of the country’s most prominent progressives, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

She was referring to the process called “budget reconciliation” that Democrats intend to use to get the larger bill through the Senate without a Republican filibuster.

There’s otherwise a risk, she said, that the infrastructure package winds up “so small that it doesn’t invest in any meaningful way that people can really feel a positive impact in their everyday lives.”

The angst among progressives is a dramatic change from the first 100 days of the Biden administration, when liberal politicians and outside groups were pleasantly surprised and optimistic about Biden’s record.

Initial Impression

They applauded diverse appointments within the cabinet and the roll-back of more than two dozen of former President Donald Trump’s executive orders. They were delighted by the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief measure Biden signed in March -- which vastly exceeded economists’ projections. And some came to believe the administration would move more boldly and aggressively on progressive priorities than predicted during the 2020 presidential campaign, when Biden was not their preferred candidate.

But this month’s negotiations with Republicans over a bipartisan infrastructure deal have begun to sour the nascent relationship between Biden’s White House and the progressive community. Liberals view Biden and his team’s dalliance with the GOP as a waste of time, a repeat of 2009 when unsuccessful attempts to woo Republicans to support the Affordable Care Act consumed critical legislative time.

And many on the left flank of the Democratic Party see little value in negotiating with a Republican Party that has broadly failed to condemn the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol or former President Donald Trump’s ongoing lies about his re-election defeat.

“One of the things that has been very frustrating and distressing to us is the White House’s continued dance with congressional Republicans about a possible bipartisan bill -- a skinny infrastructure bill that, quite frankly, will mostly create jobs for white men,” said Natalia Salgado, director of federal affairs and treasurer of the Working Families Party Political Action Committee.

“It feels especially egregious when we think about places in Pennsylvania like Philadelphia, where President Biden’s win was delivered on the backs of our community,” she added.

On Saturday, Biden was even forced to walk back a pledge not to sign the bipartisan infrastructure deal without accompanying, Democratic-written legislation that would spend trillions more on progressive priorities, after Republicans threatened to abandon the agreement. His promise two days earlier had heartened liberals, but he said Saturday that he did not intend to imply a veto threat against the bipartisan deal.

In his statement, he noted progressive opposition to the bipartisan bill. “Some other Democrats have said they might oppose the infrastructure plan because it omits items they think are important: that is a mistake, in my view,” he said.

Several progressive lawmakers and leaders also argue the Biden administration’s focus on infrastructure is coming at the expense of more pressing issues -- in particular, addressing the voting restrictions Republican-controlled legislatures have passed in several states in response to Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 election.

‘Existential’ Need

Indivisible and other progressive groups are organizing events and marches across the country to promote voting rights over the next several weeks, branding them “Deadline for Democracy.”

“Time is up,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn. “Tending to your democracy and ensuring we have the right to vote is an existential, foundational need that must be addressed by the end of the year.”

Whatever policy accomplishments Biden and his party can achieve “won’t matter if people can’t vote,” she said.

The Department of Justice announced Friday it would sue over Georgia’s new voting law, alleging that it intentionally discriminates against Black voters and is unconstitutional. But voting-rights groups and progressive organizations such as Indivisible want Biden and his team to use the bully pulpit of the White House to a greater degree to pressure Congress on voting rights legislation and other liberal priorities.

Biden moved to address the latter concern on Thursday, announcing he would travel the country to argue that voters may see their ballots go uncounted if Republican legislatures are successful at imposing new restrictions.

The friction between progressives and the White House has developed even though the Biden team has worked assiduously to court the party’s liberals. White House staff hold frequent calls with the leaders of more than 60 progressive groups, in addition to a weekly meeting on Biden’s multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure and family-support plans with progressive leaders.

Top members of the Biden team have continued holding the calls and Zoom meetings even in recent weeks as progressive dissatisfaction has grown.

Progressives say they appreciate the comprehensive outreach -- but that it doesn’t suffice for policy results. Climate policy has emerged as a particular point of tension, as the Biden White House treads delicately around the issue to avoid alienating Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat representing coal-rich West Virginia.

“Relationships ebb and flow. With respect to the infrastructure and the climate space, we are very much in the wait-and-see mode,” Easton said. “Progressives would view any infrastructure plan that does not aggressively address the climate crisis as a major betrayal to the Biden voters.”

Biden Honeymoon With Liberals Fades as Priorities Downplayed

Progressives regard the next several weeks as a key harbinger for their relationship with the Biden White House as well as the president’s ability to deliver on campaign promises. While leaders in the progressive movement acknowledge they’ll never entirely break up with a Democratic president -- whom else would they support? -- they warn that voter enthusiasm and turnout will suffer if Biden can’t deliver.

“Voters are saying that, whether someone is a Democrat or a Republican, or a Martian, if you don’t get something done, I won’t vote for them,” said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners and one of the pollsters involved in Biden’s 2020 campaign. “They want things done for their community and feel like we have an awful lot of problems, and we need to get moving.”

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