President Biden has long marketed himself as a pragmatic, moderate Democrat. He was first elected to the Senate in 1972, the year his party’s presidential nominee — South Dakota Sen. George McGovern — ran on a left-wing platform and lost 49 states, including Biden’s home state of Delaware, to Richard Nixon. And Biden’s political rise coincided with the ascendency of conservatism as America’s dominant political ideology and the decline of New Deal-style liberalism.
So it was a surprise to many when Biden, who ran and won in 2020 as the relative centrist he’d always been, started sounding and acting like a progressive. His massive American Rescue Plan was heralded as the biggest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s. Biden himself called it “a once-in-a-generation investment in America.”
Suddenly pundits were proclaiming that he was the second coming of Johnson or even Franklin Roosevelt. The White House seemed to relish these comparisons and the idea that Biden was a transformational president — the man with the experience and knowledge of Congress to deliver on a host of progressive priorities more associated with political figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, two left-wing avatars Biden beat for the Democratic nomination last year.
But now a new political reality has set in. Unlike FDR and LBJ, Biden does not enjoy substantial Democratic majorities in Congress. And a number of Democrats in the Senate appear uncomfortable with their party’s left-wing tilt — and with the idea of abolishing the legislative filibuster. That means the president has no choice but to work with moderate Republicans as he scrambles to inject more money into the economy.
Biden has made a bipartisan infrastructure bill his chief focus, and the White House did little to push through a sweeping voting rights bill in the Senate. The administration is also taking a hands-off approach to a police reform package that will need GOP support to pass, which appears increasingly unlikely.
And almost immediately after promising that he wouldn’t sign a bipartisan infrastructure bill unless the Senate also passes legislation that devotes vast sums of money to progressive priorities like fighting climate change and what Democrats call “human infrastructure,” such as additional support for caregivers, Biden walked back his pledge amid complaints from moderate Republicans.
Biden’s return to moderation comes in a shifting political climate. A rise in violent crime over the last year, for example, has marginalized left-wing lawmakers looking to “defund the police.” Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., continues to denounce the slogan as the type of posturing that alienated some during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Republicans, meanwhile, are seeking to batter Democrats with it.
In New York City, the center of a new progressive resurgence, moderate candidates collected significantly more votes than their progressive rivals in this month’s mayoral primary. And a major reason the moderates did so well is the city’s skyrocketing crime rate.
A rise in crime is a scary thing for Democrats of Biden’s generation, which is why he and many other liberals spent years burnishing their law-and-order credentials. He famously authored a 1994 crime bill — one of the key accomplishments of his 36-year career in the Senate — which critics say contributed to the rise of mass incarceration. But during the 2020 Democratic primaries, he denounced his own bill as a “mistake.”
A few members of his party still call for defunding the police, but Biden recently unveiled a crime plan that calls for hiring more police officers through money allocated by the American Rescue Plan. It’s an idea that’s won praise from some conservative commentators.
In some ways, Biden’s presidency is looking less like FDR’s and more like that of Bill Clinton, the moderate Democratic president in the 1990s who famously “triangulated” on numerous issues in ways that appealed to Democrats, independents and even some Republicans. After losing control of Congress in 1994, Clinton and his fellow Democrats wholeheartedly embraced what was called “third way” politics between the right and left. The strategy worked: Clinton handily won reelection in 1996 amid a booming economy and remained popular throughout his second term despite a tumultuous sex scandal.
As was the case with Clinton, Biden’s pivot to the center may make a good deal of political sense. Recent Democratic studies show that working-class nonwhite voters are not as liberal as college-educated whites and younger voters. The New York city mayoral results bolster this finding. Among Democratic strategists, there is widespread concern that left-wing policies will push key voting blocs, such as Latinos, toward the GOP.
“There is right now a conflict between governing as it is today and everything that organizers and activists in our party want. Biden is trying to navigate a way forward, recognizing the politics as they are and not just the politics as he would want them to be,” Guy Cecil, chairman of the Democratic super-PAC Priorities USA, said in an interview.
Cecil said that, given the political realities in Congress, Biden has achieved some big wins already: COVID relief, a major bill to counter the rising influence of China, the outlines of an agreement on infrastructure. “Of course I want more, but we need to recognize the politics,” Cecil said. “I don’t discourage activists from pushing. Without people pushing from the outside there is rarely progress.”
But many other Democrats see this as misreading the moment. Progressives have been warning against a conciliatory approach to politics since Biden took office in January, insisting he would be making the same mistake that President Barack Obama did when he sought GOP support for his health care overhaul, which he ultimately did not get.
“President Obama bent over backwards to win bipartisan support. But Democrats quickly lost control of the Senate and their agenda was completely stalled. If Biden and Senate Democrats don’t push now to abolish the filibuster, I fear we are on the same path,” former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote recently. “This time, however, the stakes are even higher. Voting rights are under attack. Inequality is out of control. And Trump and his fascist cronies are regrouping. There really is no time to waste.”
Democratic moderates argue that their left-wing allies need to take a deep breath, think beyond the daily or weekly news cycle and trust that Biden has a plan. Biden has said in the past he would consider pushing to abolish the filibuster, but his supporters think he is making a genuine effort to do what he can in a bipartisan fashion to deliver on the promise he made in his inauguration speech to “join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature.”
“My whole soul is in this: bringing America together,” he vowed the day he took office.
Jeff Link, a Democratic consultant based in Iowa, pointed out that a huge infrastructure bill would result in a major boost to the economy. And if the economy rebounds substantially, Democrats will do much better in the midterm elections next year.
“The economy and jobs has to be front and center,” Link said. “If you inject this economy with $560 billion, that’s going to make a huge difference.”
Some Democrats, such as veteran operative Joe Trippi, warn that the GOP has become too radicalized to compromise with. Polls have repeatedly shown that most Republican voters say they believe former President Donald Trump won the last election, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Trippi ran progressive Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 and also helped Democrats elect a U.S. senator from the deep-red state of Alabama, Doug Jones, in 2017. He has said the GOP is no longer a functioning political party because it has been taken over by Trump and his most rabid supporters, who are holding other Republican lawmakers hostage. “Bipartisanship can't work right now because there is only room for one ‘party’ in America right now — an anti-authoritarian, pro-democracy party,” he said on a recent episode of his podcast.
But in an interview, Trippi took a more nuanced view. He remained adamant that the GOP is a broken entity taken over by an authoritarian movement, but he also said that the left wing of the Democratic Party needs to stop knocking Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Manchin is the most prominent moderate Democrat in the Senate, and has acted as a “heat shield” for other Democrats who aspire to bipartisanship rather than the abolition of the filibuster.
“The people who are trying to govern and get things done have to be willing to compromise,” Trippi said. “That has to happen, and the wings of the party need to give them all the space to do that.”
“At the same time, I actually think outside groups need to [condemn] the authoritarian movement and raise the alarm about it,” he added.
In other words, Trippi believes the real urgency is for Democratic voters and activists to resist being lulled to sleep by the Biden presidency and a sense of normalcy, and to begin organizing and registering voters so that Republicans don’t win back the House in 2022.
“We need to get back to the neighborhoods. One of the big problems in 2020 was COVID and not being out there, and that’s what we need to get back to,” Trippi said. “Let Biden and Manchin have room to try to find compromise, but you can actively be doing something too, and that is to go build the strongest organization this party has ever had, because we're going to need it.”
Progressives may not want Democrats to give Republicans more time to demonstrate their unwillingness to work together, but some agree that the party should focus more on organizing and registering voters than on internal bickering.
Roland Martin, a progressive media commentator, lamented that too many Democratic donors are overly focused on national politics.
“Democrats in Texas were five seats away from taking control of the state House but didn’t put a ground game in place for Latinos,” Martin said. “Democrat super-donors are super-idiots.”
Martin also said he understood the president’s current push for bipartisanship. “Biden’s whole deal is, he has to have wins,” Martin said. “His responsibility is separate from others.”
Rania Batrice, a progressive political strategist based in Texas, said she understands Biden’s desire to unify the country but doesn’t think his strategy will work because the GOP has already shown itself to be negotiating in bad faith.
However, Batrice said Martin’s basic point is correct: The party needs to focus on organizing, registering new voters and winning over others who might have been written off by Democrats in the past.
And she expressed concern that the Biden administration is not getting enough credit for what it has done already.
“Trump did nothing but ruin people’s lives, and Biden’s administration has accomplished some amazing things. But they don't talk about it enough,” Batrice said. “Persuadable people are not paying attention to the POTUS Twitter account.”
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