WASHINGTON – Progressives were often dismayed at candidate Joe Biden’s instinct for moderation, his nostalgia for a bygone era and a record they perceived as too business-friendly and out of touch with his changing party.
But almost 100 days into his tenure, some are happy to admit, they could be wrong.
“A lot of us were disappointed when President Biden got the nomination,” said newly elected Rep. Jamaal Bowman, DN.Y., who beat a 16-term incumbent in a primary last year. . “When you look at Biden’s career, he’s definitely someone we would call a moderate Democrat.”
He is less disappointed today.
“Biden has been incredibly responsive to the progressive movement,” Bowman said, recounting a recent meeting between progressive members of the White House and White House chief of staff Ron Klain. “He told us point blank: Keep pushing us. Keep us honest.”
Liberals are happy with Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill and his swift rejection of Republican attempts to cut it. They like his $ 2.25 trillion infrastructure and jobs proposal. They are pleasantly surprised by his personnel decisions, especially the hiring of Klain and the avoidance of moderate veteran Democrats in the White House like Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel.
“I don’t think they would have been better if Bernie Sanders were the chairman,” Larry Cohen, a former union leader who chairs the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution, said of Biden’s staffing decisions.
“The question will be tenacity,” he said. “These are the best proposals you can expect, but the question will be to fight for these things.”
Biden’s first 100 days were mostly greeted by a movement that was skeptical to totally opposed to his candidacy, according to more than 20 progressive lawmakers, strategists and activists who spoke to NBC News about the key relationship about to define. his presidency.
For some, the bar was low, so clearing was not difficult.
And critics remain, including reservations on issues such as immigration and creating a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour, which progressives say Biden did not emphasize enough.
Some say his opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana and his stance on eliminating student debt, which he has refused to do unilaterally, is false.
But progressives admit that their greatest fears have not been confirmed and that Biden, a 78-year-old institutionalist, sees them as an ally and is willing to listen to them as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton did not.
“What is clear is that we have a negotiating partner in the White House,” said Representative Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. “It is also clear that there are areas where the administration is going to need outside pressure to do the right thing.”
Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who was Biden’s progressive rival in the Democratic primaries, praised Biden for “acknowledging the huge crises this country faces and the extent to which people are suffering as a result of a pandemic.” .
“He has some bold ideas, I think, for infrastructure, for climate change,” Sanders said in an interview. “And he also understands that at a time when so many people have lost faith in government and we are seeing a rise in authoritarianism, it is absolutely imperative that we develop policies where people see that government can work.” for them. I think he understands that, and it’s pretty big. “
The White House and progressive activists agree that the “unity task force” that Biden and Sanders set up to set political goals after Biden won the presidential nomination last year was essential.
“We have the narrowest margins anyone can have in the House or the Senate, but we have a much more cohesive party than in 2009,” said Anita Dunn, senior advisor to Biden who held a senior position at the Obama White House. .
Democrats had a larger majority in Congress in 2009, but they included sizable cohorts of moderate and even conservative Democrats, including many from the South and rural areas, who resisted spending on health care reform in favor of the right to abortion and regularly voted with Republicans.
And unlike 2009, activist groups are no longer pulling together now that their party controls the White House.
“Many of us have learned from 2009, when outside groups and outside movements demobilized after the election of Obama and he was hammered by the right and the Tea Party movement,” Maurice said. Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party. “We are still living with the effect of these policies. So we are not going to do this again.”
Dunn said progressive critics of Biden would be less surprised if they “looked at the real person, not the caricature.”
“It shows how much they didn’t really know Biden,” she said. “What he is doing now is totally consistent with what he said as a candidate.”
Faiz Shakir, an adviser to Sanders who led his presidential campaign, said Biden is adjusting to a new political landscape in which progressives are on the bottom.
“Progressives have certainly won much of the political debate and are increasingly starting to win the political debate on which path to take,” he said, citing Biden’s adoption of a minimum wage of $ 15 and Medicare expansion.
And Shakir praised Biden for keeping his promises to increase Covid-19 direct relief payments to $ 2,000 and for refusing to make “preemptive” concessions to win GOP votes.
“They came with a much clearer vision that this is what we want to do and if the Republicans want to come, that’s fine, but if they don’t, we’ll do it,” he said. he declares. . “It has paid off well for them so far, and I hope they stick to it.”
Shakir said Biden “by nature” is more sensitive to populist arguments and the need for simplicity than Obama, criticizing the old administration’s tendency to develop complex regulatory regimes with layers of verification.
“Simple is better. Simple is easier,” he said. “Give people the keys to simply access government programs – it makes people feel that they are respected. The way they have executed the Covid program right now is exactly that.”
‘A big worry’
Biden’s progressive positions are not enough for some activists, who believe he must invest more capital in abolishing the 60-vote threshold in the Senate for most of his platform to pass.
“A big concern among Democrats is that Joe Biden and [Senate Democratic leader] Chuck Schumer is making lip service on some points, but has no legislative strategy around it, ”said Waleed Shahid of the leftist group Justice Democrats.
And while three states in the last month alone have legalized recreational marijuana and Schumer, DN.Y., recognized 4/20, informal marijuana day, in the Senate last week calling for national legalization, Biden has so far failed to take any steps in his power to liberalize drug policy.
“At a time when an overwhelming majority of voters support the legalization of marijuana, the only thing the president has done on the issue since taking office is to fire staff members for using it,” he said. said Tom Angell, who follows and supports drug reform as the publisher of Marijuana Moment. .
On foreign policy, Joe Cirincione, a fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a nonprofit international policy organization, praised Biden for saying the United States would withdraw from Afghanistan, but said Biden “still clung to an outdated and outdated national security policy. for political reasons,” because he doesn’t want to alienate more hawkish Democrats in the Senate.
“I’m disappointed. But I understand that. It’s hard to dispute his political calculations,” said Cirincione, the former chairman of the Plowshares Fund, a group of anti-nuclear activists.
Brad Bauman, the former executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Biden had overall “exceeded my expectations,” but he fears the window to act on immigration is closing. “If we miss this chance to create a space for dreamers and immigrant families, we are going to lose an opportunity to do a lot of good for a lot of people,” he said.
It is telling that when Biden came under heavy criticism from immigration activists and others for capping the number of refugees allowed into the country at levels set by former President Donald Trump, he quickly did reverse.
“The progressives have been listened to,” said Jeff Hauser, founder of the Revolving Door Project, one of the most vocal critics of Biden’s left flank, who examines his personnel decisions right down to the obscure positions of the deputy. cabinet. “Biden ran center-right in the primary and ruled Obama’s left.”
Kat Calvin, an activist who founded Spread The Vote, said she was “not a big fan” of Biden. She said his refugee policy mirrored the Obama administration’s ‘excruciating’ immigration record, but that he was ‘showing basic post-Trump skills’ to tackle Covid-19.
“We are trying to get out of a crisis, and he is doing well,” she said. “I’m very interested to see, once we get out of this crisis and he has to do things other than gunshots, what he does.”