When President Joe Biden touched down at Joint Base Andrews after from attending the G-7 Leadership Summit in Geneva – an event that tested his ability to reintroduce the United States on the global stage as a trusted ally and formidable presence – he returned to an equally delicate diplomatic challenge at home: retaining the trust of progressive Democrats who have grown tired of his insistence on bipartisanship and are making demands that stand to scuttle the success of his early tenure.
It’s time for us to go our own way, Sen. Ed Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said earlier this week. Flanked by Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrat, the two issued calls to end White House negotiations with Republicans and moderate Democrats on a dramatically scaled-back version of the administration’s proposed $2.5 trillion infrastructure package.
Together, they put forth a demand – an absolute unbreakable guarantee that climate has to be at the center of any infrastructure deal that we cut, as Markey put it – and echoed the warnings made last week by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont independent, and Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat, that they would vote down an agreement that guts the climate provisions.
The bungled infrastructure negotiations are just the latest in a series of high-profile disappointments for progressives, who after more than a week are still reeling over Vice President Kamala Harris telling Guatemalans thinking of migrating to the U.S.: Do not come. Do not come.
Her remarks, delivered after meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei during her first foreign trip, echoed Biden’s stated preference for solving the root cause of the migration crisis, which has sent record numbers of Central Americans to the U.S.-Mexico border in hopes of seeking asylum. But for many, the terse warning cast shadows of the previous administration – The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border, Harris said – and drew swift criticism.
This is disappointing to see, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, one of the most visible leaders of the Democrat’s progressive wing, said on Twitter. First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival. Second, the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.
Since the president was sworn into office, progressives have also been exasperated by Biden’s refusal to support eliminating the filibuster to tackle his agenda and his refusal to use his executive authority to cancel student loan debt. And as the infrastructure talks blow past deadlines, the clock begins running out on voting rights legislation and an overhaul of policing – two major priorities for the Democratic Party’s liberal flank.
For a wing of the party that propelled Biden to the White House and is generating a significant amount of its energy amid a national reckoning over systemic racism and inequality, progressives’ relationship with the White House underscores the tensions and frustrations of being a determining movement but having no real power – a position that’s beginning to introduce challenges for the administration as they begin to demand more.
It’s safe to say Biden was not fully supported by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in getting the nomination, says Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. That was typically going to Bernie Sanders. But it was crucial for Biden to have their support to win the presidency. And he did.
They gave him the benefit of the doubt those first few months, too, she says, noting that polling in the first two months of his presidency showed progressives overwhelmingly approved of the job Biden was doing – some pegging his approval rating above 95%.
But the blows are piling up for his progressive base – even the Department of Justice under Attorney General Merrick Garland has been taking heat – and their legislative and policy priorities seem farther away from becoming a reality the closer next year’s midterm elections draw, with nothing but a coronavirus relief package to show for Biden’s early tenure.
Justice Department officials revealed last week they are moving forward with a defense of former President Donald Trump in a high-profile defamation lawsuit brought against him by E. Jean Carroll, an author who accused Trump of sexually assaulting her in a book published in 2019.
You cannot afford to indulge the left wing … their policies alienate the very voters you need to sustain majorities.
Also last week, Justice Department officials filed a statement in court saying they’re bound to uphold the religious exemption enshrined in the Title IX civil rights law, even though they’re backing more than 30 LGBTQ students who say they were discriminated against by faith-based colleges and filed a lawsuit against Education Department asking them to rule the religious exemption unconstitutional.
With disappointments mounting – some out of the control of the White House entirely – Perry can’t help but wonder: Is the bloom beginning to fade from the rose?
Recent polling shows Biden still has some wiggle room. According to a Monmouth survey taken at the end of May, 88% of liberals still approve of the job Biden is doing compared to 57% who approve of the job Congress is doing – figures mirrored in a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll taken at the same time, which showed that 85% of very liberal voters approved of the job he’s doing, with 51% strongly approving. And Pew poll, also from late May, pegs Biden’s approval rating at 92% among liberal Democrats.
The question is to what purpose is energy, says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a center-left Democratic think-tank.
Right now, Joe Biden has to get his agenda through Congress and it’s pretty tough with these razor-thin margins of support, Marshall says. There’s not a lot of margin here for Biden to placate those doctrinaire voices on the party’s left. If he does that, he stands to lose the swing districts where the victors in 2018 put Democrats in the majority in the House and helped them win back the Senate and beat Trump by a very large margin.
While the question of turnout is certain to surface next year ahead of the midterm elections, Marshall says, Biden already has progressive voters locked up.
The voters who are in play are independents and moderate Republicans who abandoned the party because of Trump. College-educated suburbanites have become swing voters in the last election cycle, he says. If you’re trying to think about where you find majorities in the country, both in elections and in terms of governing, you cannot afford to indulge the left wing of the party on policies because their policies alienate the very voters you need to sustain majorities.
Progressives are quick to point out, however, that the president needs to capitalize on more of his agenda if he wants an insurance policy on voters in 2024 – something, they say, that won’t happen by negotiating with Republicans, especially given Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s penchant for blocking Democratic legislation. McConnell, for example, said earlier this week that he’d block a Supreme Court appointment should a vacancy be made available ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
The point is Democrats aren’t trying to find common ground out of any inordinate respect or affection for Mitch MConnell, Marshall says. That’s not the issue. The issue is the country, but the jury here is the voters. Not the ideologues, not the activists. The voters.
So what the president is doing, he says, is showing he is making a good faith effort to reach out to the few moderate members of the Republican Party and not just jam it down their throats the way Mitch McConnell would if the shoe was on the other foot.
It’s certainly not the first time a wing of an administration’s party has been disillusioned in what it stands to accomplish.
For Republican administrations, those disappointments have historically come in the form of Supreme Court appointments – in which a president names a justice to the court whose ideology veers to the left of what it was perceived to be. Such was the case when former President Richard Nixon, appointed former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who ended up becoming one of the court’s most liberal justices and authored the opinion in Roe v. Wade. But for Democrats, whose party is less ideological and appeals to a broader camp, those disappointments have typically come from presidents refusing to wholly embrace their agendas.
The Democrats are much like they were in the 1960s, where John Kennedy was a moderate Democrat, Perry says. He was doing what Joe Biden did, which is try to hew to the center because most of the time in American history that’s where voters are. That’s how you’re going to win and so what’s the point of being extreme or being right or left of center if you can’t get elected? Then you know you’re not getting any of your policies.
But try saying that to people who are true believers on the right or the left, she says. It doesn’t do any good to say to a progressive, ‘Look, Bernie Sanders was never going to win, so you better be thankful that Joe Biden won rather than a second term of Trump.’
Case in point: In addition to firing shots across the bow on infrastructure, progressives in both chambers have already said they’re prepared to sink a police reform deal that strips out changes to qualified immunity.