Comment / October 3, 2023

Progressives Must Step Into Biden’s Vision Vacuum

In the absence of a serious insurgent challenger for the presidency, we must mobilize independently.

Robert L. Borosage
Biden’s approval ratings remain underwater. (Saul Loeb / Getty)

Joe Biden’s plan to coast to a second term isn’t working. As the 2024 election season gears up, the Democratic establishment is lurching from complacency to panic. Everything was going according to plan: The Biden campaign had cleared the field of any serious challenger, eliminated debates, and greased the president’s path to the nomination. The only catch is that early polls suggest voters aren’t buying what the campaign is selling. Biden isn’t likely to withdraw, so it is imperative that progressives mobilize independently of the party to build the populist energy and message needed to drive fundamental change.

Biden assumed he could run on a decent economy and a solid record of accomplishment. The threat posed by Donald Trump and the outrage over Republican efforts to outlaw abortion would help get people to the polls. In a choice between “competent” and “crazy,” voters would stay with the incumbent.

But Biden’s approval ratings remain deeply underwater. A CNN poll this month reported that a stunning 67 percent of Democrats would prefer that he not be renominated, reflecting widespread concerns that Biden, who will be 82 on Inauguration Day, is simply not up to the job. Polls show him running neck and neck with a disgraced Donald Trump.

Worse, half of Americans believe the economy is poor and getting worse, and large majorities disapprove of Biden’s handling of it. Few of his domestic accomplishments will have much impact in the near term (for example, the initiative to reduce the price of a handful of drugs under Medicare doesn’t kick in until 2026). In a post-midterm poll in battleground states by Way to Win, a staggering 78 percent of voters said they couldn’t name one thing Biden and the Democrats had done to directly help their lives.

Inflation has come down, but prices are still high, wages haven’t kept up, and the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes have raised the cost of the big-ticket items—homes, cars, washing machines—that are bought on credit. The price of basics—health care, housing, day care, college—are increasingly unaffordable. Poverty is spiking as the benefits included in Biden’s Covid rescue package at the height of the pandemic expire

The Biden campaign responded with an unprecedented early advertising blitz in battleground states, hoping to convince Americans that the economy that doesn’t work for them is actually a success. That’s a fool’s errand.

Absent is the vision, bold agenda, and populist commitment to take on the powers that be to force fundamental change that Americans are looking for. Biden was never a credible populist champion. Most presidential second terms are disappointing, reflecting fatigue, loss of purpose, and increased reaction. A Biden reelection without a mandate or a bold agenda offers little prospect of anything better.

Progressive leaders and movements need to step into this vacuum. In 2020, Biden won by promising competence in contrast to Trump’s calamities. The energy in that campaign was fueled by movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo. Bernie Sanders’s candidacy provided vision, passion, and a progressive agenda. Insurgent candidates amplified that message. Movement activists helped drive the vote.

Today, that insurgent energy is less visible but still rising. The young demand action on climate and guns. Outrage about the assault on abortion rights has already shown its force at the ballot box. From Starbucks to Hollywood to the auto industry, workers are up in arms.

In the absence of a strong insurgent challenger to Biden, progressives can still organize forcefully and independently to define the stakes and rouse activists and voters. Progressive leaders in Congress—from Pramila Jayapal, Jamie Raskin, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad, Summer Lee, and Jamaal Bowman in the House, to Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, John Fetterman, and Raphael Warnock in the Senate—could convene a gathering of insurgent candidates, plus leaders from citizen movements and progressive electoral groups, to lay out the elements of a populist agenda, including the following: Highlight support for workers and unions demanding a fair share. Renew the push for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, expanding Social Security, paid family leave, the care agenda, a $15 minimum wage, and fair taxes on the rich to invest in people. Spotlight new candidates committed to these changes, from school boards to state legislatures to congressional races. Draw the contrast with the lunacy of MAGA Republicans. Take that message and energy across the country. Stump with insurgent candidates. Walk picket lines. Show voters that change is possible.

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With full control in Minnesota, for example, Democrats passed universal paid family and medical leave, free public college for low-income students, free school lunches, a tax on the rich, a child tax credit estimated to cut child poverty by one-third, codified abortion rights, and more.

If Biden remains the nominee, reelecting him will be necessary—but hardly sufficient. America can ill afford four years of lethargy or reaction. Only by organizing independently, calling for far bolder action, and standing clearly with citizens already in motion can progressives have any hope of building the mandate and momentum required to propel the changes this country desperately needs.

Robert L. Borosage

Robert L. Borosage is a leading progressive writer and activist.

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