Joe Biden’s central campaign message focused on a fight to “restore the soul of America.” Now we are in a fight for the soul of the Biden presidency. Like Barack Obama’s presidency, this will be a constant terrain of struggle—at times hostile, at times open to progressives and social movements.
The complex dance of party leaders and movements is an American tradition, and the dynamics of today’s Democratic Party under Biden are no different. But while progressives did not succeed in getting our candidate at the top of the ticket, we know we can now lead our party through the wilderness with a bold and urgent vision. Here are five ways progressives must press that vision:
1) The fight for the soul of Biden’s administration and personnel. Progressives breathed a sigh of relief when Ron Klain was chosen as chief of staff over Bruce Reed and Steve Ricchetti, two men ideologically hostile toward them. Reed is a deficit hawk who is infamous for, among other things, his role as an architect of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare “reform” and as the executive director of the Bowles-Simpson commission, which sought to push Democrats to work with Republicans on cutting programs like Social Security. Ricchetti was a lobbyist for Big Pharma and worked for industry groups vehemently opposed to Medicare for All.
Klain’s appointment was followed by the announcement that Ricchetti had been given a less prominent but still influential position alongside Representative Cedric Richmond, one of the top Democratic recipients of donations from fossil fuel companies. The Sunrise Movement, Justice Democrats (the organization for which I work), and others criticized the appointments of Ricchetti and Richmond and said their selection only underscored the need for Biden to staff his administration with progressive leaders free of corporate influence. Since then, Biden has appointed progressives like Xavier Becerra, Deb Haaland, Jared Bernstein, and Heather Bouchey to his administration. That number, however, is paltry compared to the 40 percent of Democrats in the House of Representatives who are part of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Senator Chris Murphy has warned that Mitch McConnell, the current and potentially future Senate majority leader, may stonewall Biden’s cabinet selection process—presumably as a spur for choosing more GOP-friendly nominees. Instead, Democrats must make it clear that they defeated Donald Trump by more than 7 million votes. If McConnell chooses to obstruct the process, Biden should announce that he is ready to stock his cabinet with a slew of acting or recess-appointed officials in response.
2) The fight for the soul of Biden’s policy agenda. The president-elect has said he plans to use his mandate to deliver results on the greatest crises of our time: public health, climate change, systemic racism, and the economy. His appointment of John Kerry as climate envoy demonstrates that Biden is making climate action a priority. After progressives pushed for an Office of Climate Mobilization, Biden chose Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi, allies of the climate movement, to lead domestic climate policy. He can also use his executive power via the Treasury to shift financial flows from fossil fuels to climate solutions, while directing his cabinet to create millions of jobs by beginning to transition all federal buildings toward 100 percent clean energy.
3) The fight for the soul of the congressional Democrats. The Congress that will usher in Biden’s presidency will be far more progressive than the one Obama faced in 2009, with enough power to hold Biden accountable on policy. The Squad (Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley) has grown with the addition of progressive leaders like Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Marie Newman, and Mondaire Jones. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has already passed a major reform package that will make it a more organized and cohesive force under Representative Pramila Jayapal. The defeat of a number of conservative Democrats has given the members of the progressive bloc increasing leverage in negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This bloc is already using its leverage to push for a more robust Covid relief package that includes $1,200 stimulus checks.
Considering that McConnell may still control the Senate and that Democrats may well lack the willpower to eliminate the filibuster, progressives will have to push Biden to use every tool at his disposal to deliver on behalf of the American majority that elected him. This is particularly critical given that the vast majority of congressional Republicans have spent the weeks since the election amplifying Trump’s attempts to orchestrate a coup. Now the same Republicans will demand a say in the Biden administration’s and the Democrats’ legislative priorities.
Progressives should remain vigilant, lest Biden yield to his impulse to strike a grand bargain with the Republicans. In any such deal, McConnell would simply get the president and Democratic leaders to swallow as many poison pills as possible to ensure a demoralized and demobilized Democratic electorate in 2022. Any compromises with him could lead to even greater fissures than already exist between the progressive and corporate-friendly wings of the Democratic Party (a result that probably wouldn’t upset McConnell).
4) The fight for the soul of our multiracial democracy. The most fundamental questions our democracy faces in the coming months will be: How hard will the Democrats fight for the majority that elected them, and how hard will the Republicans fight to enshrine minority rule in our institutions?
The United States may be the only country in the world where a party can win the national majority of votes for the presidency and both legislative chambers without being able to govern. Progressives dedicated to a multiracial social democratic vision can find common cause with more narrowly partisan Democrats in warning that, as we have seen, power makes the Republicans more extreme and authoritarian, not less. As the GOP becomes more committed to preserving minority rule through gerrymandering, the ever-deepening rural bias of the Senate, and packing the courts with right-wing judges, progressives may become the most loyal partisan force in the party by demanding that Democrats explicitly resist minority rule and govern for the American majority.
Even if Democrats lose both of the Senate runoff elections in Georgia, the party will still represent 20 million more people than McConnell’s “majority.” Sooner or later, Democrats will have to confront the fact that Republicans can continue to hold on to political power without ever having to compete for the votes of the majority of Americans.
5) The fight over public sentiment. During Obama’s two terms, we witnessed the rise of movements like the Dreamers, Occupy Wall Street, the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, and the movement against the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. Movements outside the halls of power shine a light on urgent issues, shape public opinion, and bend the impossible into the inevitable. Since Biden comes from a political tradition based more in triangulation than in any clearly held policy views, social movements will have to create the political space for the next Democratic administration to act at the scale of the crises that Americans are facing.
The most transformative presidents in American history never fully embraced the social movements of their time. Instead they seized the political space created by those movements. Lincoln was not an abolitionist, Franklin Roosevelt was not a socialist or trade unionist, and Lyndon Johnson was not a civil rights activist. It was the relentless struggle in the streets and at the ballot box, as well as the efforts of unapologetic dissenters in the halls of Congress, that shaped these presidencies.
“You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it,” Roosevelt allegedly told the legendary activist and organizer A. Philip Randolph as the latter pushed FDR for labor and civil rights reforms.
Insurgent tactics and demands may irritate party leaders to no end, but that friction still serves to move politics toward the goals of greater freedom and justice. The abolitionist Radical Republicans, Lincoln once noted, “are nearer to me than the other side, in thought and sentiment, though bitterly hostile to me personally. They are utterly lawless—the un-handiest devils in the world to deal with—but after all their faces are set Zionwards.”
The Biden presidency will be defined by how it responds to a series of generation-defining crises: climate change, the economic disaster sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and a GOP hell-bent on suppressing the democratic will of a growing multiracial majority. For the president-elect to understand that our faces are set Zionwards would be a step forward.
Progressives have made our commitments clear. Now it’s time for Biden to do the same.