Progressives Won’t Wait for Biden to Set the Course

Progressives Won’t Wait for Biden to Set the Course

Progressives Won’t Wait for Biden to Set the Course

If Biden plans to fulfill his campaign trail promise that he’ll be the “most progressive president since FDR,” he’ll have to help lead the push for progressive policies.


On October 8, the Working Families Party released the People’s Charter, a progressive “road map out of our current state of crisis,” endorsed by several leading progressive legislators and insurgent congressional candidates, including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and other members of “the Squad,” as well as organizations including the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project,the Service Employees International Union, and MoveOn. Earlier, the Green New Deal Network, an even broader coalition anchored by Indivisible, released the Thrive Agenda endorsed by 85 sitting legislators and legions of unions, environmental, civil rights, and citizen action groups. These serve not only as policy statements but as political markers as well: If Biden wins next month as expected, progressives will not give him a pass but will seek to drive bold reforms from the get-go.

The contrast with 2012 and the early days of the Obama administration is stark. Obama, swept into office in large part by the energy of citizen movements, was wildly popular among progressive activists. National organizations, with leaders jockeying for positions in the administration, united to support his agenda. The Obama White House organized an outside roundtable to coordinate grassroots support. Progressives largely stood by as Obama dithered away his filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, diluting his agenda in a fruitless pursuit of support from mythical Senate Republican moderates. When Obama prematurely embraced austerity with unemployment still in double digits, outcries from progressive economists had little support.

Biden won’t get that pass. He has signed off on the boldest progressive agenda of any Democratic candidate in recent history, but he’s focused his campaign more on pursuit of more moderate suburban voters and the ever-elusive disaffected Republicans than on mobilizing his own base. His closing argument features moving beyond red-state and blue-state divides “to revive the spirit of bipartisanship in the country,” promising to work across the aisle, pledging that cooperation “is the choice I’ll back as president.” This can be written off as routine electoral posturing, but it also reflects Biden’s history as a Senate centrist proud of his ability to work with Republicans. And that bodes particularly ill as Republicans rediscover their horror of deficits and start braying about the need for austerity. While progressives—led by Bernie Sanders—have generally gone all in in the effort to eject Trump, most harbor serious doubts about Biden’s willingness to champion fundamental reforms.

Progressives are in a far stronger position to drive the debate than they were at the beginning of the Obama administration. There is widespread agreement on elements of a bold reform agenda, in significant part drawn from the Sanders campaigns. Both the Thrive Agenda and the People’s Charter call for large-scale public investment to modernize our infrastructure, move to clean energy, and create millions of jobs. Both would target public investment to low-income Black and brown communities. Both embrace universal health care and basic worker provisions like universal child care, paid family and medical leave, and paid sick days. Both emphasize the need to empower workers to organize and bargain collectively. Both call for strengthening public institutions from the postal service to public education. Both detail bold responses to help workers displaced in the pandemic.

Each has distinctive features. The People’s Charter calls for creating public banks, establishing public ownership stakes in corporations that are bailed out, and buying out oil and gas companies. Its first priority is moving funds from policing, jails, and endless wars into schools, public housing, and other services. The Thrive Agenda makes fair treatment of sovereign native nations one of its eight pillars. Neither includes an alternative trade agenda, reflecting the relative weakness of industrial unions in the coalitions.

Progressives also have greater strength in both the House and the Senate than they did at the beginning of the Obama era. The Thrive Agenda is endorsed by 85 legislators, and 10 senators including not only progressives like Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Jeff Merkley but also Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. In the House, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, under the leadership of Representatives Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal, has begun to act with greater cohesion and to exercise more power within the Democratic caucus. It will be bolstered by the election of several exciting new members who will add new energy to the push for a bolder agenda. The victories of Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and Marie Newman over long-serving Democratic incumbents send a message to powerful older Democrats in safe Democratic seats that they have to lead, not resist, the new agenda.

Driving all of this are the citizens in motion across the country. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the growing climate movement, women’s protests are in the streets. Importantly, independent worker strikes—from the teachers in red states to the Fight for $15 by fast food and other workers to the workers protesting unsafe conditions in the pandemic—presage a new period of worker activism that could dramatically expand the demand for change.

The battle will be joined immediately after the election if Biden is elected and if—a big if—Democrats take back the Senate. The first fight will be with the Senate Democratic caucus over whether to get rid of the filibuster to curb Republican obstruction. Biden, an institutionalist, has expressed doubts about the change. Sanders, Our Revolution, and much of the left will mobilize to pressure Democrats to move.

Biden’s early agenda will feature reversing many of Trump’s follies, ending his immigration abuses, reentering the Paris Accord, rolling back the assault on environmental protections. A first big skirmish is likely to be over the scope of the tragically delayed next Covid-19 rescue package. The next test is likely to be how Biden responds to what will be a growing Republican and establishment call of austerity in the face of large deficits.

What’s clear is that progressives won’t wait for Biden to set the course. They will be pushing for bold reforms immediately. In the Great Depression, when the early Roosevelt agenda failed, growing populist movements and liberals in the Congress forced Roosevelt to embrace what became the second New Deal—Social Security, the Works Progress Administration, the National Labor Relations Act, rural electrification, and more. Under Biden, the pressure will begin from day one. After claiming that he plans to be the “most progressive president since FDR,” Biden would be well-advised to lead the push, not resist it.

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