Biden wins over skeptical progressives
President Biden is approaching the 100-day mark high in the polls, thanks in large part to his ability to unite fractious Democrats behind his policies.
Two polls out earlier this week showed Biden’s approval ratings at almost full support. A Quinnipiac University survey showed Biden with support among Democrats at 94 percent. A Monmouth University poll showed Biden doing even slightly better, at 95 percent, with those in his party.
The results are surprising given the skepticism many progressives had for the 78-year-old Biden, whose age and background seemed out of step with the direction of his party.
But as he approaches the 100-day marker, Biden has been successful in uniting Democrats behind him.
“First of all, they were wrong,” says Michael Eric Dyson, the author and historian, of the progressive skepticism.
“People who predicted a sore thumb or a problem have been pleasantly surprised that he’s been far more progressive and far more aggressive in getting stuff done. He ain’t waiting around.”
Biden’s first weeks in office were focused on a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. It was popular in part because of the $1,400 direct payments to most households, but it also included provisions prized by the left meant to help working families and address inequalities for women and minority groups.
The president decided to move the package with the use of budget reconciliation rules that sidestepped a filibuster, something that pleased progressives worried the pursuit of GOP votes could water the package down.
Now Biden is eyeing the same basic strategy for moving a large infrastructure package costing trillions of dollars. It also goes beyond infrastructure and includes measures tackling climate change that are prized by progressives.
While the $2.2 trillion bill is not as large as some on the left want, it is plenty big. Democrats do differ on a number of parts of the bill, and there are likely to be some difficult weeks of negotiations ahead.
But it has also generally kept Democrats in line, debating within and not complaining about the direction of the bill.
“Thus far, he has been astute at picking those areas that can keep his coalition in place rather than tearing it apart,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
“Moderates and progressives agree, for instance, that infrastructure matters a great deal and that endless wars without clear progress don’t benefit the U.S. or its allies.”
That’s a reference to this week’s announcement by Biden that the U.S. will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
“Biden is showing that despite the tensions between moderates and progressives, there is a remarkable degree of consensus over big issues within the party,” Zelizer said.
While Biden had been an unsuccessful advocate for smaller troop presence in Afghanistan during the Obama years, progressives were nevertheless surprised to see him embrace the progressive position of a full withdrawal given his more moderate rhetoric on the campaign trail.
“This wasn’t necessarily where candidate Biden was. There were others who were bolder and calling for this more often,” said Stephen Miles, executive director of Win Without War.
Biden has shown a decisive streak so far in his presidency, deciding quickly to cut bait with the GOP on the COVID-19 talks when Republicans offered a proposal less than a third the size of his own.
Biden advisers say part of the reason he’s moving quickly is because he knows he doesn’t have the luxury of time, particularly as the midterm elections move closer.
“Biden understands that time is of the essence and that’s why he’s moving at a rapid but responsible clip,” said one adviser to the president. “And the 100 days has also shown us the gap between the political class on cable and Twitter and the rest of the country; Biden’s numbers are strong — and as important, the public support for his proposals is strong.”
The adviser added that “it’s been a terrific start under terrible circumstances” in the middle of a pandemic and following an insurrection at the Capitol.
There have certainly been some moments of friction.
Progressives criticized Biden for proposing a slight increase in the defense budget, rather than cutting it.
There have also been complaints about Biden’s handling of the border crisis, where child migrants are being held as a wave hits the border. On Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave a nudge to Biden on refugees, arguing it was time for him to lift a ceiling on the number allowed into the country.
Progressives are also wary of the Biden administration’s plans to move ahead with a $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates that had been approved under the Trump administration.
But Dyson, who with other historians met with Biden last month at the White House, said the president clearly learned lessons from his time as vice president under Obama, who was more cautious on policy issues.
“That kind of caution, carefulness, calculation, this man has seemed to throw to the wind,” he said.
Dyson said even he has been somewhat surprised by Biden’s approach, which he says is more Lyndon Johnson than Obama.
“I thought he would be working with Republicans out of necessity and temperament,” he said. “But he won’t compromise fatally with Republicans and he hasn’t done it with venom. He’s done it with a smile on his face.”