Liberals disappointed after Biden’s first year
Progressives are growing restless over the state of Joe Biden’s presidency, with some upset that his first year in office was not as transformative for Democrats as they had hoped.
Desperate for a shift from the Trump years, liberals who wanted the new president to rewrite the policy playbook are now worried that Biden, burdened by a narrow Senate majority, may not accomplish more sizable changes heading into 2022.
That realization has hit some in the party’s left flank particularly hard.
“Biden has governed all year long like anyone but him is the president,” said Deirdre Shelly, campaign director of the climate-oriented Sunrise Movement.
“He has refused to throw any punches or posture at all towards the people in his own party who are hindering his agenda, or even to Republicans,” Shelly added.
Biden entered office with Democrats holding slim majorities in the House and Senate, but progressives bemoan what they view as a sense of timidity on tackling major and long-sought priorities.
Many see the party’s narrow advantage in Congress slipping away by the day, adding to Democrats’ anxiety that they are running out of time to tackle a range of issues before losing control of one or both chambers.
Progressives who once gave the new president a grace period have now grown tired of watching items fall off the agenda.
“On every issue — voting rights, student debt, climate — he lets the bad actors set the terms of the debate,” Shelly said.
Biden met privately with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) this week to attempt to hash out a path toward passing his signature Build Back Better proposal.
But the fallout from that discussion, which has left Manchin and the White House at odds over the sweeping bill’s child tax credit provision, has heightened tensions on Capitol Hill and has left progressives angry about the inability of the Democrats to come to an agreement.
Some on the left are less critical of Biden’s role in all of it. They perceive Manchin as the leading Democratic obstructionist and say the president has tried hard to move him.
“He’s doing what he can, working his connections,” said Jeff Garis, federal campaigns and program director for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, which has mobilized support for Biden’s spending plan. “This is so narrowly divided.”
Garis maintained that Biden “has done very well so far” given the broader partisan climate, with Senate Republicans unanimously opposed to the Democratic-only bill.
By comparison, 19 GOP senators voted with Democrats to pass the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill in August, the biggest legislative achievement for Biden this year.
Progressives were more optimistic earlier in Biden’s term when talk of a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package appeared to be gaining traction. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House maintained for months that such a large figure was crucial, despite major pushback from moderates.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the caucus’s leader, convened several working sessions with senior White House officials relaying the importance of keeping the scope of the bill wide and mounted a considerable effort to ensure that her key items around climate change, Medicare and paid leave, among other liberal considerations, were left intact.
While Democrats hailed the eventual passage of the scaled-down social spending bill in the House, it has lagged in the Senate. Some activists are also voicing frustration that the party isn’t moving more quickly to address election reform and other areas that disproportionately impact minority communities.
Biden called for the Senate to pass federal voting legislation and even acknowledged that reforming the procedural filibuster might be necessary. But progressives argue he should have also launched a national retail politics effort to generate momentum on the issue, similar to how he traveled the country to tout the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“Biden deserves high marks on how his team has navigated a national health crisis,” said Michael Ceraso, a progressive strategist and former campaign worker for Sanders. “But that doesn’t give his administration or congressional Democrats a pass on not reforming the criminal justice system, watching voting rights erode and the right to protest stripped, and allowing reproductive health to be under siege.”
“The question for political leaders is, when will they put an end to the trauma loop for the historically marginalized?” he added.
Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have declined to budge on the filibuster, despite Biden’s meetings with the two moderate holdouts at various junctures.
Now Biden appears to be caught between a long-standing Senate rule that at least two centrists are loath to change and the majority of Democrats who want to see action before the midterms — including the president.
“If the folks we have elected to office to carry the banner of the Democratic Party are unable to press the basic principles of the party, then I think they’ve got to reconsider what their role is,” said the Rev. Leah Daughtry, a veteran party operative and former CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee.
“You’ve got a community of people, a nation of people, who are watching to see, particularly in these perilous times, who is fighting for us?” Daughtry said. “Who is protecting us? Who is advancing the American agenda on behalf of the least, the last, the lost, the locked up?”
“Will you be a hero? Or are you just somebody else we’ve got to fight?” she said.
Like many Democrats, Daughtry predicts that more stagnation and lack of results before January could lead to a colossal shake-up in next year’s elections.
The shared angst comes as progressives are already anticipating a tough cycle. Some have started to look ahead to 2024 amid speculation — discredited numerous times by the White House — that Biden may not run for reelection if his standing with the American public remains low.
Just more than 50 percent disapprove of how Biden is handling the office of the president, according to recent aggregate polling averages, while just 44 percent approve of the job he’s doing.
That feeling escalated after the first electoral mood-setter — the Virginia governor’s race — proved to be a disappointment for the party that expected an early win, with GOP businessman Glenn Youngkin easily defeating former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
“We are fighting the same fights over and over again,” said former Ohio congressional candidate Nina Turner, who has long been critical of the president, during an organizing call this week with grassroots activists.
Turner, who suffered her own high-profile primary defeat to moderate Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) last month, used the word “daunting” to describe the state of affairs under Biden in Washington.
“We cannot continue to build on the old and expect new,” she said.
Some House Democrats have started messaging around what they deem a failure within the party to address other issues such as college debt reimbursement and a $15 minimum wage. Both priorities were campaign pledges from Biden in 2020.
“A note to Democrats who blame progressives after losing an election: Forcing millions to start paying student loans again and cutting off the Child Tax Credit at the start of an election year is not a winning strategy,” tweeted progressive Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.). “We’re warning you now, don’t point fingers in November.”
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