Campaign

Progressive leaders skeptical of Biden despite Sanders endorsement

Former Vice President Joe Biden is facing lingering skepticism from some of Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) most loyal supporters, even as the Vermont senator endorsed the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee this week.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of Sanders's most prominent surrogates, told The Associated Press on Monday that she wanted to see "a real plan" on health care from Biden - "not just gestures."

David Sirota, a senior adviser to Sanders's presidential campaign, sent out a newsletter hours after the Vermont senator endorsed Biden raising questions about the kind of nominee the former vice president will be.

And Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said that she is still waiting for a signal from Biden acknowledging the clout of the progressive movement, pointing to primary exit polls that showed broad support for policy proposals like "Medicare for All."

"What I am looking for is a gesture from the vice president that he understands that these are the issues that are important to people," Omar said in an interview with the podcast "What a Day" on Tuesday. "Although they voted for him, every single exit poll said these were the issues that were important to them overwhelmingly."

There's consensus among progressives that they will have to back Biden's general election bid against President Trump; Ocasio-Cortez, Sirota and Omar have all said that they plan to support the eventual Democratic nominee, and Sanders has made clear that defeating Trump in November should be his supporters' top priority.

But their lingering skepticism of Biden signals an emerging pressure campaign to score key policy concessions from the former vice president, a relative moderate who for months fought off criticism from progressives that his platform and political history were out of step with a younger, more liberal Democratic coalition.

"I would say Biden has taken some baby steps, but he has a long way to go," said Norman Solomon, a California-based activist who served as a delegate for Sanders to the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

"There are millions of people who are just disgusted with candidates who serve Wall Street more than Main Street, and the fact that Biden's rhetoric is all about serving Main Street doesn't change his record," Solomon said. "He's got to prove that he's willing to change."

Still, Sanders's endorsement of Biden in a joint livestream appearance on Monday was a clear signal to his supporters that it is time to rally behind the former vice president as the Democratic nominee. It also made good on Sanders's promise throughout the primary race to do whatever it takes to defeat Trump, regardless of who wins the nomination.

"We need you in the White House," Sanders said to Biden. "So I will do all that I can to see that happens, Joe. And I know that there is an enormous responsibility on your shoulders right now, and it's imperative that all of us work together to do what has to be done, not only in this moment, but beyond this moment in the future of this country."

Sanders on Tuesday said it would be "irresponsible" for his supporters to not back Biden's presidential campaign.

"Do we be as active as we can in electing Joe Biden and doing everything we can to move Joe and his campaign in a more progressive direction? Or do we choose to sit it out and allow the most dangerous president in modern American history to get reelected?" Sanders asked in an interview with The Associated Press. 

"I believe that it's irresponsible for anybody to say, 'Well, I disagree with Joe Biden - I disagree with Joe Biden! - and therefore I'm not going to be involved.'"

Terry Tucker, a Democratic National Committee member who supported Sanders's presidential bid, cautioned against relying too heavily on an anti-Trump message to win over the Vermont senator's backers. Instead, he said, Biden and his allies should engage in a substantive conversation on policy.

"Not verbally bludgeoning Sen. Sanders's voters over the head with Trump is essential," Tucker said. "Sen. Sanders's supporters are, for the most part, well-read, intelligent, multigenerational progressives who want serious policy changes to be discussed."

"I want to win - and Democrats have the right message," she added. "In spite of Trump, we win when we reach people's hearts and minds."

There are signs that Biden may be ready to make some policy overtures to progressives. Speaking on the livestream on Monday, the former vice president noted that he supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour - a staple of Sanders's platform.

He also said that the federal government should use its "wartime authority" to compel banks that receive financial help from the recent coronavirus relief bill to give loans to small businesses if they fail to do so on their own.

The two men said they would form six task forces that would advise Biden's campaign on key policy issues, including the economy, education, criminal justice, climate change, immigration and health care.

At the same time, Biden's allies and advisers have been in touch with Sanders's associates and aligned progressive groups, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), one of Biden's campaign co-chairs, has also spoken with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who served as a co-chair for Sanders's presidential bid.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call on Tuesday, Khanna praised what he called Biden's "fundamental decency," saying that one of the former vice president's greatest political skills is his ability to "build coalitions."

He also said that he was open to consulting with Biden on foreign policy, a topic he advised Sanders on throughout the primary race.

"I have great confidence that the Biden campaign will be a broad coalition - will have people having a seat at the table - and I will be doing everything I can to support the vice president in whatever they want me to do," Khanna said.

Still, there's distance between Biden and Sanders on some key policy issues. The former vice president hasn't backed - and is unlikely to back - Sanders's Medicare for All proposal. And while Biden has proposed a version of tuition-free college that caps the benefits for families with incomes over $125,000 a year, it falls short of a more sweeping plan touted by Sanders.

Both men acknowledged those differences on Monday.

"It's no great secret out there, Joe, that you and I have our differences and we're not going to paper them over," Sanders said. "That's real."

Still, some in Sanders's orbit are more reluctant to embrace Biden as the nominee. Briahna Joy Gray, who served as Sanders's national press secretary, said that while she has "the utmost respect for Bernie Sanders," she would not endorse Biden for president.

"I supported Bernie Sanders because he backed ideas like #MedicareForAll, cancelling ALL student debt, & a wealth tax," she tweeted. "Biden supports none of those."

Claire Sandberg, the national organizing director for Sanders's campaign, tweeted on Monday that the onus is on Biden and his supporters to develop a message that unites the party and drives progressives to the polls. But "it's never useful to blame the voters," she said.

"If it alarms you to see so many Bernie supporters expressing their disgust for Joe Biden, then you should pressure the Biden campaign to create a plan to win over skeptical Bernie supporters and make sure they turn out," she said.

Jonathan Easley contributed.

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