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The Memo: Left seeks leverage to move Biden

The tug of war between President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE and the left wing of the Democratic Party is shifting onto policy grounds now that nominees have been selected for key positions in the new administration.

The left knows it will have a tough battle to get action on its priorities — partly because of Biden’s centrist outlook and partly because control of the Senate for the next two years is still up in the air.

Democrats would have to win both Senate seats in Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoff elections just to split the upper chamber 50-50 with Republicans.

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Many progressives are investing hope in the joint proposals that were established by a task force comprised of Biden supporters and backers of his main left-wing rival, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Energy: Biden seeks to reassert US climate leadership | President to 'repeal or replace' Trump decision removing protections for Tongass | Administration proposes its first offshore wind lease sale On The Money: Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal, warn of time crunch Out-of-touch Democrats running scared of progressives MORE (I-Vt.), earlier this year.

The document produced by the task force ran to 110 pages. But Charles Chamberlain, the chair of progressive group Democracy for America, said there were “probably four” key issues being eyed by the left.

“That’s adding a public option to ObamaCare; significant moves forward on climate change; expanding and protecting voting rights; and then police accountability,” Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain emphasized that his organization was simply seeking a fulfillment of the things outlined by the task force, rather than the kind of wish list progressives might advance in an ideal world.

“We are going to be pushing Biden to be as bold as his campaign promises,” he said. “These issues are clear but they are nowhere near as bold as what progressives would ideally want. This is ‘bold for a centrist.’”

The left finds itself in a complicated position as Biden readies to take the reins of power.

On one hand, progressives are energized. Ideas that were confined to the margins of the party before Sanders began his first run for the presidency roughly five years ago — items like single-payer health care and free college education — have become part of the Democratic mainstream.

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On the other hand, Sanders lost both his bids for the Democratic presidential nomination. Biden’s electoral resilience in winning the 2020 primary came as a bracing shock to some young progressives who assumed the party had shifted decisively in their direction.

November’s election also saw more than 74 million people vote for President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says Putin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE and Democrats fail to meet their expectations in Senate and House elections.

Moderates blamed progressives for slogans such as “defund the police,” which centrists argued were electorally damaging. The left shot back with the insistence that the party needs to stand up more vigorously for a progressive agenda and “embrace the base.”

"I think the left overestimates how many people agree with their agenda," one Democratic strategist complained. "It is the curse of only talking to people who agree with you. The election was, I think, a wakeup call if you look at the actual data. Short of the presidential [election], Democrats got their asses kicked."

The picture is made even more complicated because Biden will be entering the White House with the coronavirus pandemic still raging. Even though vaccinations are now being distributed, the economic damage from COVID-19 has been severe.

This could leave Biden with limited political capital to deploy in other areas like addressing climate change. The president-elect has said he will reenter the Paris accords, but action that requires congressional approval will be harder to achieve.

Some progressives recognize the hurdles.

Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist, noted that the Senate math was extremely challenging.

“If the Republicans are still in control of the Senate, or even if there is a 50-50 split, is even Biden’s minimal agenda going to get through?” he wondered.

Even in a best-case scenario, a centrist figure like Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin Simmering Democratic tensions show signs of boiling over Out-of-touch Democrats running scared of progressives MORE (D-W.Va.) seems implacably opposed to anything resembling the Green New Deal, for example.

Tasini argued that progressives’ time and energy would be better spent on strengthening their movement at the grass-roots level than trying — with little chance of success, in his view — to get a leftist policy agenda adopted.

“If we waste a whole bunch of energy out there in trying to move the Biden administration — which will be a failed experiment — we will have wasted the opportunity to build more strength within the movement,” Tasini asserted. “We have already wasted at least six to eight months of this COVID crisis where we could have reached out and built an enormous presence among the millions of people who have no voice.”

Biden has sought to navigate the clashing ideological currents within the party as he forms his administration.

The incoming team will largely reflect Biden’s own centrist impulses, including in big posts like Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin On The Money: Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal, warn of time crunch New report reignites push for wealth tax MORE for Treasury secretary and Tony Blinken for secretary of State.

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But the incoming administration will have its share of progressives as well, notably Rep. Deb HaalandDeb HaalandOvernight Energy: Biden seeks to reassert US climate leadership | President to 'repeal or replace' Trump decision removing protections for Tongass | Administration proposes its first offshore wind lease sale Biden administration proposes its first offshore wind lease sale  Haaland calls on US to address legacy of Native American boarding schools MORE (D-N.M.), who is Biden’s choice for secretary of the Interior, and California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraObama joins Biden to tout record ObamaCare enrollment numbers Biden walks fine line with probe into coronavirus origins Senate Latino Democrats warn about low Hispanic vaccination rates MORE (D), who has been nominated to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

Still, there is clearly some unease on the left.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezSimmering Democratic tensions show signs of boiling over Out-of-touch Democrats running scared of progressives Progressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters in mid-December that she was still trying to determine “what is this overall vision going to be.” She added, “To me, I think that’s a little hazy.”

Around the same time, Sanders told Axios that it was vital Biden did not take the left for granted.

“I've told the Biden people: The progressive movement is 35 to 40 percent of the Democratic coalition. Without a lot of other enormously hard work on the part of grass-roots activists and progressives, Joe would not have won the election,” he said.

Some Democrats say it is important that the tensions within the party are not overhyped, however.

“It’s not any secret that Biden is not a progressive,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the moderate New Democratic Network. On the left, he said, “there is an awareness that, if they are going to have victories, they are going to have to lobby and fight. But the boundaries here are well within the normal range of what happens inside a political party.”

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For now, at least, Democrats are united in relief that Trump’s White House tenure is coming to an end.

But once Biden gets into the White House, fresh battles beckon.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.