Welcome to the New Progressive Era
Progressives thought they knew what a Biden presidency would look like. How did they get him so wrong?
By Anand Giridharadas
Apr 14 2021
Washington in the first days of the Biden administration is a place for double takes: A president associated with the politics of austerity is spending money with focused gusto, a crisis isn’t going to waste, and Senator Bernie Sanders is happy.
People like to tell you they saw things coming. But as I talked to many of the campers in Joe Biden’s big tent, particularly those who, like me, were skeptical of Biden, I found that the overwhelming sentiment was surprise. Few of us expected that this president—given his record, a knife’s-edge Congress, and a crisis that makes it hard to look an inch beyond one’s nose—would begin to be talked about as, potentially, transformational.
Biden, after all, was a conservative Democrat who has exuded personal decency more than he has pushed for structural decency. One conservative publication labeled him “the senator from MBNA” for his friendliness to credit-card companies. He conducted the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings in a way that hurt Hill, for which he later expressed regret. He voted for the Iraq War and eulogized the segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. He began his 2020 campaign telling wealthy donors that, in his vision, “nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”
But then Biden sold the country on a massive rescue package that his erstwhile rival Sanders has called “the single most significant piece of legislation for working-class people that has been passed since the 1960s.” He quickly followed that with an infrastructure proposal that includes everything from roads to a strengthened safety net for caregivers, and focuses on redressing the harms of climate change and the racist urban planning of the past. Biden plans to finance it partially through a tax increase on the corporations he was once better known for protecting. There have been a slew of executive orders, many of real import, as well as gestures like standing up for Amazon workers seeking to unionize.
The conversations I’ve had in recent weeks have painted a portrait of an improbable coming-together of people and forces: a moderate president, with an ascendant progressive movement at his back and at his throat, facing a once-in-a-generation window of opportunity. It’s still early. It remains to be seen if this momentum will continue, if the infrastructure plan musters the votes, if the ungainly Sanders-to-Manchin coalition holds. But for now, a capital that has been defined in recent years by the absence of useful action bubbles with generative possibility. And many of us who thought we knew what a Biden presidency would look like, and didn’t expect much from it, are suddenly asking ourselves: How did we get him so wrong?
Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and member of the so-called Squad, endorsed Sanders in the primary and didn’t anticipate a whole lot from Biden. Nevertheless, during the winter transition, she and her colleagues in the Congressional Progressive Caucus shared their ideas and priorities with the incoming administration—and were taken aback when many of them were adopted.
“The $1.9 trillion package that they put forth was a surprise,” she told me. “A lot of us made recommendations when the administration was in their transition space, and I don’t think a lot of us expected many of those things would make it in.”
For the Reverend William J. Barber II, the North Carolina–based pastor and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, the surprise has been Biden’s venturing beyond his “Middle Class Joe” shtick to talk about a group Democrats have in recent decades preferred not to mention: the poor. At an event Barber hosted last fall, before the election, Biden told the group, “Ending poverty won’t be just an aspiration, but a way to build a new economy.” This, Barber told me, “was huge.” Barber and his team followed up with a 14-bullet-point wish list of poverty-fighting policies, some of which showed up in that first relief bill.
Among Omar and her colleagues’ priorities had been raising the minimum wage to $15, a goal Biden professed to share. But when push came to shove in the Senate, and a procedural obstacle arose, Biden gave in. Many progressives were angry. Biden personally called Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair, and explained the White House’s thinking. He suggested that Jayapal and some colleagues talk with his team about a long-term strategy for shared goals. And that meeting actually happened, with Biden’s chief of staff, Ronald Klain, on March 17.
“That was a huge signaling,” Omar told me. It suggests that progressives might not get everything they want, but, she said, “the administration understands that we are not willing to be taken for granted anymore.”
Omar’s experience reflects the collision of events that have landed the country, rather improbably, on the brink of a new progressive era: a president in the sunset of his life finding himself in office thanks in no small part to voters more radical than he, galvanized by long-term trends like rising inequality and the recent upheaval of the pandemic.
“The progressive wing is ascendant in terms of the new members, in terms of grassroots energy, in terms of advocating policies that most Democrats support,” Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and member of that wing, told me in January. “But the progressive wing is not in the positions of power yet.” Another way to put it is that progressives won the conversation but lost the primary. The man in power is not their man—but he’s hemmed in by their ideas. “So much of this is being framed in the ways that we want,” Jayapal told me.
One sign of this shift is the apparent demise of conventional wisdom that had outlived its usefulness—above all, on the supreme importance of fiscal discipline. “There’s definitely a shift towards a more progressive theory of how the economy works,” John Podesta, a former top aide to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and the founder of the Center for American Progress, told me.
Related to that turn in ideas is a churn in the idea-givers. Centrist and Wall Street–connected economic counselors like Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, who have been mainstays of previous Democratic administrations, are out, while more progressive advisers like Heather Boushey and Bharat Ramamurti are in. “That’s a big deal,” Robert Reich, the labor secretary under Clinton, told me.
I reached out to Summers. He wouldn’t weigh in on personnel changes, but said that if Biden is breaking away from past orthodoxies, it is because “the world has changed.”
He’s right. The shift in received wisdom is obviously about the pandemic. But it is also the result of growing frustration with an economy that fails millions of Americans; the influence of the presidential candidacies of Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren; and the hard-won lessons from the Clinton and Obama years about the dangers of caution and of faith in Republicans.
Apparently, while younger progressives were soaking in those lessons, Biden’s team was doing the same.
The old emphasis on bipartisanship and outreach has quietly been displaced in Joe Biden’s Washington with an emphasis on coalition—attending first and foremost to your own side, everyone balancing the holding of their own with the holding of their nose, so as to get the good-enough thing done now instead of waiting for what might never come.
Reed Hundt, a lawyer who served on the Clinton and Obama transition teams, wrote a book about the 2008 financial meltdown titled A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama’s Defining Decisions. When I called him, he was feeling the strange maybe-vindication of the author who hopes but can’t be sure that his book made a difference. He was optimistic about Biden’s aggressive spending in response to the pandemic. And he noted that, while the Obama team trusted too much in the good faith of Republicans, the Biden administration has focused on keeping its own Democratic coalition contented. “Often the phrase is used derisively, but in this case, ‘Generals fighting the last war’ may be good for the country,” Hundt told me.
Representative Jim Clyburn, the influential South Carolina Democrat and House majority whip whose last-minute endorsement helped catapult Biden to the nomination, made the same point about outreach across the aisle. Biden, who is famous for reaching right, has not talked much about that since his inauguration. “I don’t think Obama really understood the lengths to which those guys would go to keep him from succeeding,” Clyburn said about the Republicans. “And I just think that Joe Biden is not going to make that mistake.”
One explanation for Biden’s progressive turn is that he has never been an ideologue. He has lodestars—standing up for the middle class, favoring unions, and so on. But those lodestars have led him to varied results. His superpower, it is often said, is possessing “this sense of where the Democratic Party is, where the median of the party is, at a given moment,” as Khanna put it.
“He is a politician in the best sense of the word,” Reich told me. “That is, he sees a parade and he runs and gets in front of it—as long as the parade is not inconsistent with his values.” He added, “The secret here is that he has no strong ideological preconceptions. The interesting thing is he’s very open-minded. He is able to see changes in the operating consensus, the conventional wisdom, and, almost intuitively—I don’t know that it’s conscious—I think he just understands the change and latches onto it.”
Jeff Connaughton was once known as a “Biden guy.” He worked on and off for the then senator until he grew so disillusioned with Biden and with Washington in general that he wrote a scorcher of a book, The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. When I asked him about Biden’s shift left, he told me it reflects the best and worst of his old boss.
“You could say he doesn’t have core beliefs, that he shapes himself to the political moment. He often describes himself as a ‘fingertip politician,’ that he can find the political pulse, and that pulse right now is in an exceedingly different place than it was 30 years ago. He stood there in Iowa in 2020 and looked out at the enthusiasm in the other parts of the hall, where the Warren and Bernie troops were cheering and the Biden section was fairly empty. He gets that the progressives have most of the energy and excitement in the party.” Then Connaughton gave the more charitable view: “You might also say it shows he has the capacity for change and growth.”
There was another analysis I heard of Biden: Admirers and critics alike describe him as less of a star than Obama and Clinton were, in their different ways, and therefore more capable of old-school coalition. He connects with voters but doesn’t fill the room, and hasn’t filled the national airwaves. He is, in this view, a throwback to an earlier kind of politician whose job was to marshal disparate factions into alliance, rather than personifying the cause himself.
“My basic view is Biden is a transactional machine Democrat who wants to draw from every faction of the party as a coalition-building strategy,” said Matt Stoller, an anti-monopoly activist who in his newsletter, BIG, is a frequent critic of the Democratic Party establishment. “The machine-Democrat model is just: You’re a dealmaker,” he told me. “You put people in a room and you get them to cut deals with each other. And that’s how Biden, I think, operates. He just wants to hear from the labor guy, the business guy, and then he wants them to basically come to an arrangement.”
In this analysis, Biden is almost like a prime minister of a coalition government in a parliamentary system, where his desired policy course is the one he can get his coalition to agree on. With a 50–50 Senate and a pandemic, this is an orientation that rhymes with practical imperatives.