February 5, 2021
During a call with House Democrats on Wednesday, President Joe Biden used data from a three-year-old progressive think tank to argue his case for a massive Covid-relief plan.
The think tank, Data for Progress, may not have been in existence when Biden was vice president, but it’s become a mainstay for activists and lawmakers on the left. That its work product was shown love by the most establishment of Democrats did not go unnoticed among those who heard it. Indeed, news of the name-check quickly made its way to the group’s co-founder Sean McElwee.
“I was glad to see that we’re in their news diet,” said McElwee. “It’s evidence that Biden is hearing the stuff that progressives are doing and really engaging with it.”
Two weeks into his presidency, Biden has collaborated with the left, co-opted it and, for the time being, won it over. Progressives in Congress and across different policy organizations say Biden and his team aggressively reached out to them from the moment it became clear he’d be the Democratic nominee through his time in office. It could fall apart as Biden’s attention drifts toward more complicated issues that may require Republican buy-in. But, so far, what was once seen as a vulnerable flank for his presidency has been surprisingly secure.
“They’ve been very good at tending the garden,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “I don’t know if that’s because the president is a creature of the Senate or that their team needs a lot from congressional Democrats, but they have been super responsive and done their politics with precision.”
It wasn’t expected to go this way. Biden’s 36-year career in the Senate was regularly attacked by progressives during the campaign. Biden’s penchant for moderation and deal-making with Republicans was seen as a harbinger for bad bills to come, liberals warned.
So far, those fears haven’t been realized. In fact, progressives say his eagerness to tend to Congress has made him more acutely aware of the populist impulses driving the Democratic Party right now. Biden’s White House is directly and frequently engaging the left in ways his former boss, President Barack Obama, never did.
Two weeks of a presidency is hardly much of a record. And one lingering question remains for progressives: When Biden can no longer pass wishlist items with only Senate Democratic votes, how much political capital will he expend to pass things like immigration reform, gun control, and police reform through an evenly split Senate.
“We’ve learned to love the guy,” McElwee said. But, he cautioned, “if things don’t happen, it’s going to be really hard for progressives. At the end of the day to come back to our base, you got to give us something to take to these voters.”
Biden’s team seems acutely aware of these pressure points. They’ve staffed the administration with officials who have deep roots in the progressive community. “We have a lot of friends that are now in the administration,” as one leader of a progressive group put it.
And the tone appears to be set at the top. Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, progressives say, has been instrumental in outreach to the left wing of the party both before and after the inauguration. Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice, an organization focused on reforming the courts, said Klain has a respect for advocacy organizations other “insiders” don’t share.
“A lot of people that are creatures of Washington scorn activists and movement people,” said Fallon, who was himself once considered a creature of Washington before becoming a movement person.
Before starting Demand Justice, Fallon would have lunches with Klain about policy ideas and operational challenges. “He’s been like a mentor figure to a lot of people that lead advocacy organizations,” Fallon said.
Those dialogues with advocacy organizations have continued into the presidency. The release of an immigration bill on Day One, and rapid executive orders reversing some of the most controversial policies of the last four years have also appeased the left wing.
Some of the newer progressive groups that have led the charge on climate change action, meanwhile, say they have — what in effect is — an open door policy with key members of the new White House.
Evan Weber, political director of the climate-focused Sunrise Movement, said Biden climate adviser Gina McCarthy, climate envoy John Kerry and other members of the administration meet on a “weekly, near daily basis.”
“We’ve talked about moving to clean vehicles and buildings and a focus on environmental justice,” Weber said. “We haven’t really had points of disagreement but it’s probably coming. I think we’ll start to disagree on the degree and urgency [more than] the general direction.”
A White House official said the strategy of direct engagement is deliberate. “From senior levels there is a cognizant understanding of making sure that we reach out to progressives,” the official said. They added that Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who heads the critical Senate Budget Committee, “have always had a great working relationship” and “you continue to see that.”
Adding to the progressive ranks throughout the administration, Sanders’ foriegn policy adviser Matt Duss is expected to join Biden’s State Department, though the move isn’t final. And Analilia Mejia, former adviser on Sanders’ presidential campaign, recently became deputy director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau. On Thursday, former senior adviser to Sanders’ campaign, Josh Orton, announced his move to the Labor Department as a policy adviser to the new secretary.
On the House side, leading progressives are also finding early access to the administration, and, so far, willing partners.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said the access began before the inauguration. Alongside one other member, she met with Susan Rice, now the head of the Domestic Policy Council and one-on-one with Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council in December and January respectively. She has a meeting with Jeff Zients, Biden’s coronavirus coordinator, later this week.
Jayapal’s place in the Biden orbit was underscored this week when she heard, in her words, that “there might be some issues about keeping [the] $15” minimum wage hike in the coronavirus package.
“We were able to call and say, ‘can you confirm the White House’s support for this policy so that millions of workers can get a raise across the country and they did that,’” she said in an interview. Within hours Biden tweeted support for raising the minimum wage, though he notably did not say whether he wanted it in the coronavirus relief package that is likely to pass through the budget reconciliation process. Axios first reported Jayapal’s plea to the White House.
One member of a progressive group that recently met with White House Director of Public Engagement Cedric Richmond, said the administration “bought themselves time” by frequently talking to grassroots leaders during the transition. “The question is how long does the goodwill last?,” the source added.
As Biden’s administration looks beyond the coronavirus relief bill, they’re aware that their relationship with the left may hit rocky patches. Progressives expect the same but don’t think it’s necessarily guaranteed.
“Is the governing coalition of the country going to be the Democratic party writ large: progressives, centrists and aligned independents, is that the governing coalition?” said Jeff Weaver, former senior adviser to Sanders’ presidential campaign. “Or is the governing coalition, Democratic Party centrists and Republicans? That’s the fundamental question.”
Keeping that coalition together, however, is likely dependent on where Biden comes down on the issue of eliminating the legislative filibuster. Though some leading Democrats have signaled a change to the filibuster may be on the horizon, progressives are watching Biden and other party leaders closely on the issue.
When the time comes, most progressive groups, particularly those created after Sanders’ rise in 2016, will look to Biden to weigh in on reforming the filibuster. The procedural tool requires a 60-vote threshold for most legislation.
“A lot of the progressive priorities are going to be very difficult to [pass]” through the use of reconciliation, said McElwee, noting that they won’t qualify under that particular parliamentary procedure.
For now, however, advocates are keeping the peace as Biden focuses on Covid. They say the administration knows where new political power centers lie and that, when the time comes for Biden to focus on issues beyond the pandemic, they hope he will rise to the occasion.
Biden knows “this is a racial justice moment, that this is a moment of intersecting crises,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party. “They might have different prerogatives and certainly a different ‘how’ when you get into the details. But we’re swimming in the same waters because of these crises.”
For now, says Weaver, one thing is clear: “Progressives are at the table and that has never happened before.”