How Joe Biden tamed the left — at least for now

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Joe Biden launched the early months of his presidency with a one-two combination that’s gone a long way toward taming the party’s restive left wing: Listen a lot, and back many of the policies that activists have long wanted. The embrace of sweeping liberal ideas is dramatic — with about $2 trillion in coronavirus relief spending passed and another $2 trillion in infrastructure spending proposed, along with new taxes focused on wealthy individuals and companies to help pay for this and additional spending.

Those policies have been paired with steady attention from Biden’s top aides, including Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who are in frequent touch with groups that have long harbored suspicions about the president’s corporate ties and incremental instincts.

“It is a real partnership,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, who participated in a Zoom call with Vice President Harris early in the administration and says she has “many, many point people” to call inside the White House.

MoveOn’s executive director Rahna Epting summed up the experience so far with the Biden White House by saying: “There’s a lot of promise, and we’re on, like, our second or third date.” The administration’s warm relationship with the left is one of the most surprising aspects of the Biden presidency, particularly after a bitterly fought primary campaign where many liberals saw Biden as too close to Republicans and too timid to enact bold change.

The coronavirus pandemic and millions of job losses have changed the political landscape in ways that have aligned Biden’s agenda more closely with the left, as the administration pushes for broad liberal policies as a way to recover from the pandemic.

But the honeymoon could also be short-lived. Biden is entering a period of complicated negotiations on Capitol Hill over his jobs and infrastructure plan, which is almost certain to result in setbacks for the left. Many of the liberal wing’s biggest priorities — including a major voting rights bill and gun control legislation — lack support from some moderate Democrats, potentially dooming them in the Senate.

And an overly close relationship poses risks for both sides. Liberal leaders could lose credibility with supporters, particularly if Biden does not make progress on items such as increasing the minimum wage or defies them on other key issues. Likewise, if Biden appears too cozy with the left wing of the party, it could help Republicans paint him as a radical or a socialist — a narrative that the GOP failed to carry off during the 2020 campaign.

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From left, liberal Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) onstage during an Iowa presidential primary campaign event for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Jan. 31, 2020.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, laid out an updated version of that attack last week. “I like him personally. I mean, we’ve been friends for a long time. He’s a first-rate person,” McConnell told reporters in Kentucky, “Nevertheless, this is a bold, left-wing administration. I don’t think they have a mandate to do what they’re doing.”

In broad strokes, the legislation put together by Biden’s team contains concepts pushed by the left for the past few years. The $2 trillion infrastructure package that Biden unveiled this week is smaller but similar in structure to a prominent liberal proposal called the Green New Deal, with massive clean energy investments intended to create millions of jobs and confront climate change.

The package also devotes $400 billion for care of the elderly and disabled — a top demand of labor unions and many liberal economists — and massively increases a range of taxes on the biggest U.S. corporations, a long-held goal of liberals to counter income inequality.

That comes after a stimulus package that included $1,400 checks backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and a rethinking of federal subsidies to nonworking parents that will lift millions of children out of poverty.

“It’s certainly the case that the framework of things that he’s putting forward is quite progressive,” said Faiz Shakir, an adviser to Sanders who managed the senator’s 2020 presidential campaign. “It’s a very different world than the last few years where the base of a bill that was offered was fundamentally conservative.”

Leaders on the left also say they feel the administration is listening to them in a way that feels new. President Donald Trump hurled racist slurs at top liberals. President Barack Obama’s White House was significantly more respectful but still kept many liberal activists at a distance, deriding some as the “professional left.”

Klain returns emails and calls from top liberal groups and regularly brings in small groups of liberal lawmakers for meetings, taking care to be sure they feel there’s been a meaningful exchange, aides and lawmakers say.

And, nodding to a favorite platform of the liberal elite, Klain frequently uses his Twitter account to “like” or “retweet” messages even from lesser-known activists — a move that takes less than a second of his time but is noticed and widely discussed among liberal networks.

“I feel like we’re getting a little bit spoiled for future presidents,” said Varshini Prakash, the co-founder of Sunrise, a liberal group focused on reducing climate change that endorsed Sanders in the 2020 primary.

The attention from Klain, arguably the second most powerful person in Washington after the president, has been a shock for many. “I think it’s pretty wild that there’s a [White House] chief of staff who you can email who actually gets back to you,” Prakash said.

Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden, who also meets and talks frequently with liberal groups for strategy sessions, says the importance of tending to the liberal base is a hard-won lesson.

She also said “there is a pretty broad consensus” across the party on major priorities, which helps ease tensions. The White House, including Klain, have also made a point of staying in touch with groups and lawmakers across the ideological spectrum, Biden aides noted.

Biden officials have also hired staffers from the left, which has helped reduce frictions between the camps as well. More than a dozen officials with close ties to Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) landed in senior administration roles across the federal government, from foreign policy to financial regulation to economic policy.

Liberal groups say those steps represent a big change from prior Democratic administrations. Under Obama, for instance, two of the most prominent think-tanks on the left — the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the Economic Policy Institute — felt almost entirely shut out of policymaking.

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Biden speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the East Room at the White House on Thursday.

“We’re very much in the mix in the policy debate. It’s not like we can say, ‘Do this or that,’ but if I feel like they’re making a mistake, I’ll tell them and they listen,” said Dean Baker, a senior economist at CEPR. “We knew we weren’t getting Bernie Sanders. But in my lifetime, I can’t think of a president I’ve been this happy about.”

The relationship doesn’t mean everyone on the left is getting all of the priorities they want.

Biden’s $2 trillion jobs package, unveiled earlier this week, was smaller than most liberal groups wanted. His coronavirus relief plan did not include a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the most aggressive measure considered by the White House to boost worker pay and power. Many on the left felt the administration did not push hard enough for it in negotiations with Congress, an accusation the White House rejects.

And on foreign policy, many liberal lawmakers and aides have been aghast by some of the White House’s early steps. The Biden administration has not rejoined the Iran nuclear deal and has resisted punishing Saudi Arabia despite the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the regime’s role in the humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

Some on the left fear the movement is being co-opted by the Biden administration. “Klain has successfully corralled the left — all the important groups and influential representatives. He takes their calls, he schmoozes, he makes people feel heard,” said Corbin Trent, who left Washington after serving as communications director to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “That’s a useful skill, but it does not translate into much meaningful change. At this point, what the left is influencing is Klain’s schedule more than anything else.”

Some on the left think liberal groups are too quick to praise the administration because they have come to expect so little from prior presidencies. “What’s happened over the years is these groups’ expectation level has been pummeled into the ground,” said Ralph Nader, the former Green Party presidential candidate who heaped scorn on liberal lawmakers praising the White House. “They don’t even really have to be schmoozed because it’s such an easy sell.”

Biden’s wooing of the left started shortly after he sewed up the Democratic nomination last year around this time. With Sanders and Warren out of the race, the major liberal groups feared the worst.

Concerned about losing his left flank, the way Hillary Clinton did during her 2016 presidential bid, Biden created a series of unity task forces intended to find policy areas where liberal and moderate Democrats could agree and, they hoped, limit liberal whinging.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the House Progressive Caucus, who spent dozens of hours last summer working on the unity task forces, is now in frequent talks with the Biden White House.

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Biden speaks at an event to tout his $2 trillion infrastructure plan in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

She told the White House that it would “be very difficult to keep everyone on board” supporting the bill if the checks were too limited. Her argument largely carried the day: The final measure allowed for full stimulus checks to go to individuals making up to $75,000 a year and couples taking in $150,000 — meaning Americans who received the $600 checks from Trump in January got a second installment.

In the final stretch of vote counting for the Biden stimulus package, Jayapal talked to at least a dozen fellow House members who were still harboring concerns about the legislation.

“I just had to walk them through what it means to take credit for a victory,” Jayapal said, who added that many of the progressives in Congress were activists before they were elected to the chamber. “We’re used to feeling like we’ve got to get everything. Frankly, this is a new moment for a lot of our members. We haven’t been in a governing moment before.” This story has been updated to correct Dunn’s title to senior adviser.

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