Left-leaning Democrats are frustrated that Biden isn’t charging hard. Is it important?
The Democratic left is seeing its rights and values under attack, whether by the Supreme Court or Republican-held state legislatures, from abortion to guns to passing laws. They see a Republican Party poised to take control of the House and possibly the Senate in the November election. They want both reaction and action — louder, more forceful rhetoric from the president and more aggressive measures to counter the right. In their eyes, Biden, who by temperament and instinct is still as much a creature of the Senate as he is of the executive, failed to rise to the challenge.
From the White House there is a somewhat different perspective, that complaints from progressives are both expected and acceptable, that this is a normal shock of a president by a militant base in an attempt to keep pushing him to do more. But in this formulation, Biden presides over a broader Democratic coalition that includes everyone from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on the left to Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) on the right and must never forget the importance of that.
Regardless of the frustrations expressed about Biden’s leadership, the White House’s view is that where it mattered most, in Congress, Biden introduced important bills in hopes of something more this summer, and that the president held a congressional coalition with fewer defections than either of his two Democratic predecessors, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. In a 50-50 Senate and House with a slim Democratic majority, even a few defections can be deadly, and that’s part of the discontent — and disconnect — between the president and his Democratic critics.
Critics from the left fall into several categories. The first is that Biden has lacked a consistent tone of anger and outrage over what is at risk and what is at stake at an unprecedented time in American politics. Sometimes he rose to the occasion. Sometimes, in the eyes of his detractors, he did not.
On the night of the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, Biden’s anger was palpable and his language reflected it: “Why are we willing to live with this carnage? he exclaimed. This rhetoric may have helped pass the first major gun safety legislation in decades.
But when a gunman killed seven people during a 4th of July parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, his first words sounded surprisingly lukewarm, at least compared to those of the governor. ‘Illinois, JB Pritzker (D), who gave the floor. to the fury of many Americans over the epidemic of gun violence.
Speaking on abortion on Friday, Biden attacked the High Court’s ruling in strong language, calling it “terrible, extreme and, I think, so totally wrong.” But while pointed and emotive in his criticism of the justices, the executive order Biden issued fell short of what some lawyers had hoped. Many of those advocates were also frustrated that the White House was not ready to respond on decision day, given that a leaked draft of the majority opinion had been in circulation since May.
This ties in with the president’s second area of criticism, which is that he was unnecessarily restricted in what he pushed for. It could reflect the real-world politics he lives in: knowing that he and the Democrats have pretty limited power to fight their way through issues in the Senate and also that some of what he proposes on abortion will not withstand the expected legal challenges.
For his critics on the left, he should be more willing to face the big fights, even the losers, to lay the groundwork, to show where he is trying to lead, to rally and mobilize voters, to show more explicitly that he understands the feelings and frustrations of many members of his coalition. As Sanders senior adviser Faiz Shakir put it, “Show me you’re ready to be a disruptor, just like we’ve seen the law do. Give me politics that drive the fights I care about…and give me things I can touch, smell, and see. … There is a desire to see daring fights and friction.
Ironically, early in his administration, Biden was described by some supporters as the boldest Democratic president since Lyndon B. Johnson, perhaps since Franklin D. Roosevelt. He signed the $1.9 trillion US bailout, which put money in people’s pockets, and then won bipartisan support for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.
He also lobbied for the multi-billion dollar Build Back Better bill, with money for social programs and funds to fight climate change. It was with this bill, stalled after months of negotiations, that the momentum was broken, and with it came a growing sense of frustration on the left.
Biden and the Democrats had no way on this bill, not voting rights, not immigration, or anything else on the progressive agenda, given the opposition from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona). But one complaint from the left is that with the failure of the legislative process, the president has lost the thread of his message, that he has been unable to support the idea that he has a progressive agenda and goals that match the aspirations of many critics on his birthday.
From the administration’s perspective, some of this criticism looks like a repeat of what happened in the 2020 Democratic primaries: that the same people who were criticizing him then as not being rhetorically strong and out of phase with where his party was, are the most critical today. In the primaries, Biden battled – mostly with Sanders – and prevailed; centre-left prevailing over the left. His advisers believe this should suggest that the president’s political instincts were sound then and are sound now, that he knows how to calibrate his words and actions, that he deals with political reality.
The opposite is that the world has changed since those primaries. The pandemic has happened. The attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 took place. New election laws have been enacted in some states. Threats to future elections have arisen. The decisions of the new conservative majority of the Supreme Court have arrived. Mass shootings continued. People are exhausted and nervous. They ask: where is the passion, day after day, that reflects these new circumstances and these new threats?
Biden has obvious goals over the next few weeks as Democrats head into the November election. One is to win the adoption of a package that could reduce the price of prescription drugs and possibly raise taxes for the wealthiest Americans. Negotiations continue on Capitol Hill, though administration officials are not in the room in part because of strained relations with Manchin. Friday’s strong jobs report gives Biden another talking point, though the combination of inflation and fears of a recession make it difficult to get a hearing on jobs alone.
The second is to use the abortion issue to mobilize voters to run in what is usually a low turnout election. That was Biden’s main message on Friday. Although he outlined elements of the executive order on abortion he was signing, his rhetoric mostly focused on November — the importance of everyone voting and the consequences of not doing so. He called on women to lead this charge.
Changing laws, he said, requires more election victories, and that in turn requires high turnout in November. No one can say with certainty whether the decision to cancel deer will dramatically change the trajectory of an election in which inflation remains voters’ top concern and Biden’s low approval ratings act as a drag on many Democratic candidates. For some activists, this ignores the obvious problem: November is months away; the threats are immediate.
Biden and his liberal critics may never be on the same page. He is who he is and probably won’t change. They have an agenda they are passionate about and they have expectations of what they want from their president. Biden will need as much enthusiasm from his base as possible to boost Democrats’ hopes of avoiding big losses in November, which also means as much enthusiasm for him personally as possible. He will be under pressure to lead, and to lead with force. This is the challenge he asked for when he applied for the position.