Joe Biden’s central campaign message focused on a struggle to “restore the soul of America”. Now we are fighting for the soul of the Biden Presidency. Like Barack Obama’s presidency, this will be constant terrain of struggle – sometimes hostile, sometimes open to progressive and social movements.
The complex dance of party leaders and movements is an American tradition, and the dynamic of today’s Democratic Party under Biden is no different. While progressives failed to get our candidate to the top, we know we can now lead our group through the wilderness with a bold and urgent vision. Here are five ways progressives need to enforce this vision:
1) The battle for the soul of Biden’s administration and staff. Progressives breathed a sigh of relief when Ron Klain was selected as chief of staff over Bruce Reed and Steve Ricchetti, two men who are ideologically hostile to them. Reed is a deficit hawk infamous for his roles as the architect of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform and as the executive director of the Bowles-Simpson commission, which sought to urge Democrats to work with Republicans on cutting programs like social security. Ricchetti was a lobbyist at Big Pharma and worked for industry groups that were vehemently against Medicare for All.
Klain’s appointment was followed by an announcement that Ricchetti had been given a less prominent, but still influential, position alongside Representative Cedric Richmond, a leading Democratic recipient of fossil fuel company donations. The Sunrise Movement, Justice Democrats (the organization I work for), and others criticized the Ricchetti and Richmond appointments, saying their selections only underscored the need for Biden to fill his administration with progressive leaders who are free from corporate influence. Since then, Biden has appointed progressives such as Xavier Becerra, Deb Haaland, Jared Bernstein and Heather Bouchey to its administration. That number, however, is skimpy compared to the 40 percent of House Democrats who are part of the Progressive Caucus of Congress.
Senator Chris Murphy has warned that Mitch McConnell, the current and possibly future Senate majority leader, could block Biden’s cabinet selection process – presumably as an incentive to select more GOP-friendly candidates. Instead, Democrats must make it clear that they defeated Donald Trump by more than 7 million votes. If McConnell wants to obstruct the process, Biden should announce that he is ready to fill his cabinet with a number of acting or hiatus officials.
2) The struggle for the soul of Biden’s political agenda. The president-elect has announced that he will use his mandate to achieve results for the greatest crises of our time: public health, climate change, systemic racism and the economy. His appointment of John Kerry as climate officer shows that Biden is making climate protection a priority. After the progressives pushed for an office for climate mobilization, Biden elected Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi, allies of the climate movement, as heads of domestic climate policy. He can also use his executive powers through the Treasury Department to shift financial flows from fossil fuels to climate solutions and instruct his cabinet to create millions of jobs by starting converting all federal buildings to 100 percent clean energy.
3) The struggle for the soul of the Congress Democrats. The Congress that will usher in Biden’s presidency will be far more progressive than the one Obama faced in 2009 and will have enough power to hold Biden accountable for politics. The roster (representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley) has grown to include progressive leaders such as Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Marie Newman and Mondaire Jones. The Progressive Caucus of Congress has already adopted a comprehensive package of reforms that will make it a more organized and coherent force under Representative Pramila Jayapal. The defeat of a number of Conservative Democrats has given progressive bloc members increasing leverage in negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That block is already leveraging its leverage to push for a more robust Covid aid package that includes $ 1,200 worth of stimulus checks.
Given that McConnell may still control the Senate and the Democrats may lack the willpower to get rid of the filibuster, the Progressives must urge Biden to use every tool at their disposal to deliver on behalf of the American majority, who chose him. This is especially critical as the vast majority of Congressional Republicans have spent the weeks since the election amplifying Trump’s attempts to orchestrate a coup. Now the same Republicans will be demanding a say in the legislative priorities of the Biden administration and the Democrats.
Progressives should stay vigilant lest Biden give in to his impulse to do a great deal with the Republicans. In such a deal, McConnell would simply get the president and Democratic leaders to swallow as many poison pills as possible to ensure a demoralized and demobilized Democratic electorate in 2022. Compromising with him could lead to even bigger rifts than already exist between the progressives and pro-business wings of the Democratic Party (a finding that McConnell probably wouldn’t upset).
4) The struggle for the soul of our multiracial democracy. The most fundamental questions our democracy will face in the months ahead will be: How hard will Democrats fight for the majority that elected them, and how hard will Republicans fight to anchor minority rule in our institutions?
The United States may be the only country in the world where a party can win a national majority for the presidency and both legislative chambers without being able to govern. Progressives embracing a multicultural social democratic vision can find a common cause with closer Partisan Democrats by warning that, as we have seen, power makes Republicans more extreme and authoritarian, no less. While the GOP is more committed to maintaining minority rule through Gerrymandering, the ever-deepening rural bias of the Senate, and the occupation of the courts with right-wing judges, progressives may become the most loyal partisan force in the party by demanding that the Democrats express resistance make minority rule and rule for the American majority.
Even if the Democrats lose both Georgia Senate runoffs, the party will still represent 20 million more people than McConnell’s “majority”. Sooner or later, Democrats will have to face the fact that Republicans can continue to hold onto political power without ever having to fight for the majority of American votes.
5) The struggle for public opinion. During Obama’s two terms in office, we saw the rise of movements like the Dreamers, Occupy Wall Street, the $ 15 struggle, Black Lives Matter, and the movement against the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. Movements outside the chambers of power shed light on urgent issues, shape public opinion and turn the impossible into the inevitable. Because Biden stems from a political tradition based more on triangulation than on clear political views, social movements need to create the political space in which the next democratic government can act on the scale of the crises Americans face.
The most transformative presidents in American history never fully embraced the social movements of their time. Instead, they took advantage of the political space created by these movements. Lincoln was not an abolitionist, Franklin Roosevelt was not a socialist or a trade unionist, and Lyndon Johnson was not a civil rights activist. It was the relentless struggle in the streets and at the ballot box, as well as the efforts of non-apologetic dissidents in the convention halls that shaped these presidencies.
“You convinced me. Now go out there and let me do it,” Roosevelt allegedly told legendary activist and organizer A. Philip Randolph when he urged the FDR to reform labor and civil rights.
Insurgent tactics and demands may irritate party leaders to the extreme, but that friction still serves to move politics towards the goals of greater freedom and justice. The abolitionist radical Republicans, Lincoln once said, “are closer to me in thoughts and feelings than the other side, even though they are bitterly hostile to me personally. They are utterly lawless – the most unwieldy devils in the world to deal with – but ultimately their faces are turned towards Zion. ”
The Biden Presidency is defined by how it responds to a range of crises that shape the generations: climate change, the economic disaster caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, systemic racism and a GOP that stifles the democratic will for growth wants multiracial majority. It would be a step forward if the president-elect understood that our faces are turned to Zion.
Progressives have made our commitments clear. Now it is time for Biden to do the same.