President Biden Makes His Mark with Progressive Democrats
President Joe Biden has already established an early working relationship with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party through early executive orders focused on climate, immigration, and COVID-19. The recent orders and legislation have left moderates like Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) to wonder what the future policies of a Biden presidency will look like.
Joe Manchin represents a faction of the Democratic Party that balances socially conservative policies with working class-focused Democratic economic policies. When Biden revoked a presidential permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, Manchin, who also serves as Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, urged Biden to reconsider. In a letter to Biden, Manchin said Keystone XL and other pipelines “continue to be the safest mode to transport our oil and natural gas resources, and they support thousands of high-paying, American union jobs.”
Manchin’s comments are a testament to the divide between progressive and moderate Democrats. Manchin, who serves a mostly white, working-class, and coal-mining state of West Virginia has worked to improve relations with progressive environmentalists but continues to urge Biden to consider the effects of his actions on energy-producing states like his own.
Biden’s campaign messages and inauguration speech focused on establishing unity between Republicans and Democrats, but the intra-party divisions are being brought to light.
Meanwhile, progressive Democrats like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are leading the push for legislation, including the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. Sanders has been unwavering in his support for Biden’s relief package, even as he sides with progressives about the need for more spending. Biden, meanwhile, refused to back down even as Republicans and moderate Democrats said the bill was too expensive.
In the crowded Democratic primary, Sanders made an effort to promote unity when he endorsed Biden. In May 2020, Sanders and Biden unveiled six “unity task forces,” where each group appointed experts to draft policy proposals on climate change, criminal justice reform, the economy, education, health care, and immigration in hopes that Biden would start the process upon inauguration. The tasks force displayed an effort by Biden to bring progressives into his moderate campaign and base.
While it’s hardly unusual for a new president to work with former adversaries and those with stark ideological differences, it is unexpected for Biden. In January, the Pew Research Center found that 62% of Democrats predicted Biden would listen equally to moderate and liberal democrats, with only 9% predicting that he would listen to liberal Democrats more. With Biden’s bipartisanship throughout his campaign, many expected he would maintain that and revert the Democratic party back toward a center-left strategy.
His recent policy actions show voters that Biden is determined to work with progressives and even enact more left-leaning policies. Although, a senior Biden official commented that the recent actions are not the result of political pressure from the liberal wing of the party, but a result of the enormity of issues facing the nation. “Biden, early on, sent a signal that was really important that Sanders and [Elizabeth] Warren and [progressives] have a voice in this administration,” the adviser said. “And I think it has come to fruition.”
The 2020 Election gave Democrats control of the House and a slim majority in the Senate. With incoming Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote, there exists a balance of power that is key to a Biden agenda, but it still has Democrats worried. The 2020 Election was not as dramatic of a victory as the party hoped. Democrats lost at least eight seats in the House of Representatives and failed to gain a single statehouse — in fact, they lost control of New Hampshire’s legislature. Democrats lost key voters in traditionally blue areas in Ohio, New York, and immigrant-rich Miami neighborhoods. Grappling with these statistics has left many Democrats worried about what the 2022 midterms may hold and analyzing the campaign messages that caused those lost votes. Moderate Democrats like Manchin and even former President Obama believe phrases like “defund the police” and the push for more open borders concerned some voters.
Biden may have campaigned on a message of bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle, but Democrats will have to reconcile with intra-party ideological differences in order to maintain political power past 2022.