Biden agenda in doubt as the President swings in with the left, leaving Progressives flexing though coming up empty. Moderates perceive betrayal. The upshot of their clash could decide Democrats’ fortunes in the midterms and the Biden presidency’s success.
President Biden’s much-lauded negotiation style has largely distilled down to this: I’m with you.
By defeating Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, he drew many of the senator’s fervent fans into the fold by endorsing much of the senator’s agenda while campaigning on unity. When moderate Democrats sought him, he adopted centrist tones to reassure them of his conciliatory credentials.
However, when Mr. Biden flew to the Capitol on Friday to assist House Democrats, he was compelled to choose sides. He effectively chose the left.
“The way he is governing does not reflect the capacity I know he possesses from his years as a legislator,” said Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida, one of the moderate Democrats who had pushed for an immediate vote on a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, convinced it was what the President sought — or at the very least required. She termed Mr. Biden’s failure to press for passage of legislation he supported as “disappointing and frustrating.”
“I’m not sure what brought him up to the Hill,” she intoned.
Since claiming his party’s nomination last year, the President has cultivated a tenuous peace between his party’s turbulent center and left by convincing both groups that he is an ally. United first by their common contempt for former President Donald J. Trump, and then by Mr. Biden’s embrace of a broad platform, the two camps maintained unity into this year. They responded to the pandemic in the spring by enacting a massive stimulus package.
The President’s “go along to get along” approach casts Biden agenda in doubt, at least according to Moderates.
Now, the two factions are at odds — one flexing its power but remaining impatient, the other feeling betrayed, both claiming to have the President on their side — and the aftermath of their fight over Mr. Biden’s proposals could determine Democrats’ fate in the midterms and the success of his presidency.
The said agenda consists of two big domestic proposals matching a modern Great Society: the “American Jobs Plan,” which would spend $1 trillion over ten years on traditional infrastructures such as roads, bridges, and tunnels; and a larger and more contentious “American Family Plan,” what the Democrats consider as “soft infrastructure” — including universal prekindergarten and community college, paid family leaves, and paid parental leave.
However, liberals suspected that moderate Democrats would vote for the infrastructure bill, declare triumph, then withdraw support for the broader social policy package, and hence refused to back the smaller infrastructure bill till the larger social policy package was passed.
Both moderates and progressives felt as if they had been offered ironclad promises heading into last week: the moderates that a vote on infrastructure would come before October; the liberals that the bill, a pivotal component of the President’s domestic agenda, was inextricably linked to their higher hold, the more expansive measure addressing climate change and the ripped social safety net.
Liberals, on the other hand, leveraged their larger numbers to obstruct the infrastructure bill — and they claimed they did it in support of President Biden. Representative Ilhan Omar, a left-wing Democrat from Minnesota and one of the blockade’s leaders, addressed reporters last week and stated that the blockaders were “simply trying to ensure the president’s success.”
“If we approve the infrastructure bill alone, we will deliver less than 10% of Biden agenda,” said Ms. Omar, the vote counter for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a roughly 100-member group of Democrats who demonstrated their unity during last week’s showdown.
This infuriated both the nine centrist lawmakers who had compelled Speaker Nancy Pelosi to promise an infrastructure vote by the end of September and a larger, more subdued group of backbench House Democrats, many from swing districts, who were eager for the President to sign the public works bill and begin lauding funding for roads, bridges, and broadband in their districts, at a time when Mr. Biden’s appeal was waning.
“I believe it is detrimental to the Joe Biden administration and Democrats,” Texas Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, said, implying that Mr. Biden was effectively standing with the left by declining to fight for passage of the infrastructure package.
This animosity was fueled in part by Mr. Biden’s go-along-to-get-along approach.
“You get the impression that Uncle Joe is for everyone and that he likes everyone,” Missouri Representative Emanuel Cleaver remarked.
On Friday, members of the moderate wing were emphatic in blaming the liberals while also asserting that they were Mr. Biden’s actual torchbearers. Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey, condemned a “tiny faction on the far left” for using “Freedom Caucus tactics” to “wreck the president’s agenda” — a reference to the House’s hard-right faction that bedeviled Republican leaders throughout their tenure.
“We were elected to advance fair, common-sense solutions for the American people — not to filibuster from the far wings,” Mr. Gottheimer fumed late Friday night in a statement. “This extreme left-wing is poised to jeopardize the President’s entire agenda, including this historic bipartisan infrastructure package. They have hindered civility and fair governance.”
Thus, the President’s stance undermines the party’s precarious suburbanite-socialist coalition, casting Biden agenda in doubt.
Given the party’s alliance of suburbanites and socialists, it was perhaps inevitable that Mr. Biden would finally enrage one element of his party. What was remarkable, and perhaps equally unexpected to both blocs, was how he alienated the moderates who catapulted him to the nomination while energizing the progressives who fought him tooth and nail in the primary.
The President also isn’t backing the public works measure that moderates cherish.
However, as he told House Democrats on Friday, he sees it is a “simple reality” that infrastructure legislation will not pass without assurances from moderate Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona that they will support a more comprehensive bill.
However, as Mr. Biden admitted in the Capitol, that will not happen until the more expansive bill is reduced in scope to garner the support of the two senators.
Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington and the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said her group wants to move forward like 96 percent of the Democratic Caucus. The 4% — particularly Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema — are the barrier.
“We recognize that we do not always get to vote on everything we want. It is the rest of us, the 4% who are impeding the President’s agenda, the Democratic agenda on which we campaigned, who need to realize this.”
The decision to keep each bill’s fate intertwined with the other is a big risk. Infrastructure was a bird in the hand; it passed the Senate in August on a bipartisan vote of 69.
They are at stake together, a situation that worsens with each new demand made by Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema that shifts the social policy bill further away from the liberal agenda. If the two factions cannot agree on that proposal, Mr. Biden may wind up with nothing — a disaster for his party and its leader.
Deferring the infrastructure bill is not, in the words of Minnesota Representative Dean Phillips, “the linear and expedient path to which the most of us would aspire.”
Mr. Phillips, a popular centrist who won a Republican district in 2018, conveyed optimism earlier this week that Mr. Biden could emerge as a unifying figure inside the party. However, he admitted on Friday that those prospects had been “unfortunately lowered” in light of the President’s “nothing-burger” Capitol visit.
Mr. Phillips stated that he believed both bills would pass. However, other legislators from competitive seats were privately depressed that they would be unable to spend the balance of this fall exhibiting bipartisan progress in Washington.
Mr. Biden is eager to sign both bills of legislation. On Friday, one of his aides compared them to children he adores equally.
Both Factions’ claims cast Biden agenda in doubt even more.
That has not deterred both party factions from asserting to be the ones working to ensure the passage of Biden agenda.
As a result, quite a 180-degree turnaround develops.
“We are fighting for the Build Back Better agenda,” Ms. Omar stated, referring to Mr. Biden’s favorite phrase — which would have been unthinkable two years ago when she endorsed Mr. Sanders’ candidacy early on.
The left derided Mr. Biden throughout 2019 and the first months of 2020. They claimed he was too old, too moderate, and an evident mismatch for an increasingly young, diverse, and progressive party, often blistering him.
Mr. Biden believed liberals were out of touch with the Democratic Party’s gravitation center. And he demonstrated it brilliantly by forming a multiracial coalition inspired more by the prospect of defeating Mr. Trump than by any major policy agenda.
Yet, because his primary campaign focused on defeating Mr. Trump and uniting the country, he had few concrete policy proposals. And in making amends with progressives following his nomination, he embraced several of their ideals.
This has enabled left-wing Democrats to declare that they are only working to carry out Mr. Biden’s agenda with broad smiles. The question now is whether his attempt to pass both bills will succeed — or whether his decision to defer approval of the infrastructure bill would result in a lengthy impasse or nothing at all.
However, what is apparent is that Mr. Biden has committed himself to many of the programs that his liberal detractors were uncertain he would embrace during his all-things-to-all-people campaign.
“For those of the progressives who insisted there was no difference between Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg,” said Representative Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat who was an early Biden backer, “Biden’s position in this internal conversation demonstrates how preposterous that assertion was always.”