Access, appointments, and ambition: What Bernie and the left loves about Biden's first 100 days — and what they want done before anointing him the next FDR

  • Progressives have found a lot to like about President Joe Biden’s first 100 days.
  • They’re praising him for taking bold action and listening to their views.
  • But they’re not yet ready to call him the next FDR.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

His staff seems “eager to engage.” His appointments reflect a “coalition” style of governance. And his policies call for massive federal spending to help those struggling most.

Progressives have found a lot to like about President Joe Biden’s first 100 days. That’s a welcome surprise for them and for the White House, considering the preelection warnings from the left of an intraparty “World War III” if Democrats could just knock President Donald Trump out of power.

Now liberals are praising Biden, long known as a moderate, saying he’s taken “bold” and “necessary” action on the pandemic. They say he’s going bigger than President Barack Obama on stimulating the US economy, appointing progressives to key administration jobs, and being open to their ideas overall. 

They’re not ready to compare Biden to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the New Deal champion who guided the US through the Great Depression and World War II. They still have big gripes on the climate emergency, as evidenced by a public-relations stunt last week outside the White House involving piles of cow manure. And they’re none too thrilled about Biden’s performance in raising the minimum wage.

But at least some prominent progressives told Insider they were willing to cut Biden some slack. 

“All of us miss the mark every day,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of Biden’s most formidable 2020 Democratic-primary rivals, said during an interview on Capitol Hill — pausing for a beat to let the self-deprecating quip sink in.  

Biden gets an “A minus” for his accomplishments so far, said Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who reminded Insider that he’d campaigned for Sanders in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada during the 2020 presidential cycle. Pocan pinned his high grade on Biden’s willingness to “do things that are maybe not progressive or conservative but absolutely necessary.”

Pocan pointed to things “like getting vaccines in arms and rebuilding the government infrastructure after the worst presidential administration in probably our nation’s history.” 

Insider’s interviews with a dozen progressive lawmakers, movement leaders, and activists on the left uncovered mostly guarded enthusiasm for Biden in these early days. But the honeymoon could be short as tough decisions are made on infrastructure and other progressive priorities.

Cenk Uygur, a progressive commentator who started “The Young Turks” talk show, said Biden didn’t deserve credit because he failed to deliver a $15 minimum wage. He added that he fully expected the administration to “butcher” its own infrastructure plan. Biden has acknowledged he’s “prepared to compromise” on the package.

Progressives are “now given access, and they’re so used to being outcasts that even the access is kind of making them drunk on the Biden administration,” Uygur, who cofounded Justice Democrats but doesn’t have an official role with the group, said.

“And I don’t think they’re seeing straight. He’s barely given us anything, and the future is going to be abysmal,” he added.

Biden’s standing with progressives is remarkable, given the friction that followed the 2016 Democratic presidential primary between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, who ultimately lost to Trump.

In 2019, Biden described his own politics as “center left.” Progressives say his “bold” stances now are a function of the party’s leftward shift and a set of crises coming out of the Trump era that demand big solutions.

“He finds himself, the base of the party, in a very different place than other past Democratic presidents did, so he has a lot more freedom to do bigger things,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ senior advisor and 2016 campaign manager, said. The movement created by Sanders and others “creates the political space for these types of things to happen,” Weaver added.

Biden isn’t necessarily more progressive, Rahna Epting, the executive director of MoveOn, said. He is calibrating his presidency to respond to massive crises he has inherited around the climate emergency, gun violence, the economy, and a pandemic, she added.

“He may have been a moderate candidate, but it is not a moderate climate in which we live anymore,” she said. 

“So far, we’re generally liking what we see,” she added. It remains to be seen how aggressively he will tackle racial injustice in policing and the rise in mass shootings, “but the early indicators are positive,” Epting said.

A flying start

Biden’s first priority — the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan — included direct payments to working families and a one-year boost to the child tax credit that’s projected to cut childhood poverty in half.

It’s notable that none of the money from the relief package Biden signed in March went to corporations or the very wealthy, said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party and a leader in the Movement for Black Lives.

“I wouldn’t have anticipated that he, out the gate, would have chosen to go that big,” Mitchell said.

Sanders hailed the stimulus law as “an extraordinarily important piece of legislation for working families.” It’s something the Senate Budget Committee chairman said he was excited to build on by passing fully realized versions of the infrastructure bundle and the childcare-centric American Families Plan Biden is expected to promote in his speech to a joint session of Congress on April 28.

“I think he is showing the kind of leadership and providing the kind of agenda that working families in this country want and need,” Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said in an interview. 

Biden is now pitching a $2.2 trillion infrastructure and climate-crisis package and calling for a corporate-tax increase to pay for it. That’s not the $10 trillion investment that progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has been seeking.

It’s also not the “third-way centrism” that many progressives would have expected, said Karthik Ganapathy, a Democratic strategist at Mvmt Communications who worked on Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

“I think if you told me two years ago that the Biden administration would basically be orders of magnitude more ambitious than the Obama administration … I just wouldn’t believe you,” Ganapathy said.

The infrastructure plan is a “massive package of transformation,” Epting said, with plans to replace lead pipes and retrofit buses and trains to make them energy efficient.

“Do we need larger scale of this? Yes,” she said. “But the head start is pretty phenomenal.”

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist dealmaker who’s gone on record about doing “whatever it takes” to reinforce the nation’s decaying infrastructure, commended Biden for hearing out all sides. 

“He’s working extremely hard and he’s been very receptive,” Manchin said of the open dialogue along Pennsylvania Avenue, adding: “We have a long way to go.”

Stumbling blocks are inevitable in other areas as well. But unlike past presidents who perceived acknowledging mistakes as profound weakness, lawmakers are confident Biden can overcome adversity without jeopardizing democracy.

Pocan said by agreeing to raise the refugee admission caps after “a number of us rightfully criticized him,” Biden demonstrated something rare in politics — the ability to learn from missteps. “He immediately reversed course,” Pocan said. “And that shows something I haven’t seen in many executives at the state or federal level.”

Rectifying things at the southern border is going to take time, Pocan added. 

“If you’re given 2-week-old chicken and rotting potatoes, you’re not going to make a great meal,” he said. “And I think that’s what he’s trying to handle right now.”

One thing Biden could move on swiftly is scaling back “a Pentagon budget as bloated as still is being proposed,” Pocan added. Congress authorized $705 billion in its fiscal year 2021 budget; Biden requested $715 billion. 

“I hope that can be a work in progress,” Pocan said of defense spending. 

The in-crowd

Progressives have balked at some of Biden’s appointments, including the “corporate-friendly” White House counselor Steve Ricchetti. Others they find heartening include Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. 

Pocan praised Biden for sprinkling what he said were “good people with solid values in key spots” throughout the government. “One thing Elizabeth Warren always says that I agree with is that personnel is policy,” he said, name-checking the Massachusetts senator who ran against Biden in 2020 and singling out the Cabinet officials Haaland and Becerra as great gets.

Progressives haven’t always been fully welcomed among some in the party, but that has changed, Weaver said. Biden has created a “culture of inclusion in terms of the full diversity of views of the party,” he added.

“There’s a coalition sort of governance, which includes progressives, as opposed to just saying, ‘Vote for us because your alternative is Trump. And then when we get elected, we’ll come to see you in four years for your votes again,'” he said.

Progressives’ role is to continue to push Biden to “think bigger and act bolder,” and Biden and White House chief of staff Ron Klain deserve credit for welcoming the pressure, Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ chief political advisor and 2020 campaign manager, said.

Shakir and Sanders have been in close touch with the administration as they have crafted the COVID-19 relief plan, the jobs plan, and the forthcoming plan focusing on families.

“We don’t get these nasty calls and angry fights about, ‘Why did you disagree with us on this?'” Shakir said.

Shakir said he’s known Klain for more than a decade and described him as “a straight shooter, very candid and direct.” 

“You ask him, ‘Can you be for something?’ He will tell you yes, no, maybe, and if he says yes, you can take it to the bank,” Shakir said. “I don’t know how he does it, but he seems to always be available for a phone call, for an email, for a text.” 

Klain “has set a model in that White House of access that’s near perfect,” Larry Cohen, the chair of the Sanders-founded Our Revolution, said. 

To Uygur, that access is “really smart, strategic, and it is satiating” progressives. “Ron Klain is threading the needle brilliantly,” he said.

Mitchell said administration officials, who have been “eager to engage” with progressives, demonstrated they were listening with their focus on care jobs and investments in economically hard-hit communities, he said. “It’s clear to us that our advocacy is having an impact,” he said.

The Working Families Party is still planning to offer a response to Biden’s joint address to Congress, as it did during the Trump years, with Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York delivering the message. Mitchell said the party was offering the response to keep grassroots activists mobilized — and because Biden appeared to be listening.

“Our response is that there’s work still on the agenda and that working-class people that helped get this president elected can’t stay on the sidelines,” he said.

Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, who is running for Congress, said the positive things the Biden administration was doing on COVID-19 relief and infrastructure wouldn’t be happening if not for Sanders, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and grassroots progressive activists saying “more, more, more.”

“Definitely cutting child poverty in half is good,” she said. “I want to see us go and get that other half.”

‘A more hopeful future’

Biden’s vision for a massive rescue package and a generational infrastructure plan is drawing comparisons to the policies of former Presidents Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Progressives aren’t ready to go that far yet, but some say he has potential.

“If they remain singularly focused on creating more equity in the economy, both in terms of working people, people of color, he can be in that sort of pantheon of Democratic presidents,” Weaver said.

“I was scared he was going to govern like Bill Clinton and he’s not,” Ganapathy added. “I don’t think he’s governing like FDR either, but I think there’s some middle ground in there. He’s closer to us on that spectrum than I would have thought possible even a year ago.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, a close Biden confidant representing the president’s home state of Delaware, said Biden was trying to be as inclusive as possible in dealing with highly sensitive and transformational issues including infrastructure, the climate crisis, policing reform, and immigration. 

“He’s continuing his outreach and his efforts to find a bipartisan path forward,” Coons told Insider.

Should he succeed in implementing the “Build Back Better” agenda, as Coons said Biden’s largely done with a pandemic-containment strategy that’s already vaccinated over half the nation, No. 46 will undoubtedly earn a spot among the most admired presidents. 

“I can see the movement towards a more hopeful future,” Coons said. 

Stand and deliver

Progressives say one of their biggest disappointments with Biden came when an increase to a $15-an-hour minimum wage slipped away during negotiations on his COVID-19 relief plan. The Senate parliamentarian ruled the measure didn’t meet the arcane requirements of a budget rule they used to pass the bill with a simple-majority vote. 

But some still question whether the administration could have bypassed the parliamentarian or done more to rally Democrats behind the measure. Sanders’ efforts to reinstate the proposal failed 42-58, with seven Democrats — including Coons and Sen. Tom Carper, also from Biden’s home state of Delaware — and one independent voting against it.

Pocan gave Biden a pass on the first round of the minimum-wage fight, directing his ire at the Democratic caucus members who voted against Sanders’ proposal — including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, whom Pocan said did so “with unnecessary flair.”

“I can’t blame Joe Biden for that. Although I hope and do believe they’re still very committed to try to find a way to get it done,” Pocan said.  

Progressives rallied around Biden in part to get rid of Trump but also because he had embraced a number of longtime progressive policy goals, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Weaver said.

“That’s one, I think, that he’s really going to have to deliver on … if he wants to cement a legacy of having been a really transformational president,” he said.

Joe Sanberg, a national advocate for raising the minimum wage who has worked closely with the Biden administration, said $15 an hour is only a compromise figure, and it will be an organizing priority in Democratic primaries if it doesn’t pass soon.

“If the minimum wage isn’t raised to $15 by the ’22 election, we’re going to have to elect people who are going to pass the $15 minimum wage,” he said.

Action on the climate crisis is another sore spot for some progressives. Biden on Thursday, ahead of his virtual climate summit, pledged to halve greenhouse-gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. But climate activists blasted his plan for not including targets for phasing out fossil fuels and committing to emissions reductions of 70%.

Some even protested his climate plan with a cow-poop delivery to the White House.

Biden took early action to shut down the Keystone XL Pipeline, but climate activists want him to also shut down the Line 3 Tar Sands and Dakota Access pipelines and export terminals in the Gulf of Mexico, Charlie Jiang, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace USA, said.

“He has to be willing,” Jiang said, “to phase out fossil fuels and really, deeply invest in communities and the rapid transition to renewable energy.”

Tina Sfondeles contributed to this story.

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