A President Biden Could Be the Real Progressive Icon

The progressive movement has its candidate in the Democratic primary to usher in a new liberal age not seen since the 1960s. No, it’s not Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Rather, it’s the candidate the far left loves to hate who is in a better position than either Sanders or Warren to lead a progressive Democratic Party: former Vice President Joe Biden.

To be sure, Biden speaks lovingly of Republicans and harks back to a time of bipartisanship, but he’s no moderate. Biden was the loyal No. 2 to Obama for eight years and a senator for 36 years before that, with a voting record largely in line with the median Democratic vote. A GovTrack analysis of bills sponsored or cosponsored between 2003 and 2008 showed then-Sen. Biden right in the middle of Senate Democrats in terms of ideology and one of the most loyal to Democratic leadership. As goes the Democratic Party, so goes Biden. The Democratic Party has moved left over the years and so has Biden.

The Democratic presidential campaign spending plans have 10-year costs ranging from $4 trillion to more than $50 trillion. Even $4.1 trillion in new spending proposed by the Biden campaign dwarfs the $1.45 trillion proposed by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. So-called moderate Democrats today are leftists in the arc of Democratic history, with Biden’s infrastructure, healthcare, climate change, and criminal justice policy agenda being the most progressive if enacted.

That doesn’t mean Biden will turn to frumpled suits, wield a thick Brooklyn accent and call for a revolution against the billionaires and corporate class. The Democratic Party is still a big tent organization (though maybe “too big of a tent,” according to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who groaned at the prospect of a Biden presidency). But the whole tent moved left in recent years. There may be division on Medicare for All, but every single House Democrat voted for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s drug pricing bill, which would allow for direct price negotiations by the government for certain drugs.

Like Pelosi, Biden has credibility with powerful blocs within the Democratic Party. If he wants to pursue a progressive agenda, he’s in a better position than either Sanders or Warren in bringing the whole Democratic caucus along. Biden is receptive to progressives helping set the agenda as seen in his policy proposals. FDR, JFK, and LBJ didn’t pass landmark progressive economic and civil rights policies on their own. They needed to be pushed. Biden will respond to a good push. Not in kind like Sanders or Warren, but perhaps more strategically than either and to a greater extent than any other Democratic president ever has.

Of course, there’s the inconvenient fact that even if a Democrat wins the White House, he or she would likely face a partisan Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader. Not since George H.W. Bush has a newly elected first-term president not had a unified government. Trying to seek a partnership with McConnell is a red herring for Biden and would be a miserable four years for him as president if he seeks his approval over that of the progressive base.

But Biden is positioning himself as a transitional figure in the Democratic Party, similar to Pelosi after the 2018 elections. Some close to Biden note it’s “virtually inconceivable” that he will run for re-election. Instead, he will seek out a running mate, Cabinet and administrative officials representing “the party’s fresh faces.”

Gone are the Obama days where Big Tech was extolled and the administration was filled with people from Wall Street and Silicon Valley. While a Biden administration would have some similarities to that of Obama, a transitional president would seek to have an administration that will lead the Democratic Party into the future. Biden could be seen as a lame duck, but his administration would not. And in the face of an uncooperative Republican Senate, ambitious members of the Biden administration would be keen to take executive actions from drug pricing to environmental regulations and antitrust enforcement, all of which would receive cover from Biden.

Pronouncing Biden as the Democratic nominee for president, let alone America’s 46th president, is putting the cart before the horse. But corporate America should not breathe a sigh of relief and the progressive base should not groan over the prospects of a President Biden.

Ben Koltun is a senior research analyst at Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington, DC.

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