Welcome to the New Progressive Era

Progressives thought they knew what a Biden presidency would look like. How did they get him so wrong?

Joe Biden emitting energy waves
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Washington in the first days of the Biden administration is a place for double takes: A president associated with the politics of austerity is spending money with focused gusto, a crisis isn’t going to waste, and Senator Bernie Sanders is happy.

People like to tell you they saw things coming. But as I talked to many of the campers in Joe Biden’s big tent, particularly those who, like me, were skeptical of Biden, I found that the overwhelming sentiment was surprise. Few of us expected that this president—given his record, a knife’s-edge Congress, and a crisis that makes it hard to look an inch beyond one’s nose—would begin to be talked about as, potentially, transformational.

Biden, after all, was a conservative Democrat who has exuded personal decency more than he has pushed for structural decency. One conservative publication labeled him “the senator from MBNA” for his friendliness to credit-card companies. He conducted the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings in a way that hurt Hill, for which he later expressed regret. He voted for the Iraq War and eulogized the segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. He began his 2020 campaign telling wealthy donors that, in his vision, “nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”

But then Biden sold the country on a massive rescue package that his erstwhile rival Sanders has called “the single most significant piece of legislation for working-class people that has been passed since the 1960s.” He quickly followed that with an infrastructure proposal that includes everything from roads to a strengthened safety net for caregivers, and focuses on redressing the harms of climate change and the racist urban planning of the past. Biden plans to finance it partially through a tax increase on the corporations he was once better known for protecting. There have been a slew of executive orders, many of real import, as well as gestures like standing up for Amazon workers seeking to unionize.

The conversations I’ve had in recent weeks have painted a portrait of an improbable coming-together of people and forces: a moderate president, with an ascendant progressive movement at his back and at his throat, facing a once-in-a-generation window of opportunity. It’s still early. It remains to be seen if this momentum will continue, if the infrastructure plan musters the votes, if the ungainly Sanders-to-Manchin coalition holds. But for now, a capital that has been defined in recent years by the absence of useful action bubbles with generative possibility. And many of us who thought we knew what a Biden presidency would look like, and didn’t expect much from it, are suddenly asking ourselves: How did we get him so wrong?

Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat and member of the so-called Squad, endorsed Sanders in the primary and didn’t anticipate a whole lot from Biden. Nevertheless, during the winter transition, she and her colleagues in the Congressional Progressive Caucus shared their ideas and priorities with the incoming administration—and were taken aback when many of them were adopted.

“The $1.9 trillion package that they put forth was a surprise,” she told me. “A lot of us made recommendations when the administration was in their transition space, and I don’t think a lot of us expected many of those things would make it in.”

For the Reverend William J. Barber II, the North Carolina–based pastor and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, the surprise has been Biden’s venturing beyond his “Middle Class Joe” shtick to talk about a group Democrats have in recent decades preferred not to mention: the poor. At an event Barber hosted last fall, before the election, Biden told the group, “Ending poverty won’t be just an aspiration, but a way to build a new economy.” This, Barber told me, “was huge.” Barber and his team followed up with a 14-bullet-point wish list of poverty-fighting policies, some of which showed up in that first relief bill.

Among Omar and her colleagues’ priorities had been raising the minimum wage to $15, a goal Biden professed to share. But when push came to shove in the Senate, and a procedural obstacle arose, Biden gave in. Many progressives were angry. Biden personally called Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair, and explained the White House’s thinking. He suggested that Jayapal and some colleagues talk with his team about a long-term strategy for shared goals. And that meeting actually happened, with Biden’s chief of staff, Ronald Klain, on March 17.

“That was a huge signaling,” Omar told me. It suggests that progressives might not get everything they want, but, she said, “the administration understands that we are not willing to be taken for granted anymore.”

Omar’s experience reflects the collision of events that have landed the country, rather improbably, on the brink of a new progressive era: a president in the sunset of his life finding himself in office thanks in no small part to voters more radical than he, galvanized by long-term trends like rising inequality and the recent upheaval of the pandemic.

“The progressive wing is ascendant in terms of the new members, in terms of grassroots energy, in terms of advocating policies that most Democrats support,” Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and member of that wing, told me in January. “But the progressive wing is not in the positions of power yet.” Another way to put it is that progressives won the conversation but lost the primary. The man in power is not their man—but he’s hemmed in by their ideas. “So much of this is being framed in the ways that we want,” Jayapal told me.

One sign of this shift is the apparent demise of conventional wisdom that had outlived its usefulness—above all, on the supreme importance of fiscal discipline. “There’s definitely a shift towards a more progressive theory of how the economy works,” John Podesta, a former top aide to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and the founder of the Center for American Progress, told me.

Related to that turn in ideas is a churn in the idea-givers. Centrist and Wall Street–connected economic counselors like Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, who have been mainstays of previous Democratic administrations, are out, while more progressive advisers like Heather Boushey and Bharat Ramamurti are in. “That’s a big deal,” Robert Reich, the labor secretary under Clinton, told me.

I reached out to Summers. He wouldn’t weigh in on personnel changes, but said that if Biden is breaking away from past orthodoxies, it is because “the world has changed.”

He’s right. The shift in received wisdom is obviously about the pandemic. But it is also the result of growing frustration with an economy that fails millions of Americans; the influence of the presidential candidacies of Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren; and the hard-won lessons from the Clinton and Obama years about the dangers of caution and of faith in Republicans.

Apparently, while younger progressives were soaking in those lessons, Biden’s team was doing the same.

The old emphasis on bipartisanship and outreach has quietly been displaced in Joe Biden’s Washington with an emphasis on coalition—attending first and foremost to your own side, everyone balancing the holding of their own with the holding of their nose, so as to get the good-enough thing done now instead of waiting for what might never come.

Reed Hundt, a lawyer who served on the Clinton and Obama transition teams, wrote a book about the 2008 financial meltdown titled A Crisis Wasted: Barack Obama’s Defining Decisions. When I called him, he was feeling the strange maybe-vindication of the author who hopes but can’t be sure that his book made a difference. He was optimistic about Biden’s aggressive spending in response to the pandemic. And he noted that, while the Obama team trusted too much in the good faith of Republicans, the Biden administration has focused on keeping its own Democratic coalition contented. “Often the phrase is used derisively, but in this case, ‘Generals fighting the last war’ may be good for the country,” Hundt told me.

Representative Jim Clyburn, the influential South Carolina Democrat and House majority whip whose last-minute endorsement helped catapult Biden to the nomination, made the same point about outreach across the aisle. Biden, who is famous for reaching right, has not talked much about that since his inauguration. “I don’t think Obama really understood the lengths to which those guys would go to keep him from succeeding,” Clyburn said about the Republicans. “And I just think that Joe Biden is not going to make that mistake.”

One explanation for Biden’s progressive turn is that he has never been an ideologue. He has lodestars—standing up for the middle class, favoring unions, and so on. But those lodestars have led him to varied results. His superpower, it is often said, is possessing “this sense of where the Democratic Party is, where the median of the party is, at a given moment,” as Khanna put it.

“He is a politician in the best sense of the word,” Reich told me. “That is, he sees a parade and he runs and gets in front of it—as long as the parade is not inconsistent with his values.” He added, “The secret here is that he has no strong ideological preconceptions. The interesting thing is he’s very open-minded. He is able to see changes in the operating consensus, the conventional wisdom, and, almost intuitively—I don’t know that it’s conscious—I think he just understands the change and latches onto it.”

Jeff Connaughton was once known as a “Biden guy.” He worked on and off for the then senator until he grew so disillusioned with Biden and with Washington in general that he wrote a scorcher of a book, The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. When I asked him about Biden’s shift left, he told me it reflects the best and worst of his old boss.

“You could say he doesn’t have core beliefs, that he shapes himself to the political moment. He often describes himself as a ‘fingertip politician,’ that he can find the political pulse, and that pulse right now is in an exceedingly different place than it was 30 years ago. He stood there in Iowa in 2020 and looked out at the enthusiasm in the other parts of the hall, where the Warren and Bernie troops were cheering and the Biden section was fairly empty. He gets that the progressives have most of the energy and excitement in the party.” Then Connaughton gave the more charitable view: “You might also say it shows he has the capacity for change and growth.”

There was another analysis I heard of Biden: Admirers and critics alike describe him as less of a star than Obama and Clinton were, in their different ways, and therefore more capable of old-school coalition. He connects with voters but doesn’t fill the room, and hasn’t filled the national airwaves. He is, in this view, a throwback to an earlier kind of politician whose job was to marshal disparate factions into alliance, rather than personifying the cause himself.

“My basic view is Biden is a transactional machine Democrat who wants to draw from every faction of the party as a coalition-building strategy,” said Matt Stoller, an anti-monopoly activist who in his newsletter, BIG, is a frequent critic of the Democratic Party establishment. “The machine-Democrat model is just: You’re a dealmaker,” he told me. “You put people in a room and you get them to cut deals with each other. And that’s how Biden, I think, operates. He just wants to hear from the labor guy, the business guy, and then he wants them to basically come to an arrangement.”

In this analysis, Biden is almost like a prime minister of a coalition government in a parliamentary system, where his desired policy course is the one he can get his coalition to agree on. With a 50–50 Senate and a pandemic, this is an orientation that rhymes with practical imperatives.

“There’s no room for error,” Representative Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio and a moderate of Biden’s persuasion, told me. “It sharpens everybody’s mind, this environment. Bernie knows there’s Joe Manchin and Joe Manchin knows there’s Bernie, so everyone is very focused on the art of the possible.” Ryan added that having to pass through these various filters actually had the advantage of ensuring that what the Democrats enact is popular.

Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, observed to me that Biden’s long legislative experience—he came to the presidency with roughly as many years of congressional service as his nine predecessors combined—is an aid to coalition. “When you come from a legislature and you’ve spent time in the legislature, you develop different instincts—that nothing is possible without 50 percent plus one,” Schatz said. “And I think when you’re a supernatural talent in the way that Clinton and Obama were, and you can rise so fast that you can actually jump over a bunch of experienced professional politicians, you have other talents that enable you to lead well, but you may not understand the craft of making legislation as intimately. And it may not be as important to you because it’s not how you rose.” Biden’s non-starriness, Schatz told me, allows other people “to see themselves as personally important in the coalition in a different way.”

In practical terms, Biden’s coalitionism translates into outreach that feels novel. “It can be summarized this way: This administration actually calls you,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the union of unions, told me. “They want to hear what you have to say, and they ask for your point of view. Past administrations used to call us to tell us what the decision has been.”

Jayapal, of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, observed that this approach dates back at least as far as the Sanders-Biden unity task forces, which were created after a bitter primary to forge common ground and resulted, in her view, in “clear movement on a number of progressive priorities.”

When I asked Varshini Prakash, who leads the Sunrise Movement, among the most radical voices on climate, about her service on one such task force, she recalled how surprised she was to have her ideas taken so seriously. “We went through them line item by line item. We argued about all of them. The Biden team, I will say, was more amenable to things than I expected.” Noam Chomsky, the linguist and lion of the left, hardly a Biden stan, later told me Biden’s climate plan, after the task force, was “far better than anything that preceded it. Not because Biden had a personal conversion or the DNC had some great insight, but because they’re being hammered on by activists.” With minor exaggeration, he described Biden’s revised climate plan as “largely written by the Sunrise Movement.”

The broader point he was making was that Biden is that rarest of creatures in an age of polarization and certitude: persuadable. For many progressives I spoke with, this persuadability is a source of hope. Jayapal said, “I feel like he understands who helped him get there,” speaking of the racially and ideologically diverse coalition that elected him. “And he understands that they got him there not because they necessarily saw him as the most inspiring candidate—probably a lot of those groups would have chosen somebody else as their first pick—but because they have so much pain at stake that needs to be fixed. And I actually believe he really understands that pain.”

Even as progressives enjoy their new influence, some worry about the movement being co-opted and defanged.

Briahna Joy Gray, a former Sanders press secretary and now the host of the podcast Bad Faith, worries that progressive priorities will be sacrificed for the sake of the big-tent coalition. The minimum-wage episode was an ominous portent for her. She thinks progressives should have threatened to walk out on the overall rescue plan. What good is winning the war of ideas if you lose every pivotal battle?

“I truly am not a maniac who is just like a Twitter warrior who doesn’t understand that there are consequences to these kinds of strategic decisions,” Gray told me. But “choosing to fold every single time is how we got into the neoliberal hellscape that we’re living in right now.” Admittedly sounding somewhat like a Twitter warrior, she added: “Joe Biden wants to cosplay as FDR, but is not willing to actually create a structural intervention that made FDR a four-term president.”

I asked Ilhan Omar what she makes of those who feel that the progress they’re seeing is not enough. “They’re right: It’s not enough,” she said. Progressives, she told me, are “glad to be partners in creating policies that are addressing the problems we have today, but we are certainly not forgetting” that there is more to be done.

Jayapal suggested that her fellow progressives still need to adjust to the reality of influence. “We’re not used to being on the winning side of things,” she said. “Governing when our voices are actually being taken into consideration is kind of a new experience. I think for a lot of people, we’re still focused on what we didn’t get.”

One thing is certain: Biden will not do everything the left flank of his coalition wants him to. He is probably not going to come around to progressives’ views on Medicare for All, or tuition-free public college, or wiping away student debt. The moderates in his big tent, especially in the split Senate, tend to be more protective of business interests and deferential to big donors, more wary of regulation, more prone to patchwork repair of the health-care system than to overhaul, and more averse to procedural changes like eliminating the filibuster. It’s hard to know yet how much Biden will align with them on some of these questions. But even if he doesn’t, he can’t risk losing their votes.

David Sirota, a former speechwriter for Sanders and author of the newsletter the Daily Poster, told me the true test will come when Biden gets into conflict with corporate power: confronting Big Tech, seeking a public option on health care, or going ahead with raising taxes on large corporations. Stimulus in a crisis might turn out to be the easy part. “There’s an open question of how much do you think you can change American society without actually confronting the relationship between labor and capital,” Sirota said.

But even if Biden doesn’t, or can’t, meet progressive demands on these issues, he could push more modest policies in their direction, in ways that whet the public appetite for going further under a future administration. Sanders has been dropping a number of ideas in recent months that illustrate this potential path: lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60 or 55 (even though he also wants Medicare for All); having Medicare cover all co-pays and deductibles for people during the pandemic (perhaps softening the resistance of those content with employer-based insurance); levying a one-time pandemic wealth tax (even though he wants a permanent one). These ideas are hard to write off as incrementalism, because they are not detours from systemic change so much as on-ramps toward it.

Something progressives admire about Biden is that he is a talented “reasonablizer” of their ideas. As Reich told me, “Biden is almost magical in his ability to make progressivism boring. He can say the same thing that Bernie Sanders has or AOC has and say it in a way that causes your eyes to glaze over.” From progressives who are used to even their more modest proposals being tarred as communism, this is a genuine compliment.

I asked Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign what his movement would do if Biden doesn’t go as far as he’d like to see. “I don’t think that’s the last word,” he told me. “You know, Lyndon Baines Johnson didn’t want to do the Voting Rights Act. The people decided he had to.”

He went on: “I don’t think we know fully what any president really wants to do until we put the pressure on.” He quoted something Franklin Delano Roosevelt allegedly once said to the labor activist A. Philip Randolph: “Go out and make me do it.” That apocryphal FDR quote came up many times in my reporting. It is a way of putting the onus on activists, while also showing them respect.

Sirota hears echoes of Johnson, too. “Not since LBJ’s era have we simultaneously had a Democratic Congress, a non-celebrity-type machine-Democratic president, and a boisterous left-of-center movement making concrete policy demands,” he said. “That particular confluence can create the ideal conditions for significant and fast progressive change.” What lies ahead, perhaps, is the “make-me-do-it” presidency.

What is holding the factions together for now is the sense that they have a singular chance to bend the American trajectory.

“One of the things that’s impressed me about all members of Congress is there haven’t been a lot of people acting like spoiled brats,” Schatz told me. “We have an opportunity to do more work in this short time period than many of us have done in previous decades.”

Many of the people I interviewed saw 2021 as a break not only from 2017 and Trumpism, and not only from 2009 and the financial-crisis failures, but also from 1981, the year Ronald Reagan became president. “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” Reagan famously said. What I heard socialists, progressives, moderates, and the White House itself agree on is that the country has a chance to plot an escape from that imprisoning assumption. “We’re breaking out of the Reagan consensus right now,” Trumka, the union leader, told me.

Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s secretary of transportation, ran to the right of the progressives in the 2020 campaign, but often spoke of ending Reagan’s grip. I asked him if “the era of big government” was back. “I would definitely say the idea that government is the problem is over,” he told me. “It’s a new era of expecting government to help solve big problems.”

It is awkward but important to bear in mind that, when Reagan got to work slashing both government and taxes, he had a perhaps ambivalent ally in a young senator from Delaware named Joe Biden. Biden voted for the package that is now viewed as the seedbed of the Reagan age. It is remarkable that Biden’s White House, more than Clinton’s or Obama’s, should embrace the idea of ending Reagan’s reign.

“This really is the place where we can change the paradigm of how government has operated since Reagan,” Mike Donilon, a senior White House adviser to Biden who began working for him, fittingly, in 1981, told me. “One thing he has always believed is government can be a force for good in people’s lives.” Naturally, he wanted to frame Biden’s stance today in terms of continuity. But I pushed him on the improbability of it all—this leader, of all leaders, driving a turn away from a center-right consensus of which he was a card-carrying member.

“The pandemic has fundamentally changed a lot about the country,” Donilon told me. “I don’t think you can go through an experience where 500,000-plus people lose their lives and everybody has their life turned upside-down and you reach unemployment levels approaching Depression-era levels and come out of that the same.” Because the pandemic exacerbated so many other, longer-running trends, Donilon said, the president “believes the country is in a place where it wants to do big things and wants to do transformative things.” It was interesting to hear how he put this: It is the country, and not Biden himself, that is the protagonist of the story.

Donilon was at pains to tell me that Biden was who he has always been—that if people are observing a change, it is because the terrain below him has shifted. That might be enough. Biden, he of the sensitive fingertips, quick to the front of the parade, recognized an opening when history ripped one open right before his eyes. Maybe he will lead the parade through that space into a new era, not because this has always been his crusade, but precisely because it hasn’t—because he, like much of the country, bought into the old assumptions, and he, like much of the country, now doesn’t.