Joe Biden’s Man on the Left

Jared Bernstein says progressives are getting the Democratic nominee all wrong.

(NAte Palmer)

Not long after the 2008 election, Jared Bernstein caught a predawn Amtrak train to Wilmington, Delaware, and then schlepped several miles to Joe Biden’s house for a job interview. As Biden walked him into the kitchen, Bernstein spotted a brand-new espresso machine, the kind you might hear squealing away at an overpriced coffee shop. “Want a cup?” Biden asked Bernstein. He reached into a cabinet just above the espresso machine and took out a jar of instant coffee.

“To this day, I think he was testing me,” Bernstein told me. “If I had said, I’m not going to drink that, I probably wouldn’t have got the job.”

Biden’s pointedly lowbrow tastes are part of the case that Bernstein, a labor economist, has been making on behalf of the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. You might think that Biden is some flavorless, middle-of-the-road Democrat, but Bernstein insists that the former vice president is really a populist rabble-rouser with a proven left-wing streak—just like him. “Sometimes people say, Biden’s a moderate,” he said. “But I don’t know any moderates who have been that closely linked to the labor movement for their whole political career.”

Bernstein is what lefties wish they had in their candidate: Biden won’t go anywhere near pipe dreams like a wealth tax and a jobs guarantee. Bernstein has espoused both. Biden secured the Democratic nomination by thumping one progressive contender after another. Those same progressives love Bernstein. “His inclination on many economic issues has been close to agreement with Bernie Sanders’s,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s 2020 campaign manager, told me.

Bernstein was Biden’s chief economist at the start of his vice presidency, one of just a handful of eggheads dealt the oh so small job of patching up the economy right when the Great Recession hit. Before leaving the administration in 2011, Bernstein was one of the White House’s rare lefties, his voice routinely drowned out by a chorus of moderates. He’s now an informal adviser to Biden’s campaign, plotting how to get the country out of the next once-in-a-lifetime economic calamity. “Jared is someone the veep trusts, and someone who has trust across the spectrum of the Democratic Party,” said a top Biden policy adviser, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the campaign’s policy deliberations. “The guy is a frickin’ labor economist at a moment when we have a historic unemployment crisis.”

If that’s what he’s doing in his informal role, Bernstein’s informal informal role is as Biden’s progressive hype man, someone who can remind the left of his blue-collar bona fides and vow that his agenda is plenty ambitious, thank you very much. When Biden does something that irks progressives, reporters know to call Bernstein. He has the lines down to a fine art, and he used them on me. First comes a barrage of praise: “Biden really sweats the details” and “he deeply believes in competent government.” Then comes all the assurances that Biden isn’t here to just make America 2015 again: “He gets that we’re at this FDR moment in a way, with an existential market failure staring us in the face.”

But no one knows better than Bernstein that for Biden to make good on his overtures to the left, he needs to do more than win next week—he also needs to hire left-wing advisers who will see his promises through. Bernstein seems poised for another stint in the White House, and a diffuse network of activists and lawmakers wants to make sure that he’s not the only one of their ilk with a say in the administration. This time, they pledge, a Democratic president won’t get away with stacking his staff with moderates. Rather, they’re pushing for an entire White House in Bernstein’s image.

Bernstein sometimes sounds like Ned Flanders with a Ph.D. He says “H-E–double hockey sticks,” breaks out into goofy chuckles mid-conversation, and peppers his sentences with an emphatic “for Buddha’s sake.” (He’s a practicing Buddhist.) Everyone seems to love his big dad energy. “I know people who don’t like me,” Jeff Faux, his former boss, told me, “but I don’t know people who don’t like Jared.”

A 64-year-old with a snow-white buzz cut, Bernstein had dreamed of being a musician, not an economist. He studied bass at the Manhattan School of Music, moonlighting at grimy jazz clubs. Earlier this month, Bernstein co-wrote a song that’s all about Biden. Over a shimmery R&B beat he sets on his bass, a singer belts out, “Build it back / Build it back together / Build it back, back to where we belong / It’s going to take a leader who understands our plight / Whose steady hand will guide us throughout the darkest night.” Economics was probably a better choice.

After college, Bernstein became a social worker in East Harlem. His first case was a single mother frantic to get her son, who had asthma, on Medicaid. “She was practically in tears when she got the [Medicaid] card,” he said. “The only poor people I met were struggling their asses off to make ends meet. When I become czar, I’m going to insist that every economist has to put in a couple of years as a social worker.” The experience helped form the first law of Bernsteinomics: It shouldn’t be so hard to get a good job.

Since then, Bernstein has spent much of his career evangelizing that message from within progressive think tanks—first at the Economic Policy Institute during the “big government is over” ’90s, and now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where he is a senior fellow. In 2016, Politico named him one of the 50 thinkers” transforming American politics. He came in at No. 21. Madeleine Albright, Lena Dunham, and Gloria Steinem tied for No. 22.

With that solid left-wing track record, Bernstein landed the Biden job as a thank-you to labor unions who had helped Barack Obama win the election. “On daily economic briefings in the Oval Office with the president, Jared was always at the table,” says Christina Romer, a Berkeley economist who was Obama’s chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Progressives hoped that Bernstein would be a savvy insider whose backroom machinations would give the administration one H-E–double hockey sticks of a shove to the left. Whenever lefties wanted something from the White House, they went to Jared. “Bernstein was always a conduit that progressives had to get into Obamaland,” says Alex Lawson, the director of Social Security Works, who tangled with Team Obama. Early on, Bernstein wangled a three-hour dinner with a handful of top progressives at the vice president’s residence, a rare chance for them to present their views directly to Biden himself.

But the rest of Obama’s economic team were nothing like Bernstein. Progressives had thought that Obama’s populist chatter of “hope” and “change” meant he was one of them. But while they were still in celebration mode after the election, he named two Bill Clinton holdovers as his top economic advisers: Larry Summers, Obama’s chair of the National Economic Council, had deregulated the financial system in the ’90s, and lefties saw Timothy Geithner, his Treasury secretary, as soft on big banks. “When he appointed Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff and Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary, I thought, We’re fucked,” says Mike Lux, who oversaw progressive outreach during the transition.

On a snowy Tuesday in December 2008, Bernstein and the other economic advisers huddled in Chicago to put together a stimulus. The nearly $800 billion package they came up with was ambitious, a defibrillator jolt that stopped the crisis from careening into a second Depression. But it wasn’t nearly big enough—and Obama’s own advisers got in the way. Biden probed the wonks for “something big and inspirational,” ideas that wouldn’t just fix the economy, but change it. Instead, the team “told Obama all the things he couldn’t do, not the things he could do,” Reed Hundt, the former head of the Federal Communications Commission who was involved in the Obama transition, told me. When Obama threw out the idea of the government bankrolling a national power grid, Summers reportedly shot it down. When the team’s number crunchers suggested that resuscitating the economy would need an even bigger stimulus, Summers rejected the possibility before it reached the president.

Bernstein wanted to do more—a lot more. As the economy continued to sputter, he pushed for another round of stimulus. He swore off a pivot to slim down the deficit. And at one point, as the unemployment numbers creeped up and up, he even pitched a “National Inventory of Structures” that would have created government jobs for Americans to … count buildings.

But outnumbered by the moderates all around him, those nudges mostly went nowhere.

In political years, 2008 might as well be the Paleozoic era. But lefties are still riled up over how they got shut out of the Obama administration. When I mentioned Summers to one longtime progressive, he let out a visceral “Oh Jesus” before I could even finish my sentence. “Jared Bernstein could have the rhetorical skills of Martin Luther King Jr. and he would not have done noticeably better,” says Jeff Hauser, a left-wing activist who runs the Revolving Door Project, which tracks executive-branch appointments. “The decision by Obama to hire Geithner and Summers for the two most important economic-policy positions was the key moment.” The dearth of lefties in Obama’s White House was partly a result of the left not pushing the president hard enough. “After eight years in the wilderness, a lot of progressives were hesitant to place pressure on Obama,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told me. “But there’s no hesitation around Biden.”

Much of Biden’s 2020 campaign has skipped over all of the left’s favorite bumper-sticker ideas in lieu of a far more normie pitch: I am not Donald Trump. But even Biden’s been sounding Bernsteinian of late, and progressives are salivating over some of his policy promises. His $700 billion economic-revitalization plan aims to rejuvenate American manufacturing and outmaneuver Trump at his own game of MAGA. The week it came out, Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, grumbled to a Washington Post reporter that “Bernstein is an economic nationalist. His handprints are all over this.” Biden’s climate plan sounds a whole lot like a Green New Deal, even though he won’t call it that. And on labor, housing, the minimum wage, bankruptcy reform, and free college, Biden has unleashed a fusillade of left-wing plans that are the most progressive ever for a Democratic nominee.

But after what happened during the Obama years, progressives are already waging all-out war to force him to appoint advisers who will hold him to his promises. “It’s encouraging to have Jared there,” Hauser told me. “But that doesn’t mean that the entire fate of progressivity and egalitarian economics rests on his shoulders. It’s about making sure that you have the fewest problematic people in those rooms and maximizing the number of fellow progressive allies for him.”

The mad rush after Election Day to figure out who’s going to work in the White House is quintessential Washington: It’s opaque and wildly unmeritocratic, offering just the slightest whiff of surprise before playing out exactly how you would expect. Lefties are afraid that Biden will take the path of least resistance, drawing exclusively from lobbyists and business leaders; Obama-era veterans who are ready for another stint in government; and the Center for American Progress, a think tank that has functioned as a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet of Democratic bureaucrats.

To avoid getting snubbed again, lefties are scrambling to introduce Biden to the people they want him to hire. One of the Sanders campaign’s goals after losing the primary was pinpointing Bernie-style wonks who could work for Biden. “Look at the types of people who support Bernie Sanders and who could support Biden, too,” Shakir said, relaying what Team Bernie told the Biden campaign. “They could become a gateway to a hell of a lot more people out there, and they could fill out your administration.” Over the past year, the Progressive Change Institute has led an effort of 40-plus groups to build a personnel database that has now swelled to over 500 names. And the think tank Data for Progress has even released a memo listing bios of more than 100 potential progressives whom Biden could select for his Cabinet.

Other lefties are digging up dirt on business-friendly moderates. Hauser’s organization has been circulating opposition research on wannabe Biden Cabinet members, jabbing the chief of staff contender Steve Ricchetti for his Big Pharma ties. “It’s the nice people who we’re most worried about,” Hauser said. “These worlds are small: Reputations can be built on charm alone. But you don’t govern by charm. You govern by expertise and being willing to make the right enemies.” The group Demand Progress has partnered with Data for Progress to make the case with polling (spoiler: Americans really hate lobbyists). When the news leaked in the spring that Summers was one of the economists advising Biden, a network of 27 progressive groups blasted off a letter to the campaign urging it to drop him. In August, Summers took himself out of consideration for any formal job working for Biden, saying, “My time in government is behind me,” but The American Prospect has reported that the outside pressure played a role in his decision.

Much of the left’s current work is only an opening salvo in a battle that won’t truly begin unless Democrats do well next week; planning a Biden White House is a hard sell to the progressive base when its members are still doom-scrolling FiveThirtyEight every hour. Progressives’ ambitions will hinge more on whether Democrats snatch back the Senate than whether Biden’s whole Cabinet is an army of Jared Bernsteins. But lefties have already notched some wins. Biden’s transition team—who will go about picking the more than 4,000 bureaucrats who will flood the White House on Inauguration Day if he wins—is headed by a staunch progressive, Ted Kaufman, and he’s not the only lefty on the squad. Many on the left are feeling a fuzzy, tickling feeling that they aren’t used to: optimism.

And yet, no matter how hard lefties nudge Biden, their efforts will go only so far. No matter what Bernstein says, this is still Joe Biden. Since he was elected to Congress, in the early 1970s, the Democratic Party has gone through more phases than an angsty teenager. Throughout it all, Biden’s been smack-dab in the middle of the party, less a rigid ideologue than a consensus-building party unifier. “I don’t think Biden is an ideological person,” says Lux, who was a top Biden aide during his first run for the presidency, in 1988. “I think he is comfortable being in the center of the party. He was never one of those people who you had to worry about their votes on key issues that other Democrats were for.” The same Joe Biden who was Obama’s vice president and who decisively beat Bernie Sanders and who is still (still!) a rare Democrat against legalizing marijuana is not suddenly going to give in to the left.

As Biden’s record would suggest, his transition team is studded with moderates: Jeffrey Zients, who has deep ties to the finance industry; Pete Buttigieg, whose policy flip-flops make progressives go ballistic; at least two Republicans, Cindy McCain and former Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald. Last week, news broke that John Kasich—the Lehman Brothers banker, deficit-slashing congressman, union-attacking governor, and garrulous Fox News host—is a potential Biden Cabinet pick.

I asked Hauser what he thought of the Kasich trial balloon. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I would like to think that the idea of taking John ‘Lehman Brothers’ Kasich seriously is just posturing.” He paused and let out a sigh. “I don’t know.”

Bernstein would like everyone to please chill out. He’s not convinced by lefties’ collective panic that a Democratic White House would shut them out yet again. “It’s crystal clear to me that Biden sees a need for a staff of economists and policy thinkers who are willing to go outside the traditional box,” he told me.

It’s not just spin. Even if Biden hires all the Obamanauts whom the left most loathes, his administration won’t be a repeat of Obama’s. This isn’t your grandfather’s Democratic Party, and it’s not even your cool aunt’s. The $15 minimum wage, once the “go big or go home” lefty ask, is now so widely supported within the party that Democrats hardly if ever bicker over it. A Millennial socialist is such a political rock star that she’s known by a three-letter acronym. Even Summers is arguing that the decline of labor unions is a major cause of the country’s economic malaise. “One thing that progressives sometimes miss is just how much the party itself has moved to the left,” Bernstein said. “On issues of minimum wage, health care, budget deficits, [and] trade policy, progressives—and I put myself in that category—have done admirable work to move the party towards us.”

In the run-up to November 3, Biden seems to be doing what he has done his entire career: surrounding himself with Democrats of all different shades. “The VP himself and those of us who work closely with him have made it an absolute priority to engage across the waterfront of the Democratic Party,” the top Biden policy adviser said. “We routinely engage with people who had previously been Warren people, but we also talk to Pete people and moderate senators and their staff on Capitol Hill.” This commitment to being right in the middle of the party will constrain lefty ambitions just as it always has, but it should also give them some solace. Biden is the candidate, but the party belongs to progressives. “It is important that Biden understands the power that progressives have—that we are the backbone of the party in terms of enthusiasm and activism,” Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told me. “Progressives are so much more sophisticated than we were 10 years ago, and we are watching these personnel decisions very, very, very closely.”

And sometimes, people in Washington surprise you. Lefties were furious when Obama named a Goldman Sachs veteran, Gary Gensler, to a top post. He ended up hammering big banks. Sheila Bair, a lifelong Republican appointed by George W. Bush, was such a tough Wall Street regulator that even the most ardent lefties want her in a Biden administration. Bair and Gensler earned respect from the left not because they buy Kirkland Signature or dine at Applebee’s, but because they enacted policies that benefit working people. The same test will apply to Biden: He will need to do more than drink regular joe to prove he’s an ally of Regular Joes.

Speaking of which, I had to know: Was the instant coffee any good?

“It was the worst cup of coffee I’ve had in my adult life,” Bernstein said.