WASHINGTON (AP) — Joe Biden was not the Progressives’ first choice for the White House in 2020. Nor was he their second or third.
But defying expectations, liberal Democrats have become the president’s staunchest allies in Congress during his first two years in office, helping pass a massive COVID-19 relief package, a historic investment in American infrastructure. and billions of dollars to fight climate change.
Their alliance was as fruitful as it was unlikely. And it could soon be put to the test.
Democrats are bracing for losses in Tuesday’s election that could cost them their House and Senate majorities, an outcome that will certainly fuel questions about party leadership as Biden considers another White House bid. Republicans, optimistic about their chances of winning back power, are preparing a wave of investigations into the Biden administration and are certain to try to unravel his legislative achievements.
The dynamic between Biden and his party’s liberal flank is one that lawmakers say will ultimately unite Democrats behind Biden, even as some openly say they don’t want him to run for re-election and others complain that the president is too willing to compromise.
“The White House is going to need allies to defend the president against any bogus investigations that Republicans might try to launch,” California Rep. Ro Khanna, former co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, said in an interview. “The White House is going to need Dems to defend the White House’s economic record.”
The movement of progressives in Biden’s camp has run into long difficulties.
They are separated by generations and ideologies, with 79-year-old Biden – a consensus-driven Senate creature who fondly remembered how he was able to work even with segregationists – hailing from an establishment in the party often contemptuous of young lawmakers of color who want bold positions on climate change, racial justice and other issues.
But once Biden emerged triumphant from the 2020 Democratic primaries and general election, he sought party unity, forming a joint task force with the Sanders campaign to craft an agenda.
The result was a Biden wish list that looked a lot like the left: radical COVID-19 aid, tax credits for families, free community college, universal child care, public works spending, policies of fight against climate change.
The White House was also careful to nurture relationships with Democrats who might have been their loudest critics.
Over the past year, Biden or senior White House aides have met with members of the progressive caucus at least half a dozen times, including when the president directly called a rally of the group just before the vote on the infrastructure last November. Biden appeared alongside House Progressives on at least seven trips to their districts in September and October.
The caucus gets a lot of attention from elsewhere in the administration, with at least 10 cabinet members or agency heads meeting with progressives in the past year, according to a White House official.
His Office of Legislative Affairs has assigned Alicia Molt-West, a former aide to Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., to be his main liaison with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and she checks in almost daily. The leader of that caucus, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, had a direct line to the highest levels of the White House, including Chief of Staff Ron Klain, and that empowered her and expanded her influence among other Capitol Hill lawmakers.
“She’s been a great partner to me and has worked very closely with me,” Biden said of Jayapal at an April event in Auburn, Washington.
“One of the things the president said to me — and I really feel — was that we supported him,” Jayapal told The Associated Press. “We were the loudest and best advocates for the president’s agenda and we really worked hard to champion that agenda to the country.”
Despite some glaring exceptions, much of the progressives’ wish list became law, a testament to the willingness of Democratic lawmakers to go along with what was politically possible.
“Two years ago, few would have imagined that we would be able to pass the largest climate bill in history, issue direct checks for millions of Americans, pass the first major gun safety bill in a generation and forgive up to $20,000 in student debt,” said Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, a member of the caucus leadership.
These efforts have not been painless.
Much to their disappointment, the Progressives had to back down from their initial insistence that a bipartisan infrastructure bill go hand in hand with a separate set of social spending that would represent the party’s most ambitious priorities. Then came the dramatic collapse of Biden’s negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., just before Christmas, setting off the precise scenario progressives had long feared.
Tensions appeared to flare again last week, when a caucus letter signed by 30 lawmakers urging Biden to engage in direct diplomatic talks with Russia over his invasion of Ukraine generated intense backlash.
As rumors swirled that Ukraine’s liberal arms support was now in doubt, several of the Democrats in the letter disavowed it, saying it was signed months ago in another moment of the war. The caucus eventually withdrew the letter, while insisting there was no daylight between the group’s position and that of Biden.
Even afterwards, senior White House officials attempted to calm anger within the party.
Klain, Biden’s top aide, told at least one frustrated House Democrat who wanted to publicly say something about the letter Democrats needed to direct their energy toward Republicans ahead of the election rather than against each other. the others, according to two officials who were not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations and speak on condition of anonymity.
But rifts with the left have been the exception, not the rule, during Biden’s tenure. Progressives, almost certain to win re-election in deep blue ridings, are making plans for how they can use their platform at the next Congress to push the party again in a progressive direction.
“If the Democrats lose a bit of power this election, the White House and the whole party will benefit from very clear distinctions on popular issues like Social Security, and progressives are the ones naturally most equipped to defend the cause of these problems are popular economic priorities,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and former adviser to Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who ran for president in 2020.
Follow AP coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. And learn more about the midterm issues and factors at play at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections.