President Biden has been on a good streak with his party’s left flank, but progressives are now fretting about his direction.
First, there was Biden’s surprise announcement that he’d sign a GOP resolution disapproving of a Washington, D.C. crime bill that eased some sentencing laws.
Then came reports that administration officials are thinking about keeping migrant families in detention centers, which outraged members of the Congressional Hispanic and Progressive Caucuses.
Both news stories were reminders that Biden is a centrist who will sometimes be at odds with the progressive side of the Democratic Party.
“It’s just another reminder of who Biden actually is,” said one left-wing Democratic consultant who works with progressives. “That’s his instinct.”
Democrats acknowledge that immigration and crime are as politically charged as anything. And many see Biden’s reported considerations as mostly political.
Biden decided to back the Republican resolution on the D.C. crime bill after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot failed to advance in a primary amid criticism over her record on crime.
It’s not clear that the administration will return to the Trump-era family detainee policy, but it is true that the GOP is working to portray Biden as weak at the border.
In both cases, the White House is seen as having political reasons to move toward the middle on the two issues, especially since it worked for him in 2020.
It’s still a frustration to liberals who have nudged Biden to the left with some success. They want him to sustain what they see as progress.
Jeff Cohen, who co-founded the online activist network RootsAction, sees a disconnect between Biden and what liberals sometimes hope to see.
“Many in the mainstream media and Democratic leadership want to portray President Biden as the second coming of FDR,” he said.
Organizers like himself say Biden is “mostly unable or unwilling to utilize the presidential bully pulpit to mobilize the public toward a progressive and popular economic agenda,” Cohen said, a concern that has been exasperated in recent weeks.
Progressives have long irritated moderates over their stances on immigration and crime. The left wing was constantly attacked by Democrats after Republicans used the electorally charged slogan “defund the police” against them. But Biden and his supporters appear to see benefits in taking them on over crime.
“Far left progressives launched ‘defund the police’ and ‘abolish ICE’ and mainstream Democrats have paid the price ever since,” said Jim Kessler, who serves as executive vice president for policy for the centrist think tank Third Way.
“If you look at recent elections in New York City, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago Democratic voters have punished mayors and city councilmembers they’ve deemed as unresponsive and overly progressive on crime,” Kessler added.
Progressives argue Biden will be hurting himself if he does not nix the immigration policies that he and fellow Democrats widely criticized as inhumane during the Trump years.
“We strongly urge the administration to reject this wrongheaded approach,” Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), and Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) wrote in a statement issued after The New York Times reported that administration officials were contemplating a return to family detentions.
The White House has not indicated whether they will move forward with the policy.
“I’m not going to go in on rumors that are out there or conversations that are happening at this time,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week. She added that “no decisions have been made.”
The sheer possibility, however, has progressives spooked. And it comes on the heels of what some believe was a misstep on the D.C. crime bill.
Moderates are looking to counter the GOP’s crime attacks by showing areas controlled by Republicans where violent crime is on the rise.
According to data analyzed by Third Way, the murder rate in the “25 states that voted for Donald Trump has exceeded the murder rate in the 25 states that voted for Joe Biden in every year from 2000 to 2020.”
On other issues, progressives say Biden has done a lot right. They have hailed his support for Social Security and Medicare and believe some of the party’s legislative accomplishments on things like climate and health care are significant. They think they played a role in those wins, even as they acknowledge they would have gone farther if they had been able.
Still, as Biden prepares to announce his reelection bid, the fissures within the party are becoming more apparent.
Liberal lawmakers who usually praise the president have been more outspoken, and activists from various interest groups have been quick to offer their organizing support. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) used the term “enraged” in reference to the new migrant border discussion, while other House progressives offered equally strong sentiments.
Moderates suggest the president is showing signs of being ready for primetime, when the battle for the White House will be filled with GOP criticisms on the controversial topics.
“Rather than being upset that centrist Joe Biden is governing like a centrist, progressives should ask themselves why they are losing so much support in the urban communities they consider their base,” said Kessler. “Biden is where the American people are on both issues and he’s reflecting where most Democrats are as well.”