Joe Biden is proving progressives wrong. And they're loving it.

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Sahil Kapur and Alex Seitz-Wald
·8 min read
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WASHINGTON — Progressives were frequently aghast at candidate Joe Biden's instinct for moderation, his nostalgia for a bygone era and a record they perceived as too corporate-friendly and out of touch with his changing party.

But nearly 100 days into his term, some are happy to admit, they may be wrong.

"Many of us were disappointed when President Biden got the nomination," said newly elected Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., who defeated a 16-term incumbent in a primary last year. "When you look at Biden's career, he's definitely someone we would call a moderate Democrat."

He is less disappointed today.

"Biden has been incredibly responsive to the progressive movement," Bowman said, recounting a recent meeting between progressive House members and White House chief of staff Ron Klain. "He told us point-blank: Keep pushing us. Keep us honest."

Liberals are pleased with Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill and his swift rejection of Republican attempts to cut it. They like his $2.25 trillion infrastructure and jobs proposal. They're pleasantly surprised with his personnel decisions, particularly the hiring of Klain and the shunning of moderate Democratic White House veterans like Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel.

"I don't think they would have been better if Bernie Sanders was the president," Larry Cohen, a former union leader who chairs the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution, said of Biden's staffing decisions.

"The question will be the tenacity," he said. "These are the best proposals you could ever expect, but the question will be fighting for those things."

Biden's first 100 days have mostly been praised by a movement that was skeptical to outright antagonistic about his candidacy, according to more than 20 progressive lawmakers, strategists and activists who spoke to NBC News about the key relationship poised to define his presidency.

For some, the bar was low, so clearing it wasn't hard.

And criticisms remain, including reservations about issues like immigration and creating a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which progressives say Biden hasn't pushed hard enough on.

Some say his opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana and his stance on eliminating student debt, which he has resisted doing unilaterally, are wrong.

But progressives admit that their biggest fears haven't been borne out and that Biden, a 78-year-old institutionalist, sees them as an ally and is willing to listen to them in a way Barack Obama and Bill Clinton didn't.

"What's clear is that we have a negotiating partner in the White House," said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. "It's also clear that there are areas where the administration is going to need outside pressure to do the right thing."

Lessons learned

Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who was Biden's progressive rival in the Democratic primaries, praised Biden for having "recognized the enormous crises facing this country and the degree to which people have been suffering as a result of a pandemic."

"He has bold ideas, I think, for infrastructure, for climate change," Sanders said in an interview. "And he understands also that at a time when so many people have lost faith in government and we're seeing a rise in authoritarianism that it is absolutely imperative that we develop policies where people see that government can work for them. I think he understands that, and that's pretty big."

The White House and progressive activists agree that the "unity task force" Biden and Sanders set up to hammer out policy goals after Biden won the presidential nomination last year was essential.

"We have the most narrow margins anybody could possibly have in the House or the Senate, but we have a much more cohesive party than in 2009," said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden who held a senior role in the Obama White House."

Democrats had bigger majorities in Congress in 2009, but they included sizable cohorts of moderate and even conservative Democrats, many from the South and rural areas, who resisted spending to health care reform to abortion rights and regularly voted with Republicans.

Dunn said Biden's progressive critics during the campaign would be less surprised if they "looked at the actual person and not the caricature."

"It does show how unfamiliar with Biden they really were," she said. "What he’s doing now is totally consistent with what he said as a candidate."

And unlike in 2009, activist groups aren't packing it up now that their party controls the White House.

"A lot of us have learned from 2009, when outside groups and outside movements demobilized after Obama got elected and he got hammered by the right and the tea party movement," said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party. "We're still living with the effect of those politics. So we're not going to do that again."

Faiz Shakir, a Sanders adviser who ran his presidential campaign, said Biden is adapting to a new political landscape in which progressives are ascendant.

"Progressives have certainly won a lot of the policy debate and increasingly are starting to win the political debate about the right paths to go down," he said, citing Biden's embrace of a $15 minimum wage and expanding Medicare.

And Shakir praised Biden for following through on his promises to boost direct Covid-19 relief payments to $2,000 and to refuse to "pre-emptively" make concessions to win GOP votes.

"They came in with much more of a clear-eyed view that this is what we want to get done and if Republicans want to come along, great, but if they don't, we're going to do it," he said. "That's paid off well for them so far, and I hope they stick to it."

Shakir said Biden "by his nature" is more attuned to populist arguments and the need for simplicity than Obama was, criticizing the former administration's tendency to develop complex regulatory schemes with layers of verification.

"Simple is better. Simple is easier," he said. "Give people the keys to just access programs from the government — that makes people feel that they're being respected. The way they've executed the Covid program right now is exactly that."

'A big worry'

Biden's progressive positions aren't enough for some activists, who believe he needs to sink more capital into abolishing the 60-vote threshold in the Senate to get most of his agenda passed.

"A big worry among Democrats is that Joe Biden and [Senate Democratic leader] Chuck Schumer give lip service to certain items but then don't have a legislative strategy around it," said Waleed Shahid of the left-wing group Justice Democrats.

And while three states in the past month alone legalized recreational marijuana and Schumer, D-N.Y., acknowledged 4/20, the informal marijuana day, on the Senate floor last week by calling for national legalization, Biden has so far not taken any of the steps within his power to liberalize drug policy.

"At a time when a supermajority of voters support legalizing marijuana, the only thing the president has done on the issue since taking office is firing staffers for having used it," said Tom Angell, who tracks and supports drug reform as publisher of Marijuana Moment.

On foreign policy, Joe Cirincione, a fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a nonprofit international policy organization, praised Biden for saying the U.S. will pull out of Afghanistan, but he said Biden still "clings to an outdated, obsolete national security policy for political reasons," because he doesn't want to alienate more hawkish Democrats in the Senate.

"I'm disappointed. But I understand it. It's hard to argue with his political calculations," said Cirincione, the former president of the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear weapons activist group.

Brad Bauman, the former executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Biden has overall "been exceeding my expectations," but he worries that the window to act on immigration is closing. "If we miss this chance to create space for Dreamers and immigrant families, we're going to lose an opportunity to do a lot of good for a lot of people," he said.

It is telling that when Biden faced vocal criticism from immigration activists and others for capping the number of refugees allowed to enter the country at levels set by former President Donald Trump, he quickly backtracked.

"Progressives have been listened to," said Jeff Hauser, the founder of the Revolving Door Project, one of Biden's most vocal left-flank critics, which scrutinizes his personnel decisions down to obscure sub-Cabinet posts. "Biden ran center-right in the primary and has governed to the left of Obama."

Kat Calvin, an activist who founded the group Spread The Vote, said she is "not a big fan" of Biden. She said that his refugee policy reflected the "atrocious" immigration record of the Obama administration but that he is "showing basic competence after Trump" in addressing Covid-19.

"We're trying to get out of a crisis, and he's doing fine on that," she said. "I'm very interested to see, once we get out of this crisis and he has to do things other than put shots in arms, what he does."