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Given the way Joe Biden has been characterized by his competitors during the 2020 election cycle, the average voter could be forgiven for being confused over where he fits on the political spectrum.
During the Democratic primary, the former vice president was framed by rivals as a centrist with antiquated ideas relative to the more progressive candidates in the race. Now that he has advanced to the general election, Biden is being called “a hapless tool of the extreme left” by the president’s reelection campaign.
Anyone’s place on the political spectrum is, of course, relative. Biden will always look like a moderate when compared to a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders. Any Democratic nominee would be well to the left of a conservative Republican like President Trump. The same is true of Biden’s policy proposals. Few of his plans go far enough to satisfy the left wing of the Democratic Party. At the same time, his proposals on many issues are significantly more progressive than Barack Obama’s or Hillary Clinton’s.
Why there’s debate
A popular view of Biden is that he is a consummate moderate, who has worked to find the center of the Democratic Party throughout his career. His shift to the left relative to his predecessors, then, could be seen as a response to the party’s broader move in that direction. A “public option,” the central element of Biden’s health care plan, was seen as too progressive by a decisive number of Senate Democrats when the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2009. Today a public option is considered the moderate position when compared to Medicare for All proposals championed by some of his competitors in the primary.
That view, some argue, undersells how truly progressive Biden’s platform is. After winning the nomination, he partnered with Sanders to create a “unity task force” to find common ground between the left and moderate wings of the party. The resulting compromises, which were released earlier this month, would make Biden “the most progressive president since FDR,” Sanders said. In addition to health care reform, Biden’s agenda includes aggressive action to curb climate change, a $700 billion investment in American manufacturing, significant police reforms, free universal prekindergarten programs and $4 trillion in tax increases on the richest Americans.
What Biden doesn’t call for, however, is the systemic overhauls that the progressive wing of the party supports. He has routinely rejected Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and, more recently, calls to defund the police. There are also questions from progressives about Biden’s level of commitment to his policy agenda if he were to become president. His frequent talk of finding compromise with Republicans and reluctance to support abolishing the filibuster are seen as a signal that he might abandon his most aggressive policies in order to get a deal done, some on the left say.
Biden’s choice of running mate will provide a signal of his vision for the future of the country, especially given the common belief that he would only serve one term if elected. Partnering with a progressive figure like Elizabeth Warren could set the stage for an even bigger shift to the left from Democrats by the time the 2024 election comes around.
Biden’s platform isn’t a revolution, but it’s still a major restructuring of our political system
“Biden is not a socialist. He’s not a radical. But he is running on the most liberal policy platform of any Democratic candidate in modern American history. And if he wins the presidency, it could usher in a period of progressive victories unlike anything since the Great Society of the 1960s.” — Michael A. Cohen, Boston Globe
Despite his shift to the left, Biden is still a moderate
“Overall, it’s a left of center agenda, close to where the public is, though it would have to be modified to be enacted. It is not radical.” — Al Hunt, The Hill
He is very liberal relative to all previous Democratic nominees
“Biden is a moderate compared to Sanders, but he is notably to the left of previous Democratic standard-bearers. To describe Biden as a moderate without this context is to ignore the specifics of his agenda and the leftward shift in Democratic Party politics it represents.” — Peter Suderman, Reason
Biden is listening to progressives, but may not follow their advice
“While liberal activists have lauded the campaign’s outreach to progressives, Biden’s team hasn’t necessarily promised to act on the input they’ve received.” — Kara Voght, Mother Jones
Biden has drifted left along with public opinion
“Biden is not progressives’ champion: He does not push the envelope in the ways they want, and he has not endorsed their most ambitious ideas. But public opinion has been shifting leftward, and Biden’s thinking has shifted with it, creating a platform that progressives are genuinely excited about.” — Matthew Yglesias, Vox
He can’t move too far left without alienating swing voters
“He is going to have to find a way of keeping his balance — find a way of pulling together the main arguments and objectives of the different pieces of the party in a way that keeps him within hailing distance of the center of gravity in the country.” — political scientist William Galston to Wall Street Journal
He has rejected the most divisive left-wing policies
“He has very intentionally resisted taking symbolic positions that might sound to some like he’s running to the left. Just as in the primaries he rejected ‘abolish ICE’ when it was suggested, more recently he refused to join calls to ‘defund the police.’ … By visibly rejecting the slogan, Biden shows that he’s more moderate than some in his party, and certainly more moderate than leftists who don’t consider themselves Democrats.” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post
The coronavirus could push Biden further to the left
“Biden has always been a creature of his time, and the COVID-19 crisis could force him to veer further left than he ever would have in another context.” — Ross Barkan, GQ
As president, Biden would allow the far left to control his decision-making
“Biden has proven only that he is an empty husk. Old Joe, who was for police and working people and law and order, is long gone. His body is there but, like his party, it has been invaded by the socialist left.” — Miranda Devine, New York Post
Biden has a lot of work to do if he wants to gain the trust of progressives
“Skepticism about Mr. Biden runs deep on the left. … Some progressives regard him as just the sort of compromised, compromising, politics-as-usual establishment tool standing in the way of meaningful change, and they fear that he has surrounded himself with other establishment tools who see the activist base as a threat to the existing power structure that must be neutralized.” — Michelle Cottle, New York Times
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