Joe Biden’s administration is in crisis.
The president’s approval rating has hit record lows, with some polls eclipsing the dismal support for his predecessors Barack Obama and Donald Trump. When it comes to the economy, which encompasses voters’ top-ranked concern, Biden’s approval stands at just 30 percent. As inflation continues to hit Americans in the pocketbook, especially high energy and food prices, a majority now say they believe the economy will get worse over the coming year — and expect a recession. Nearly 80 percent of respondents in a recent New York Times survey say the country is heading in the wrong direction, while 64 percent of Democrats want someone else to be the party’s nominee in 2024. In sum, the American public is handing down a harsh referendum on Biden’s leadership.
What’s behind these dire numbers? First off, the president’s agenda that voters elected him to enact — from curbing climate change to expanding childcare, guaranteeing paid family leave and taxing the rich — remains stalled in Congress, facing stiff opposition from conservative Democrats. Other campaign promises that Biden could fulfill through executive action, like canceling student debt, haven’t been acted upon.
Inflation numbers have reached record highs, leading to economic pain for millions of working people who face far higher prices for gas, rent, groceries and transportation, while wage increases haven’t nearly kept pace. These spiking costs have disproportionately impacted voters of color and younger Americans, the very constituencies that helped hand Biden the presidency. And when it comes to other crises, such as the scourge of gun violence and the Supreme Court’s gutting of abortion rights, the Biden administration has appeared wholly unprepared to meet the moment.
Which leads to another question: Who’s to blame? Well, if you ask the punditry class, the answer is simple — progressives and the Left.
In a Tuesday column at the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg says of Biden that, “one of the primary reasons he’s failing is that his agenda, and his rhetoric, caters to a progressive base that speaks for a minority of voters.” At CNN, meanwhile, Democratic strategist Paul Begala writes that, by pushing Biden to take a stronger tack to implement his stated policy goals, “progressives are practically doing the GOP’s job for them.” Instead, Begala implores, those on the Left should stop complaining and simply “strengthen him, so he can lead the way forward.” And at Yahoo! Finance, columnist Rick Newman argues that ahead of the midterms, the party should move to the center, writing, “the majority of Democrats themselves may have now tired of progressive visions of a mythical Shangri-La.”
What all of these critiques miss is a simple fact: Ever since Biden took office, progressives have been working to make his agenda a reality and bring relief for the very working people now facing economic havoc, while Democrats on the right flank of the party have obstructed this program every step of the way. But rather than deal with the uncomfortable truth that so-called “moderates” are the ones imperiling both Biden’s presidency and Democrats’ electoral fortunes, establishment-friendly commentators are yet again lazily training their sights on their favorite scapegoats — the Left.
The slow death of Build Back Better
Last summer, as the then-$3.5 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) plan was still moving through Congress, Biden said of the legislation, “A vote against this plan is a vote against lowering the cost of healthcare, housing, childcare, eldercare, and prescription drugs for American families.” Democratic leadership had planned to couple votes for BBB alongside a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in order to codify Biden’s economic blueprint in one fell swoop. Progressives played a key role in selling BBB, both to the American people and to the Democratic caucus.
In November 2021, after the House had passed a version of the bill, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) urged his colleagues in the Senate to support the budget resolution, claiming that “what we are trying to do is address the needs that working people are facing in America that have been neglected for decades.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, made a similar point, saying last fall: “We have been so united in standing up for the president’s agenda in really making sure that we don’t leave behind women who need childcare, families who need paid leave, communities that need us to address climate change, housing, immigration. These are the things we’re fighting for in the Build Back Better agenda. And it’s the president’s agenda.”
Far from catering “to a progressive base that speaks for a minority of voters,” as Jonah Goldberg claims, BBB is popular across the political spectrum. Polling has shown that a clear majority of Americans back the legislation itself, as well as the constituent elements of the bill: universal pre-K, free community college, long-term care investments, modernizing the electricity grid, lowering the Medicare age, capping the costs of prescription drugs and creating a Civilian Climate Corps all command over 50 percent support.
In short, both the U.S. public and progressives in Congress want Biden’s agenda to become law. But instead, BBB is “dead,” according to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) — one of the right-wing Democrats responsible for killing the bill.
Rather than keeping the infrastructure and BBB bills coupled, last year Manchin and his fellow conservative Democrats demanded that they be separated, with the bipartisan bill to be voted on first. While a number of progressives ultimately voted against the infrastructure bill in protest, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other members of the Squad, the majority of Democrats conceded and agreed to support it after Biden reportedly assured them that he would bring along holdouts, including Manchin, to get behind BBB.
As Jayapal said in December 2021, “the version of Build Back Better we passed out of the House was agreed to by nearly every senator caucusing with the Democrats — and we sent it to the upper chamber based on the president’s promise that he could deliver the 50 senators needed to make it law.”
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Manchin and self-described moderates such as Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) took a victory lap once the bipartisan bill passed, before Manchin declared at the end of last year that he would not support BBB, effectively thwarting key planks of Biden’s agenda. The bill has remained in a holding pattern ever since, with negotiations sputtering time after time as Manchin — a coal baron taking money from Republican billionaires — declares that he cannot get behind proposals like spending to address climate change and increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans, as he did earlier this month.
And it’s not just Manchin. Along with Gottheimer and Spanberger, other conservative Democrats including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) voiced their opposition to BBB at various stages of the process, though they generally received less attention than Manchin for blocking the legislation. There are likely other members of the Democratic caucus similarly opposed to more spending on social programs who’ve been happy to stay quiet as more high-profile Democrats attract attention for knifing the budget package.
The impact of BBB’s failure has been profound. Housing projects that would have been funded through the bill are being abandoned, as are investments in climate mitigation efforts. Parents are being forced back to work due to the lack of a national paid leave policy. Students continue to rack up more debt without any guarantees of tuition-free college. The list goes on. And Democrats are left without a clear message to voters about what they accomplished as they head into an extremely challenging midterm election season.
To take one striking example, as a result of BBB’s failure, Democrats were unable to extend the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) that helped fortify recipients’ bank accounts last year. One of the most transformational economic policies enacted in over a decade, the expanded CTC lifted millions out of poverty and cut the child poverty rate by roughly 30 percent. According to data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 91 percent of low-income families used their monthly benefit payments on basic needs such as food, clothing, school supplies and rent. As inflation increases and the credit has dried up, those costs are now swelling for the working class.
The expiration of the CTC has plunged 3.7 million more children in the United States back into poverty, and nearly half of families with kids can no longer afford enough food. Along with the disastrous human toll of this policy decision, Democrats are also suffering politically. Before the expanded CTC expired, the party held a 12-point advantage among recipients of the program. But by April of this year, after payments stopped, that edge disappeared, with Republicans gaining the upper hand among this group of voters.
Progressives have long been the strongest champions of the expanded CTC, and it was the reluctance of conservative Democrats like Manchin to approve an extension that led to the program’s demise. Allowing parents to buy enough food for their kids was not some progressive vision of “a mythical Shangri-La,” as in Rick Newman’s words. Rather, it was a life-changing policy that voters are now blaming Democrats for ending.
Stoking a crisis
On issue after issue, from expanding abortion rights to enacting more forceful gun control laws, progressives in Congress have offered solutions more in line with the views of the U.S. public than those being pursued by either moderate Democrats or the Biden White House. That’s not to mention other more far-reaching, left-wing policies that are broadly popular, including Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee and a Green New Deal.
To respond to inflation, progressives have pushed for policies that would punish corporations that are jacking up prices on consumers while raking in record profits. One proposal would impose a windfall tax on the profits of Big Oil companies, which are rewarding wealthy shareholders with stock buyback programs. Others are proposing measures to crack down on corporate price gouging and dominance of supply chains, including by the meat industry, where just four beef companies control 85 percent of the market. Polls suggest that this response to inflation would be favored by the public. The Federal Reserve, meanwhile, with Biden’s blessing, is taking the opposite route, raising interest rates — which will likely lead to higher unemployment and decreased worker bargaining power, i.e. more neoliberal austerity.
If the chattering classes were serious about assessing the reason for Biden and the Democrats’ shrinking poll numbers, they would place blame on the real culprit — an unwillingness among the party establishment to take bold action to address the issues facing the country, from a broken healthcare system to economic plunder of working people by the super rich to bought-and-paid-for politicians acting on behalf of their corporate funders.
By instead chiding the Left, these commentators are repeating the tired ritual of treating progressives not as partners in Democratic governance, but rather as whiny children who should stay quiet while the adults among the party elite take charge. As Jamelle Bouie writes at the New York Times, “Somehow, the people in the passenger’s seat of the Democratic Party are always and forever responsible for the driver’s failure to reach their shared destination.”
This left-punching is also taking a page out of the handbook of former President Trump, who recently denounced “Radical Left Democrats” for high inflation and the country’s economic woes. As for the power brokers in the Democratic Party, they’re busy funding the campaigns of extremist pro-Trump election deniers in Republican primaries, part of a bid to stem Democratic losses in the midterms — a strategy that could easily backfire, and one that could easily be described as “practically doing the GOP’s job for them,” as Paul Begala put it.
In 2020, voters elected a president who promised an agenda of lifting up the working class by redistributing wealth downward, investing in social programs and tackling the climate crisis. Progressives have worked relentlessly to help Biden deliver on these pledges, while right-wing Democrats have stymied him again and again. The crisis facing the administration is on their hands, no matter what the mainstream pundits try to tell you.
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Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKLassin