Why Biden Will Lose the Left—and How That Could Help Him

The Democratic coalition is already fracturing. But losing his erstwhile allies could actually make it easier to govern—and boost his standing.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden walks off stage in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 16.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden walks off stage in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 16. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Scarcely a month after the Democrats came together to help Joe Biden win the U.S. presidential election, the famously fractious party is already splintering at record speed.

Barely a day goes by without a new crack appearing. The left has pushed back faster, and more aggressively, against Biden’s cabinet picks than against those of any previous Democratic president. It already seems to have claimed one victim—Rahm Emanuel, who was reportedly under consideration to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Transportation. And activist groups, joined by left-leaning members of Congress, are now fighting to block the nominations of anyone with ties to the defense industry (such as retired Gen. Lloyd Austin), big business (Jeff Zients, Brian Deese, and Adewale Adeyemo), or the aggressive, and in some cases extreme, military policies of past administrations (Mike Morell)—never mind the diverse backgrounds of many of the nominees.

Other progressives, meanwhile, have taken to the internet to warn that the not-yet-seated Biden administration may already be a lost cause. And on Nov. 7—the same day that cable networks finally called the election—the socialist magazine Jacobin tweeted, “It’s good that Donald Trump lost. But the Left now needs to pivot immediately to opposition to the Joe Biden administration.”

The fierce pushback just one month into the transition, coupled with insistence by leaders such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that Biden abandon his moderation and use his presidency to push for big progressive changes, raise an important question: Can Biden hold on to his party’s energized left wing for much longer? And what will it mean—for him, his presidency, and the country—if he loses the progressives?

From top left: Some of President-elect Joe Biden’s high-level picks include retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, Marcia Fudge, Xavier Becerra, Alejandro Mayorkas, Katherine Tai, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Janet Yellen, Cecilia Rouse, and Heather Boushey.

From top left: Some of President-elect Joe Biden’s high-level picks include retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, Marcia Fudge, Xavier Becerra, Alejandro Mayorkas, Katherine Tai, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Janet Yellen, Cecilia Rouse, and Heather Boushey. Getty Images

By all accounts, the president-elect recognizes the scope of the challenge and has a three-part strategy to prevent it. The first element involves rhetorically signaling his support for progressive causes: His transition website, for example, ranks the fight for racial justice and against climate change as among his top priorities.

Second, when it comes to staffing, Biden is trying to balance the moderate policy preferences of many of his cabinet choices with an emphasis on diverse backgrounds (see Austin, Marcia Fudge, Xavier Becerra, Alejandro Mayorkas, Katherine Tai, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield). And he’s been careful to pick a number of prominent progressives, such as Janet Yellen, Cecilia Rouse, and Heather Boushey, for key economic roles.

Can Biden hold on to his party’s energized left wing for much longer?

As Matt Bennett, the executive vice president and co-founder of the center-left think tank Third Way, told me, “Biden did a masterful job during the campaign of suppressing tensions between the left and the center. The question now is whether he can succeed in doing the same as president.”

The answer to Bennett’s very important question depends on which left you’re talking about: the online left, the grassroots left, or the congressional left.

When it comes to the first, the answer seems an obvious no. Online progressives are itching for a fight. Jacobin has declared that there will be “no honeymoon” for the new president and that “the incoming Joe Biden administration doesn’t deserve an ounce of credit for having the right intentions or a day of progressives patiently waiting to see how it acts.” Grassroots groups are also mobilized; this Monday, the organization Code Pink warned on Twitter that it was “coming for” Austin, presumably due to his ties to the defense contractor Raytheon.

In Congress, some leftist leaders such as Sen. Bernie Sanders have thus far remained publicly supportive of the president-elect; one top aide told me that they’re planning to give Biden a chance and the benefit of the doubt. But left-leaning members of the House seem less patient; Ocasio-Cortez has obliquely warned the incoming administration not to abandon progressive priorities such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

So some kind of a break seems inevitable, both because progressives’ expectations are so high—“even if Biden delivered on another New Deal he’d still disappoint the left, because he’s not a socialist,” the Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz told me—and because of the likely makeup of the next Congress.

As a result of the Democrats’ disappointing down-ballot showing in November, the party now holds only a slim House majority. In the Senate, either Republicans will retain control, or, if Democrats manage to win both Georgia seats in the January runoff election, Biden’s party will eke out a 50-50 split. But even that result wouldn’t be much of a victory, since it would make cautious moderate senators like Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Susan Collins the deciding votes on most bills. Major progressive legislation would never have a chance under either scenario. Biden could still deliver on some progressive priorities through regulatory changes and executive orders—raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for federal contract workers, offering relief on student loans, and reimposing the many environmental protections that Trump overturned. But the country’s deeper economic and social problems—and there are many of them—will require actual legislation to address. And that’s just not going to happen.

Add that to Biden’s own resolute centrism and his reading of the election results—which showed a strong preference for moderation among the electorate—and the incoming president seems destined to alienate his short-term allies on the left before long.

Demonstrators are seen during a climate change protest in Washington on Oct. 25, 2019.

Demonstrators are seen during a climate change protest in Washington on Oct. 25, 2019. John Lamparski/Getty Images

But so what? Could an angry left then punish Biden in any significant way?

Again, the answer depends on which left you’re talking about. While historians like Michael Kazin point out that Democrats always perform better when they’re united, a lack of unity needn’t be fatal to Biden. For starters, he just doesn’t care much about what people say about him on Twitter, and his strategy of essentially ignoring the medium has served him very well so far. As for left-led street protests that could embarrass the administration or scare away voters, those are hard to imagine short of a major war—which Biden is almost guaranteed to avoid.

Obstruction from progressive organizations and members of the House should be a bigger worry. A lack of grassroots support for the president could mean more left-wing primary challenges going into the 2022 midterm elections, which could in turn hurt Democrats’ ability to hold on to or recover more seats on Election Day itself. Progressive opposition could also lower voter turnout.

A vengeful left could also try to make Biden’s life difficult in Congress. Progressives won’t be able to pass any actual laws the new president opposes, but they could act as spoilers, blocking bills the White House favors—especially compromise deals with the Republicans. Some left-wing members of Congress are already threatening to do just that to the stimulus bill currently under negotiation.

Bad as all that might sound for Biden, however, there’s another, equally plausible scenario in which the left rejects him—and the president does just fine without them.

Progressives’ ability to block moderate compromises in the House—assuming that Republicans agree to any in the first place, which is far from certain—depends on their actual influence there, which is hard to measure. The size of the Congressional Progressive Caucus isn’t a good proxy; it boasts nearly 100 members, but a quick look at the roster reveals a lot of moderate names, such as Reps. Lois Frankel and Hakeem Jeffries.

While the November election left the Democrats with a much-reduced majority—which would increase the power of individual spoilers—only a handful or two of House members seem to fit into this category. And it’s far from clear that even these progressives would dare vote against big, if imperfect, spending deals with Republicans, when doing so would place ideological purity over the needs of their constituents. As Third Way’s Bennett put it to me, “Unlike the Tea Party, who are purely anti-government, the Squad”—as Ocasio-Cortez and her allies are known—“care deeply about governing and people. I don’t think they’ll act like the bomb-throwers on the right.”

What about the 2022 midterms? Here again it’s unclear how much damage even a very frustrated left could or would do to Biden. So far, progressives have been careful to only mount primary challenges against moderate Democrats in reliably blue districts, thereby avoiding the risk they might hurt the party’s electoral chances in the process. Meanwhile, if the rollout of the new COVID-19 vaccines go well, if the economy starts to recover, and if Biden manages to rack up a decent number of accomplishments through executive action and on the foreign-policy side (where he doesn’t need Congress for much), his popularity—which is already higher than Trump’s ever was—could help the Democrats actually retake seats in 2022, with or without the left. Given how the left’s rhetoric seemed to hurt moderates in tight 2020 races, moreover, a split from progressives could help their odds next time.

The conventional wisdom holds that first-term presidents typically get slaughtered in their first midterm elections. But that pattern only really holds when their party controls Congress for the first two years and passes major measures that many Americans judge excessive—so they then vote to reduce the majority party’s power. Given the gridlock guaranteed by the makeup of the 117th Congress, no one will be able to credibly accuse Biden or the Democrats of overreach in 2022.

Biden still has a path to moderate success, both substantively and politically.

Finally, a fight with the left could actually help Biden politically by giving him an excuse for sticking to his pragmatic guns and avoiding saying or doing anything that could alienate his moderate base. As the New York Times’ Ross Douthat recently argued, “He will not be permitted to re-enact the New Deal or the Great Society, but neither will he be tempted into ideologically driven debacles like Bill Clinton’s failed health care push or even Donald Trump’s failed attempt to repeal Obamacare.” If pundits or voters complain about his failure to do more, he’ll be able to blame extremists on both the left and the right for tying his hands.

To be clear: The best outcome for Biden, the Democrats, and the country would still be for the incoming president to find a way to hold on to the left and the rest of his party—by accomplishing enough to satisfy the majority of his supporters, and by using that record and a vaccine-induced economic recovery to build the kind of popular support that would make him very difficult for anyone, on the left or right, to challenge.

But given all the ifs and obstacles embedded in that last sentence, it’s important to recognize that even if many of these policies don’t pan out, Biden still has a path to moderate success, both substantively and politically. And that might be the best anyone can hope for given the incredible mess the country now faces.

Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy, a role he assumed in November 2020 after three years as the magazine’s editor in chief. He is the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman