WASHINGTON — Joe Biden launched the early months of his presidency with a one-two combination that’s gone a long way toward taming the party’s restive left wing: Listen a lot, and back many of the policies that activists have long wanted.
The embrace of sweeping liberal ideas is dramatic, with about $2 trillion in coronavirus relief spending passed and another $2 trillion in infrastructure spending proposed, along with new taxes focused on wealthy individuals and companies to help pay for this and additional spending.
Those policies have been paired with steady attention from Biden's top aides, including Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who are in frequent touch with groups that have long harbored suspicions about the president's corporate ties and incremental instincts.
“It is a real partnership,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, who participated in a Zoom call with Vice President Kamala Harris early in the administration and says she has “many, many point people” to call inside the White House.
MoveOn’s executive director Rahna Epting summed up the experience so far with the Biden White House by saying: “There’s a lot of promise, and we’re on, like, our second or third date.”
The administration’s warm relationship with the left is one of the most surprising aspects of the Biden presidency, particularly after a bitterly fought primary campaign where many liberals saw Biden as too close to Republicans and too timid to enact bold change.
The coronavirus pandemic and millions of job losses have changed the political landscape in ways that have aligned Biden's agenda more closely with the left, as the administration pushes for broad liberal policies as a way to recover from the pandemic.
But the honeymoon could also be short-lived. Biden is entering a period of complicated negotiations on Capitol Hill over his jobs and infrastructure plan, which is almost certain to result in setbacks for the left. Many of the liberal wing’s biggest priorities — including a major voting rights bill and gun control legislation — lack support from some moderate Democrats, potentially dooming them in the Senate.
And an overly close relationship poses risks for both sides. Liberal leaders could lose credibility with supporters, particularly if Biden does not make progress on items such as increasing the minimum wage or defies them on other key issues. Likewise, if Biden appears too cozy with the left wing of the party, it could help Republicans paint him as a radical or a socialist, a narrative that the GOP failed to carry off during the 2020 campaign.
Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and the Senate minority leader, laid out an updated version of that attack last week.
"I like him personally. I mean, we've been friends for a long time. He's a first-rate person," McConnell told reporters in Kentucky, "Nevertheless, this is a bold, left-wing administration. I don't think they have a mandate to do what they're doing."
In broad strokes, the legislation put together by Biden's team contains concepts pushed by the left for the past few years. The $2 trillion infrastructure package that Biden unveiled this week is smaller but similar in structure to a prominent liberal proposal called the Green New Deal, with massive clean energy investments intended to create millions of jobs and confront climate change.
The package also devotes $400 billion for care of the elderly and disabled — a top demand of labor unions and many liberal economists — and massively increases a range of taxes on the biggest US corporations, a long-held goal of liberals to counter income inequality.
That comes after a stimulus package that included $1,400 checks backed by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and a rethinking of federal subsidies to nonworking parents that will lift millions of children out of poverty.
"It's certainly the case that the framework of things that he's putting forward is quite progressive," said Faiz Shakir, an adviser to Sanders who managed the senators's 2020 presidential campaign. "It's a very different world than the last few years where the base of a bill that was offered was fundamentally conservative."
Leaders on the left also say they feel the administration is listening to them in a way that feels new. Former president Donald Trump hurled racist slurs at top liberals. Former president Barack Obama’s White House was significantly more respectful but still kept many liberal activists at a distance, deriding some as the “professional left.”
Klain returns e-mails and calls from top liberal groups and regularly brings in small groups of liberal lawmakers for meetings, taking care to be sure they feel there’s been a meaningful exchange, aides and lawmakers say.
And, nodding to a favorite platform of the liberal elite, Klain frequently uses his Twitter account to “like” or “retweet” messages even from lesser-known activists, a move that takes less than a second of his time but is noticed and widely discussed among liberal networks.
“I feel like we’re getting a little bit spoiled for future presidents,” said Varshini Prakash, the cofounder of Sunrise, a liberal group focused on reducing climate change that endorsed Sanders in the 2020 primary.
The attention from Klain, arguably the second-most powerful person in Washington after the president, has been a shock for many. “I think it’s pretty wild that there’s a [White House] chief of staff who you can e-mail who actually gets back to you,” Prakash said
White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, who also meets and talks frequently with liberal groups for strategy sessions, says the importance of tending to the liberal base is a hard-won lesson.
“I learned in 2009 that the only way to get things passed is to have genuine support for it across the country — grass-roots level,” said Dunn, who was also a top-level adviser in the Obama White House. “And in order to build that when you don’t have a presidential campaign, you really need to work with stakeholders.”
She also said "there is a pretty broad consensus" across the party on major priorities, which helps ease tensions.
Biden officials have also hired staffers from the left, which has helped reduce frictions between the camps as well. More than a dozen officials with close ties to Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts landed in senior administration roles across the federal government, from foreign policy to financial regulation to economic policy.
Liberal groups say those steps represent a big change from prior Democratic administrations. Under Obama, for instance, two of the most prominent think-tanks on the left — the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the Economic Policy Institute — felt almost entirely shut out of policymaking.