In front of a giant banner that said “Restore Roe”, Joe Biden was holding his first rally of the year in Manassas, Virginia, to campaign for abortion rights, a top issue for Democrats in this year’s election.
But Biden did not receive the universal affirmation he might once have expected. His 22-minute speech was interrupted at least a dozen times by protesters scattered throughout the audience who rose to shout out demands for a ceasefire in Gaza. It was a jarring collision that revealed a president who stands accused of befriending then betraying the left – and now risks losing a critical part of his coalition.
The disillusionment is all the keener because Biden defied expectations early in his White House term, signing landmark legislation to alleviate poverty and tackle the climate crisis that thrilled his progressive wing. But with an election looming, critics say, he is gravitating back towards his comfort zone in the centre ground, and his refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza has caused particular fury.
“Progressives in the movement were pleasantly surprised to see President Biden push on a lot of domestic progressive priorities that we have been calling for,” said Usamah Andrabi, communications director of the progressive group Justice Democrats. “But without question he has erased much of that progress with his continued support for a genocide that’s happening at the hands of a far-right Israeli government.”
Biden, 81, was long perceived as a middle-of-the-road moderate, representing Delaware for 36 years in the Senate before serving as Barack Obama’s vice-president. He came under scrutiny for a cosy relationship with the banking sector, his role in drawing up a 1994 crime bill that ushered in an era of mass incarceration and his failure to protect witness Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s supreme court confirmation hearing.
Yet once Biden reached the White House in 2021, he proved more ambitious than many expected. He appointed progressives to his administration, the most diverse in history, and the first Black woman – Ketanji Brown Jackson – to the supreme court, along with numerous judges of colour. He gained further credit on the anti-war left by pulling US troops out of Afghanistan after two decades.
The coronavirus pandemic invited him to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Biden delivered trillions of dollars to boost domestic manufacturing, invest in infrastructure and combat the climate crisis. His lifelong support of trade unions came to the fore. A Wall Street Journal column, arguing that he would effectively run for a re-election in 2024 as a democratic socialist, offered the headline: “Joe Biden Is Bernie Sanders.”
But there were seeds of discontent. Some observers felt Biden could have used different tools to fulfill his promise of widespread student loan forgiveness, a plan ultimately struck down by the supreme court. There was disappointment that he did not use his bully pulpit more effectively to push Congress to pass police reform and voting rights legislation. Biden also received criticism for fist-bumping the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who approved the 2018 assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Even on climate, critics say, his record remains decidedly mixed. The Inflation Reduction Act directs $394bn to clean energy, the biggest such investment in history, and just last month the president ordered a pause on exports of liquefied natural gas, hailed as “a watershed moment” by activist and author Bill McKibben.
Yet Biden also approved the Willow oil-drilling project in a remote part of northern Alaska. Indeed, he has rubber stamped more oil and gas drilling permits on federal land than Donald Trump at the same stage of his presidency. US oil production reached an all-time high last year.
Stevie O’Hanlon, spokesperson for climate-focused youth group Sunrise Movement, said: “The way that Joe Biden is acting right now, if it continues for the next nine months, is a recipe for him losing millions of votes from young people and losing the election.
“So many young people have been frustrated with Biden for approving new fossil fuel projects. His administration has made some important shifts around Fema [Federal Emergency Management Agency] rules, for instance, around air pollution. But while he’s making these steps forward, he’s also taking these really loud steps back that honestly made many young people more disillusioned with him than less.”
Last month progressives condemned Biden’s decision to launch retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. They argued that he violated the constitution by not seeking congressional approval first and was breaking his promise to keep America out of intractable wars in the Middle East.
Meanwhile the president threw his weight behind a bipartisan Senate bill to tighten border security – and send military aid to Israel and Ukraine – which would severely curtail migration and limit asylum in a way that broke a campaign promise. Biden even adopted Republican language, saying he would “shut down the border” when he was given the authority to do so.
Andrabi of Justice Democrats said of the bill, which failed in the Senate: “We saw Biden work with mostly Republicans and Kyrsten Sinema, who has left the Democratic party, zero Hispanic caucus members, zero border state Democrats to craft a Trump-like Republican anti-immigration bill that Republicans were never going to vote for.
“To prove what? Maybe that he’s willing to treat migrant families like Trump did, as long as it comes with funding for war. That’s not sufficient. That is not progressive. That is not even core Democratic.”
But nothing has done more to drive a wedge between Biden and the left than the war in Gaza triggered by Hamas’s attacks in Israel on 7 October that left 1,200 people dead and more than 240 taken hostage. He championed Israel’s right to defend itself and only gradually voiced concerns about its rightwing government’s destructive military campaign that has killed more than 27,000 people, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.
A recent NBC News poll found 15% of voters under 35 approve of Biden’s handling of the war while 70% disapprove. Protesters disrupted his speech at Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina as the president spoke out against racism, at a United Auto Workers gathering in Washington and at a political event in Columbia, South Carolina. It is a vivid schism as the president, already facing concerns over his age, gears up for a hard fought race for the White House.
Norman Solomon, national director of RootsAction.org, said: “A lot of independents and Democrats are sickened in a gut punch sort of a way. Biden is so out of touch with the base that he absolutely will need this fall to be re-elected. Young people are more politicised and more energised than ever before and some of these Gaza demonstrations are propelled by young people turning out. They’re just disgusted with Biden and it didn’t have to be this way.”
Activists in Dearborn, Michigan, for example, are urging people to cast an “Uncommitted” vote in the Democratic primary election on 27 February to demand that Biden support a ceasefire and end to funding the war in Gaza. Thirty-three Michigan government officials have signed an open letter pledging to check the “Uncommitted” option on their ballots.
Layla Elabed, a Palestinian American activist who is managing the campaign, said: “Biden and his administration and the Democratic party have abandoned us, the pro-ceasefire and anti-war voters and constituency, and they have abandoned humanitarian politics. Democrats and Joe Biden no longer represent where we are at.
“The institution of the Democratic party hasn’t delivered; it’s moved away from what people are advocating for. They have money in their pockets and blood on their hands. Biden’s funding of Netanyahu’s war makes a mockery of the president’s claim that he would fight authoritarianism and be for democracy.”
The backlash threatens Biden’s chances of re-election, not because progressives will switch from him to likely opponent Trump in decisive numbers, but because a sliver might choose to sit out the election or turn to a third party candidate such as Cornel West – potentially enough to make all the difference in Michigan and other swing states in the electoral college.
Jeremy Varon, a history professor at the the New School for Social Research in New York, said: “Part of me thinks that Biden has basically given up on reassembling on the Obama coalition and decided that the number that they lose among progressives and the young they will make up with [Nikki] Haley Republicans, moderates and independents.
“Since there’s no meaningful primary, he doesn’t have to appeal to the base. All of that makes for a campaign where he’s going to run to the centre and progressives are going to feel very much in the wilderness.”
For the third election in a row, progressives are confronted with the argument that a vote for anyone but the Democratic nominee is effectively a vote for Trump, a man who has demonised immigrants, vowed to shut down the border immediately and resume construction of a border wall. There is no reason to believe that he would urge Israel to exercise restraint in Gaza.
Varon added: “People on the left like me who are terrified of a Trumpian re-election are trying to build a persuasive argument to bracket your values and pull the lever for Biden, even though you might think his Gaza policy is immoral.
“This is the most acute case of progressives wrangling with how you square your conscience with the pragmatic necessity of preventing the worst alternative from assuming the White House. This has been with the American left for decades. Do we vote for the Democrat?”
For Elaine Kamarck, a former official in the Bill Clinton White House, the answer has to be yes. She said: “Donald Trump has a miraculous way of uniting the Democratic party. People understand what a fundamental threat he is to democracy, to everything that the centre to the far left believes in and it’s sheer folly to vote against Biden.”
A dulling of the early optimism about Biden’s progressivism may have been inevitable as the presidential election loomed. When Republicans won the House in the 2022 midterm elections, the window of opportunity for sweeping legislation slammed shut. The war in Ukraine has consumed huge time and resources. The cracks between Biden and a younger generation over Israel were always there but it took the Hamas attack to bring them to the surface.
Matt Bennett, an executive vice-president of the centrist thinktank Third Way, describes Biden as a moderate by disposition who believes in compromise. “He’s governed the way he promised he would when he ran for president, the way he has always portrayed himself, which is somebody who’s at the centre of the Democratic electorate,” he said.
“He’s not on the liberal fringe; he is not a conservative Democrat. He’s always navigated to about the middle point of where the party is. That’s why he got there before Obama did on marriage equality, famously, because he saw where the party was headed and that’s where he has steered quite successfully as president. No one’s going to be happy with him all the time but most Democrats should appreciate that he’s done an extraordinarily good job.”
But Andrabi of Justice Democrats is less sanguine. He warns that Biden is failing to follow the will of the voters who elected him – and could pay a price.
He said: “It’s imperative that the Biden administration and Democratic leadership listen to those voters who are screaming at the top of their lungs in rallies, in meetings, everywhere they go that the current state of the Biden administration’s policies in Gaza, on immigration, on climate change is insufficient for core bases of their voters that got President Biden elected, that got Democrats a majority in the Senate and that is going to be crucial to getting Democrats to flip the House.
“But they’re not listening and lip service is not going to convince anyone when what we are seeing on the other side is nearly 30,000 dead Palestinians, let alone the ongoing existential crisis of climate change or an immigration system that is broken and their solution is to criminalise more folks. None of these are what the core base of the Democratic voters support.”
Source: US Politics - theguardian.com