Biden will run as a moderate. But in the long run, he may be forced to implement a number of progressive policies.
The announcement of Joe Biden’s candidacy did more than just make the inevitable official. In addition to putting his hat in the ring, it also served as the beginning of a three-day stretch of Biden swatting down many once-formidable obstacles to his nomination. For critics who said Biden’s biggest obstacle was his inability to raise money, the former vice president raised $6.1 million in his first day, more than any other Democratic candidate. What about the liberals who saw him as unable to overcome or atone for his past mistakes? Biden quickly called Anita Hill to apologize for his treatment of her on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and stellar polling figures showed that criticism of his inappropriate touching of women may have lost steam. Even liberals who critiqued his invocation of Charlottesville in his opening video were silenced by Biden’s ability to goad Trump into yet another comment praising white supremacists.
Obviously, the Democratic front-runner is not guaranteed to win the nomination. Biden still has four decades of insensitive racial comments, war votes, and corporate-friendly legislation to distance himself from. Nevertheless, he seems to have a commanding polling lead, and many liberal commentators are naturally worried about Biden’s policies and approach as a Democratic nominee and president. “What Does Joe Biden Stand for, Exactly?” read a headline earlier this week in The New Republic, where Matt Ford critiqued Biden’s earlier policy prescriptions and his continuing effort to apologize for them. “Tough-on-crime laws weren’t just part of his political career,” Ford writes. “In many ways, they were central to that career — his most substantive impact on American life. Backing away from them is no easy feat.” Matthew Rosza at Salon believes that these policy specifics could harm Biden’s overall electability, writing, “The idea of Biden and the reality of Biden are two very different things. While the idea of Biden is no doubt quite electable both in the primaries and general, the reality of Biden may prove to be a very different story.”
Liberals should certainly continue worrying about and pressuring Biden. But, given his history and the growing number of progressives in the party, they may have little to worry about from his presidency.
Joe Biden will certainly run on a more moderate general election platform than many of his competitors would. But this posture will most likely not extend to his conduct as president. Biden will have to run alongside a Democratic party platform that is more ambitiously liberal than any other in party history. He will be expected to expand Medicare, tackle the student loan crisis, and advocate for monumental legislation to overhaul immigration. While Biden may not try to accomplish all of these goals, he will certainly strive for some of them. Above all, Biden is a party regular, and large sections of the Democratic Party will be pushing him to take action under the threat of an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-style primary from the left.
This assumption of Biden’s ability to introduce and pass legislation is predicated on a Democratic Congress, of course. But even without Democrats leading the House and Senate, Biden still might be able to do good on behalf of progressives. He would have a wide-ranging ability to pass executive orders and implement progressive policies for the federal workforce. Biden could also use the power of the bully pulpit to shame federal officials or stop harmful initiatives. A massive petition drive or set of protests from progressives will not push President Trump to do anything, but it might sway a President Biden.
For an earlier precedent, look no further than the presidency of Barack Obama. Obama certainly did not go as far as many progressives wanted him to on health care, stimulus spending, and union rights. But he did use his executive power to create DACA, a policy that aided millions of young undocumented immigrants. Obama was also swayed to action by numerous protest movements. He reduced the federal 1033 program, which allowed the military to sell surplus weapons and armor to local police officials, after the 2014 Ferguson protests. Obama also decided against the Keystone XL pipeline and took decisive action against the Dakota Access Pipeline after a long, coordinated protest by the Standing Rock Sioux.
Joe Biden will not run for office as a socialist, a democratic socialist, or even a particularly transformative figure for that matter. He will focus on the Obama presidency and on setting himself apart from both Trump and the most radical wing of his own party. But once in office, Biden will be forced to listen to those same progressives. He does not want a primary challenge or a horde of protesters swarming the White House and distracting from his policy goals. While many progressives are understandably tepid about the former vice president today, his election may bring them more benefits than they could currently imagine.