Joe Biden occupies the Oval Office today, in part, because he ran a campaign that was contemptuous of his party’s far-left flank.
While progressives engaged in an endless bidding war with one another, Biden declined to participate. When the Democratic Party’s aspiring leaders pandered to its various constituent groups, Biden appealed to them on their own terms. In the process, he revealed that the Democratic Party is neither as revolutionary nor as “woke” as progressives assumed. But as president, Biden has largely abandoned the disposition that served him so well on the campaign trail. And because he has deferred so often to the most unreasonable elements of his coalition, he and his presidency are now their hostages.
As of this past weekend, House progressives are threatening to derail one of the most crucial aspects of Biden’s domestic legislative agenda: a bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed in the upper chamber of Congress with the support of 69 senators. But far-left Democrats in the House are reportedly prepared to vote against that bill and tank Joe Biden’s “build back better” agenda until and unless it is paired with a mammoth $3.5 trillion supplemental “infrastructure” package.
That inventory of leftwing wish-list items—a package that is known more for its price tag than for any of its actual aims—is still being negotiated among Senate Democrats, and the prospects of its passage through an evenly divided Senate are bleak. Inexplicably, House progressives appear to believe that holding Joe Biden’s chief domestic priority captive will convince their party’s genuine moderates to give in to their demands.
Few seem to believe that this threat is genuine; it’s one thing to issue an ultimatum, but it’s quite another to follow through with it and suffer the consequences. But progressives have lined up behind this power play, and they have not budged since they initially issued this challenge over the summer. And given the narrowness of the Democratic majority, even a handful of defections could imperil the infrastructure bill—or, worse, force Nancy Pelosi to rely on Republican votes to pass the president’s chief priority.
The question is: Why is Joe Biden letting this happen? He could use the power of the presidency to marginalize his party’s restive progressive flank today if he so chose. If taking to the podium and forcing the Democrats who are holding his agenda hostage to explain their rationale isn’t Biden’s style, he could use his authority to convince, cajole, or compel progressives to get on board. That kind of deal-making is, after all, what America thought it was getting when it elected a “deal maker.” But Joe Biden is not doing any of that. We’re left to conclude that he either has no interest in these, the messier aspects of his job, or that he fundamentally agrees more with progressives than the moderates who helped produce a bipartisan hard infrastructure bill in the first place.
Biden’s deference to self-destructive progressive maximalism has been a reliable feature of his presidency. The left wanted a stimulus and expanded jobless benefits in a COVID relief bill, and Biden backed them on it. They didn’t want to see the party’s economic moderates in the White House, and they got their wish. They wanted an extension of the CDC-issued moratorium on evictions, and Biden complied even though he was fully aware of the constitutional conventions he was transgressing. They wanted a president who would mimic their exasperated rhetorical style on issues ranging from climate change, to police violence, to voting rights, and they got that, too.
The president’s leftwing allies have noticed how “incredibly responsive to the progressive movement” Biden has been, and its members are quick to sound a note of qualified gratitude. But what thanks does the president get for his obedience? A standoff that now threatens one of the most popular aspects of his agenda.
With progressive demands hardening, there’s now talk about delaying the House vote on a hard infrastructure deal. Such an outcome would only cement the impression that Joe Biden is out of his depth. From the historic debacle in Afghanistan to a deepening crisis at the border to an endless pandemic without an endgame in sight, Joe Biden is surrounded by exigencies that he seems incapable of navigating. He cannot even competently guide his own party toward a legislative victory that is there for the taking.
Maybe he’s just not cut out for the job.