Democrats spent much of the last four years debating exactly how they lost to a fairly unpopular and flawed candidate like Donald Trump in 2016 and what changes they needed to make to avoid another defeat. They debated if they needed to be more liberal or more conservative on policy; if they should be principally focused on the Sun Belt or the Rust Belt, on voters of color, white voters with college degrees or white voters without degrees; if they needed to nominate more white men as candidates or more women and people of color; if they had to talk about race less or economics more.
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Now we have President Biden. Biden won the party’s nomination and the general election. He has selected people to fill top jobs in his administration and outlined the policies that administration will prioritize. In other words, we now have a pretty detailed picture of where the Democratic Party landed on many of those debates. And the main takeaway is this: A multiracial group of Obama-style Democrats are in charge, just like from 2009 to 2016. They’re solidly left of center — but mostly from the ideological middle of the party, not its leftmost wing. They are establishment types, who served in the Clinton or Obama administrations and generally haven’t rocked the boat too much in their careers. But this time, the explicit goal is to push and enact more leftward-leaning policies — compared to the Obama administration, in particular — on both economic and racial issues.
It’s worth briefly telling the story of the Democratic Party over the last four years, to explain how it ended up here. From the day after Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election to the 2018 midterms, Democrats were battling over the party’s direction but mostly focused on fighting now former President Trump. The real fight over the party’s future came in the 2020 presidential primary. Biden explicitly ran against the more progressive wing of the party that is best exemplified by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Biden won in large part because of the support he got from the party’s more establishment and centrist figures who were wary of Sanders and Warren.
But along the way to his victory in the Democratic primaries, Biden moved left when compared to the Obama-Biden administration’s stances. He embraced a government-based health insurance option, for example, which Obama had downplayed. He promised to halt most deportations of undocumented immigrants in his first 100 days in office; Obama’s administration deported so many immigrants, some rights advocates dubbed him the “deporter-in-chief.”
Then, after Biden basically had wrapped up the nomination, two real-world events pushed him even further left. On economic issues, it was the coronavirus pandemic. With the effects of COVID-19 putting many Americans out of work, Biden promised an FDR-style approach as president to help Americans economically. On racial issues, the pandemic, with its disproportionately high death rates among Black Americans, and the nationwide protests after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd pushed the Democratic Party leftward.
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The racial reckoning made Harris — who was already one of the most logical choices as Biden’s running mate — basically a shoo-in. Harris, like Biden, is a center-left establishment Democrat who has moved leftward as the party drifted in that direction but is not as progressive as Sanders or Warren.
Sanders, Warren and Ocasio-Cortez and the broader left wing of the Democratic Party unified behind Biden in the general election. But the Biden wing had won the primary and that was clear as Biden began to fill top jobs in Washington.
Biden hasn’t picked a lot of people for key jobs who endorsed Sanders or Warren for president or who are explicitly tied to the party’s more anti-establishment progressive wing. But he hasn’t explicitly cast off the left either. Instead, Biden has gone about filling the government and leadership of the Democratic Party with a demographically diverse group of establishment types who have moved left in recent years like Harris and Biden himself. Biden’s approach to filling out top jobs is perhaps best exemplified by his choices of Jamie Harrison, who was unsuccessful in his 2020 bid to be South Carolina’s first-ever Black Democratic U.S. senator, to be chair of the Democratic National Committee; Alejandro Mayorkas, who would be the first immigrant and first Latino to run the Department of Homeland Security, and Jake Sullivan as national security adviser. Sullivan, who is a white man, is not a unique choice based on demographic characteristics, but the one-time top adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign urged the party to become more populist after Clinton’s defeat.
Of course, there are some very progressive people who have been selected to key posts in Biden’s administration, including Rep. Deb Haaland as interior secretary and Gary Gensler and Rohit Chopra to lead key financial industry oversight departments. But we couldn’t do a story describing seven competing ideological wings in Biden’s Washington the way we did in 2017 when Trump came to office. Instead, in the Biden administration, there is one clear, dominant ideological view — left of Obama in 2016, not as left as Warren now.
“Left of Obama in 2016, not as left as Warren now,” of course, isn’t a precise ideology. But we are already getting some glimpses of what that means in practice. Incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain explicitly described the four main focuses of the administration in a memo released the weekend before Biden was inaugurated: “[T]he COVID-19 crisis, the resulting economic crisis, the climate crisis, and a racial equity crisis.” It is hard to imagine that Obama would have so explicitly included racial issues as one of his top four goals in January 2009. In another leftward shift, Biden has said he will prioritize the economic standing of everyday Americans over trying to keep down the federal budget deficit; the latter had been a focus of Obama’s.
At the same time, there is little indication Biden will push for getting rid of the filibuster, forgiving most student loan debt by executive order or other priorities of the more progressive wing of the party. Having a President Biden, instead of a President Warren or President Sanders, means that the left is still largely locked out of power. The Democratic Party spent 2017 to 2020 debating the best strategy to defeat Trump. It will spend the next two years debating what, exactly, Biden should enact and push in terms of policy and what he should do to make sure Democrats do well in the 2022 midterms. And that debate is likely to feature a lot of the same left-vs.-center-left dynamics we’ve seen before.
In short, Biden’s Democratic Party will be the most demographically diverse group ever to run Washington — and perhaps the most left-leaning since the days of President Lyndon Johnson. The big questions will be how far to the left Biden and his team of establishment types want to go — and whether other factors force him to either tack right or go even more left than what they had planned.