The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How progressives found their way to real power in Biden’s Washington

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Congressional Progressive Caucus chair, speaks outside the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 12, 2022. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)
5 min

For many years, people on the left have looked at their progressive representatives in Congress and wished they could be a little more like the right-wing Freedom Caucus and its tea party predecessors: ruthless, committed and willing to do almost anything to bend their party to their will. Democratic progressives, in contrast, had principle but not power. They could talk all they wanted about single-payer health care or cutting military spending, but most of the time party leaders could ignore them, or take them for granted.

That’s not true anymore. In fact, the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency, including many of its most notable successes, were shaped by the priorities and actions of progressives.

You can attribute this to both hard work and a new realism — an understanding that achieving results means working closely with those who have power, accepting incremental victories and being ready to seize opportunities when the timing is right.

In contrast to their frustrations during the Obama presidency, the left exerted real influence on both the White House and Democrats in Congress, especially when it came to economic issues.

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“There’s a recognition that some of these policies that were considered far-left or radical 10 years ago are actually mainstream populist ideas,” Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told me.

In retrospect, it’s clear that a key moment occurred during the 2020 campaign, when Biden made a strategic decision to form a “unity task force” on policy with his vanquished opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). While many of its specific policy goals remain unfulfilled, the task force put progressives inside the Biden apparatus, and many of the people involved took key positions in the administration. That move would go on to shape Biden’s presidency in profound ways that were not fully appreciated at the time, says Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute. It also set the stage for a break with the hands-off neoliberal economics that had characterized Democratic and Republican administrations for decades.

Today, both the administration and Democrats in Congress want to be more aggressive in making public investments, crafting a comprehensive industrial policy and promoting economic equity while not being constrained by deficit scolds. This approach “has been bubbling in the academy for at least a decade, and it came to fruition in this administration,” Wong told me, as more Democrats came to see it as the best approach from both a policy and political perspective.

Jayapal likewise counts the ascendancy within the party of “the idea that government has the ability to rewrite the rules of the economy so that it works better for working people and poor people” as a key progressive victory. She pointed to three reasons for the shift: growing economic inequality, grass-roots movements for such things as a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and the pandemic, which created the need and opportunity for government action.

That original unity effort with people loyal to Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “resulted in an agenda that 99 percent of the party could rally behind,” says Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. When it came time to craft Biden’s biggest bills — the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS Act, the Inflation Reduction Act — progressives were allied with the administration against a few centrist defectors. This contrasted with “the dynamic that we’ve seen in the past where it felt more like progressives were on the outside trying to get a couple priorities on the table,” Green told me.

Just as important was the question of personnel. During the transition, the PCCC created a database of key executive branch positions and worked with other progressive groups to suggest nominees, many of whom were hired. “A lot of us had been working for a very long time to build networks of people, who if the opportunity arose” could move into high-level economic positions, Wong told me. “None of this happens just because a bunch of people write a bunch of papers.”

Asked for the most important achievements of the past two years, progressives point to the climate provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s moves to alleviate student debt and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, among other things. Jayapal even characterizes parts of Build Back Better that were killed by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) as a victory for the left. “We did get 99 percent of the Democratic Party onboard with ideas like universal child care,” she told me, which not long ago was far from a consensus position but is now a key priority.

From the outset, the Progressive Caucus worked closely with the administration while pushing for more liberal positions. “We have done a lot of backroom negotiating,” Jayapal said, arguing that to be effective, progressives need “a very coordinated and disciplined inside-outside strategy.” In the past, they have been criticized for not being serious enough about the inside part. Today, Jayapal says, “we know how to count our votes, and we know how to govern.”

There were big disappointments, of course, such as the failure to achieve universal child care and a permanent expanded child tax credit. “We still have an economic system that depends on a lot of labor from women who are either poorly compensated or not compensated,” Wong said.

But Biden has surprised almost everyone on the left. “He was not my first or second choice for president,” Jayapal told me, “but I think he’s been the most progressive president that I’ve seen in my lifetime on economic issues.” Perhaps just as surprising, progressives played a big part in making that happen.