Members of the ascendant progressive movement in the United States promised to continue pressuring President Joe Biden in a “No Honeymoon” campaign launched on Monday as the newly inaugurated Democratic leader lays out his agenda for the next four years.
The campaign organised by Roots Action, a grassroots network of more than one million progressive activists, calls for universal healthcare, the cancellation of billions of dollars of student debt, a Green New Deal that would reshape the US economy to fight climate change, the dismantling of systemic racism and a $15 minimum wage.
Progressives have seen a growth in political power in recent years, thanks in part to the popularity of Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist” whose presidential campaign platform included these goals, derided as “radical left” policies by Republicans and unattainable by some Democrats.
Biden has made overtures to progressives, including support for a $15 minimum wage for federal employees, and Democrats in two chambers of the US Congress announced they will put forward bills to raise the wage.
We must mobilize and put maximum pressure on the Biden administration. Only substantial, dedicated, popular pressure can steer them in the direction that country needs
— RootsAction (@Roots_Action) January 26, 2021
Bill Fletcher Jr, a racial justice advocate and former senior staffer with the AFL-CIO, the largest US labour union, told Al Jazeera the Biden administration has put forward policies that are “good”, but “don’t go far enough”.
One of Biden’s first legislative priorities, a proposed $1.9 trillion aid package for those suffering the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, falls short of a $2,000 stimulus cheque which many felt they were promised by Biden and other Democrats, instead coupling a $1,400 cheque with the $600 stimulus dispersed at the end of Trump’s term.
Fletcher said progressives should recall the beginning of former President Barack Obama’s administration, under which Biden served as vice president. Then, he explained, progressives did not push for their goals.
Healthcare has long been a priority for progressives, many of whom rallied around Obama in 2008 when he promised a public option, or government-funded healthcare plan as an alternative to private insurance, that never materialised.
Instead of a temporary expansion of Medicare under the pandemic, as Sanders proposed in April 2020 during his presidential campaign, Biden’s COVID bill puts forward increased subsidies for COBRA health coverage.
COBRA is a programme that allows those who lost their job to remain on their previous employer-provided coverage at full cost. The bill also proposes tax credits for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Biden has positioned himself as a modern-day Franklin Roosevelt, a former president known for his wide-ranging economic populist policies called the New Deal, which included massive public spending, that helped the US survive the economic turmoil of the Great Depression.
A large portrait of Roosevelt hangs in Biden’s office and he studied Roosevelt’s 1933 transition to the presidency.
While Roosevelt, who came from an elite family of wealth, is remembered as a progressive hero, Fletcher stressed he did not begin his term as such.
Fletcher explained that Roosevelt was forced to develop a new base of support after an initial, pro-corporation attempt to move slowly met with resistance from businesses who did not want to concede protections for workers. He turned to the working class for a new support base, whose pressure secured the New Deal.
The COVID-19 economic crisis has been likened to the Great Depression, and Biden is expected to face similarly major hurdles. “That means that we on the left side of the aisle are going to have to keep pressure on,” Fletcher concluded.
Appointments and primaries
Norman Solomon, Roots Action’s national director, echoed Fletcher in an interview with Al Jazeera.
Progressives are pleased with some of Biden’s appointments, Solomon said, like economic adviser Jared Bernstein, whose academic work focuses on the middle class, and progressive Representative Marcia Fudge’s nomination to head Housing and Human Development.
Still, many “are dyed in the wool corporate flacks”, Solomon said.
Roots Action and Food & Water Watch (FWW), a nonprofit that focuses on government accountability related to the environment, have opposed Tom Vilsack, Biden’s nominee for the US Department of Agriculture.
Vilsack was previously the USDA chief under Obama and has faced criticism for favouring corporate farms over small, family-owned operations, claims he denies.
“Vilsack has made a career of catering to the whims of corporate agriculture giants – some of whom he has gone to work for – while failing to fight for struggling family farmers at every turn,” FWW said in a statement on his nomination in December.
None of the progressives who spoke to Al Jazeera criticised Biden’s immigration measures, including orders to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme that protects undocumented people brought to the US as children from deportation, a currently blocked 100-day total deportation freeze and an immigration reform bill that would provide an eight-year path citizenship for undocumented people living in the US.
Antonio Arellano, interim executive director of Jolt, the largest Latino progressive organisation in Texas which is not part of the “No Honeymoon” campaign, told Al Jazeera the measures show Biden recognises the “important role immigrants play in the social and economic fabric of our country. I applaud President Biden’s commitment to undoing the damage left by the Trump administration.”
Fletcher and Solomon both lauded the moves on immigration, but remained cautious.
Solomon referred to appointments: “Personnel is policy. So, we can already see where some of this is going.”
Progressives have used primaries, or electoral challenges to establishment Democratic incumbents in districts where Republicans fare poorly, to win seats in the House. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her seat in 2018 this way, defeating Joseph Crowley, a longtime representative who had been serving as a key deputy to then-House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
To keep the pressure on Democrats, Solomon said Roots Action is researching “several dozen members of the House”.
If anyone violates “humanistic principles, we’re going to be working to primary them in coalition with grassroots groups”, Solomon concluded.