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Biden woos left flank along with Wall Street to avoid 2016 rerun

Jennifer Epstein
Bloomberg News

Washington – Joe Biden is trying to win over progressives by courting the movement’s leaders and backing their calls for significant increases in pandemic relief, yet faces an uphill fight to convince skeptics on the left he won’t abandon working people in favor of Wall Street.

Since the economic crisis began with the coronavirus pandemic, he has shifted some of his stances leftward, calling for trillions of dollars more in stimulus spending and complaining about big banks getting a federal bailout while some small businesses were unable to secure life-saving loans. He’s agreed to create several policy task forces that join his staff with Bernie Sanders’, and has adopted small pieces of Elizabeth Warren’s agenda, and says he’s willing to hear more.

In this Feb. 29, 2020, file photo Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a primary night election rally in Columbia, S.C.

To key progressive groups and leaders, the steps he’s taken are a good start. But they’re still worried that once in office, his economic recovery plan will mirror that of President Barack Obama, which they believed betrayed the values he campaigned on and favored banks and Wall Street at the expense of workers.

Biden is walking a tightrope. He desperately needs to raise money from Wall Street and other centers of wealth and power, and he’s promised donors that their standard of living won’t change if he is in the White House. But he also fears a repeat of 2016, when progressives felt ignored by nominee Hillary Clinton and stayed away on Election Day, which many say contributed to Donald Trump’s victory.

The economic crisis, including unemployment of around 20%, has made voters’ more willing to support some of the progressives’ big ideas. A majority of Americans surveyed in late March favored increased spending on health care, the elderly, environmental protection, education and infrastructure, among other areas. That gives Biden room to maneuver to the left.

But the Democratic establishment rallied around the former vice president as their preferred nominee in early March in part to blunt fears that a progressive nominee like Sanders or Warren would espouse policy ideas that wouldn’t win in November.

His balancing act might be working. This week, Biden won endorsements from Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, the chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus and from Clinton.

Progressive groups, however, say they’re going to push for more, demanding that Biden bring more like-minded voices into his campaign and his possible transition team. And they say they will loudly complain when he makes moves they oppose. They’ve made good on that pledge, sparking an uproar when Bloomberg News reported that Biden was getting economic advice from former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.

“Progressives are ready to be a resource to the Biden team – and give them a good push if needed,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Institute.

A “Biden do not reappoint” list published by the American Prospect includes many of the same Obama administration alumni who progressives don’t want to see in a Biden administration, including Summers, former U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, and former Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag and Jeff Zients, an acting director and economic adviser.

There will also be objections if Biden hires from investment banks, private equity firms or other financial institutions and progressives say that he, like Obama, should bar corporate lobbyists from his transition team and administration.

Eight groups representing young progressives wrote to Biden with a list of personnel recommendations and have asked that he “pledge to appoint zero current or former Wall Street executives or corporate lobbyists, or people affiliated with the fossil fuel, health insurance or private prison corporations, to your transition team, adviser roles, or cabinet.”

Biden has made clear his leftward steps only go so far. He says he’s not going to adopt “Medicare for All” or the full Green New Deal. If he’s elected, no set of senior administration officials is going to look the same as it would in a Sanders or Warren administration, his campaign says. Still, Biden’s team is actively stressing to progressives that there’s plenty they’ll like about his campaign and, if elected, his administration.

Biden appointees “won’t be guided by a market fundamentalism that guided even Democratic economic teams in past administrations because the times have changed in that regard,” said Jared Bernstein, Biden’s former chief economist in the White House who is, like Summers, an informal adviser to Biden’s campaign.

“The optimal team has people with different views in the room and gets the balance right,” he said.

While progressives like Bernstein were outnumbered during the Obama years, Bernstein said he believes Biden will build “a much more balanced group with an ample supply of established progressive economists who recognize the importance of the leftward movement in the party in areas of labor power, trade, fiscal policy and deficits, minimum wages, health care and family supports.”

“Personnel and a policy agenda go hand-in-hand,” said Steph Sterling, vice president for advocacy and policy at the progressive Roosevelt Institute, which has ties to Warren and worked closely with Hillary Clinton’s team in 2016. Biden, she said, should select aides who believe in “the power of the government to reshape and reform markets instead of reinforcing and exacerbating extractive corporate power.”

Although Biden has adopted the centrist mantle, Bernstein said he has always favored working-class Americans over the wealthy and powerful. “I’ve heard concerns about the little guy and gal getting left behind and the unequal access of corporate power to Washington,” he said, adding that Biden called him last week to express concern that small businesses were missing out on loans from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Progressives say Bernstein is a reassuring presence, as is former Delaware Sen. Ted Kaufman, Biden’s former Senate chief of staff and longtime friend, who worked aggressively for breaking up the big banks. Kaufman succeeded Warren as chair of the panel overseeing how stimulus money was spent after the 2008 recession and is close to her. Biden told donors Monday he is talking to Kaufman about his transition team.

“Who do you think Joe Biden’s going listen to?” Kaufman asked. “What do you think is down deep in Joe Biden’s innermost instincts? Where do you think they are? Do you think they’re with the poor, disadvantaged, with people of color, with middle class people? Or do you think they’re with Goldman Sachs?”

To Kaufman, the answer is clear, but some progressives worry that the Biden campaign’s vagueness about his economic team and the news about Summers reinforced their concerns. “Larry Summers Is a Dead Albatross Around Joe Biden’s Neck,” read a headline Monday in the Nation, concluding that if the candidate “wants to prove his bona fides to progressives, he’ll have to cut his ties to Larry Summers.” Others have started a petition urging Biden to do just that.

Jeff Hauser, founder of the Revolving Door Project, which scrutinizes executive-branch appointees, said Biden has pushed for something Summers opposed under Obama – a stimulus bill in the trillions of dollars.

“There is responsiveness to the progressive wing that’s encouraging,” he said.

Mike Lux, who was the Obama transition team’s liaison to progressives and worked on Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign, said he sees progressives continuing to push Biden – and for good reason.

“In past eras when a Democratic candidate won, there was, frankly, more trust,” Lux said, arguing that some progressives still feel stung from the experience of watching Obama, who they believed was closely aligned with them, take a different path once elected.

“When Rahm Emanuel was brought in as chief of staff and Summers” and Timothy Geithner “were appointed right away, it really shocked and depressed people,” he recalled. “And that experience combined especially with Elizabeth Warren preaching that ‘personnel is policy’ means people are thinking about it all differently now.”