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What Biden's political evolution means for progressives in 2023

Earlier this month, a president who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 as a senator signed the bill to officially repeal it and enshrine marriage equality into law.  

President Biden has always fashioned himself as a centrist, even when seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, which makes his evolution on particular issues a fascinating weather vane.  

After finally hearing progressives’ calls on everything from climate change and student debt to a filibuster carve-out this year, where might Biden advance next in 2023? 

“What’s been interesting is to watch his evolution,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) in a wide-ranging interview with The Hill this week. It’s been “really good to see him absorb information, take information in, and move.”   

Immigration, climate, judicial nominees, overtime pay: the list is lengthy. And wondering what Biden will tackle next has progressives on the edge of their seats. 

Many who preferred other candidates in the 2020 presidential primary were skeptical that lifelong-moderate Biden would push for their priorities, having seen him spend decades as a centrist Senate homebody. They saw more liberal contenders such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) advocate on behalf of progressive causes, and some were pessimistic about Biden’s desire to work with their flank. 

But as he ticked off major successes, from the American Rescue Plan to the Inflation Reduction Act, many warmed to the idea that Biden could indeed become something akin to the FDR-style leader he now aspires to be. The more he accomplished, the more the left wing offered their trust. And progressives started drafting longer wish lists to try their luck in the new year.  

“We were very careful in putting together our executive action list to work very closely with the administration,” Jayapal said. “I would say 90 percent of what was on our list was stuff that they also were very interested in.” 

Jayapal, who was just elected to another term as chairwoman of the House Progressive Caucus, was pleased about the White House’s receptiveness to progressives’ agenda. When legislation stalled, frequently by moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and now-Independent Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and a small group of members in the House, she said administration officials were often enthusiastic to work on executive actions as workarounds to the narrow congressional majority. 

That executive approach is expected to continue and, many hope, even amplify in 2023, with Republicans soon to have a slight advantage in the lower chamber, and as Democrats find ways to get more through the Senate. 

If recent history is a guide, that collaboration — anchored by Biden’s desire to be fluid and flexible on issues he resisted in the past — has been successful. 

The midterms went better than many Democrats anticipated, with the left claiming credit for pushing Biden leftward. One of progressives’ biggest achievements has been an executive order to cancel tens of millions in loan debt for students. While that action is now halted and expected to be heard by the Supreme Court amid opposition from GOP state legislatures, progressives see it as proof of what’s possible. 

They also saw Biden move in a positive direction when he announced support of a carve-out to protect voting and abortion rights without the 60-vote threshold, evolving on his prior firmness around the Senate’s legislative filibuster and satisfying many in the party who had begged him to take that stance.  

“The president has had a pretty damn good ending for 2022,” said Douglas Wilson, a Democratic strategist based in North Carolina. “He really has.” 

“If the White House can be strategic about it, that’s the key, it gives the president the opportunity to put legislation out there that will entice these moderate Republicans to vote with him,” he said. “And progressives, I know they’re not going to want to hear this, are going to have to give him a slight bit of wiggle room. He deserves it.” 

Heading into January, progressives aren’t naive about the challenges — from the GOP-controlled House, courts, and even Biden’s own moderate leanings that creep up from time to time — that may halt their more ambitious plans. But they aren’t completely jaded either.  

They want to see traction on overtime pay and sick leave for rail workers, a debate that was tabled relatively quickly after Biden signed a Senate-passed bill that averted a massive strike by the nation’s transportation workers. Many are hopeful that the president’s commitment to unions will inspire him to address the issue in more detail in the coming year, beyond what was already passed with bipartisan support. 

Progressives also see room for executive antitrust action that would help prevent monopolies and boost consumer protections, an area where liberals like Warren and Jayapal have spent considerable focus working with Biden allies. “That’s been an area that I still hope we can get some work done,” said Jayapal. “The administration hasn’t been the holdup here.”  

Some progressives see certain moderates with outsized influence as creating additional delays for the White House to take actions into their own hands in the executive branch. Biden’s willingness to appease Manchin in particular for much of his first term created a point of tension among liberals who wanted him to be more forceful in bypassing Manchin’s demands.  

“There’s a backlog of bold executive actions that were on pause as Joe Manchin obstructed the Democratic economic agenda,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “The White House went out of their way not to spook him.” 

But some are hopeful that new opportunities may emerge from Manchin’s diluted influence within a new 51-seat majority, and with a slate of viable executive actions ready to be reconsidered.

Another issue where Biden has evolved is criminal justice. The man who authored the early mid-90s crime bill has undoubtedly moved to the left on the topic, adopting stances that are more in line with Americans’ current views while still maintaining some distance from the small faction of activists who want him to be more extreme. 

Biden never wanted to “defund” the police, but many progressives also concede that that slogan is not practical. Instead, he lurched to the left by pledging to decriminalize marijuana and promised to “eliminate” the country’s use of a federal death penalty — an area where advocates believe there is more work to be done. 

With an eye towards the new year, progressives want him to take actions that can reiterate his commitment to a fairer criminal justice system.  

“He could come up with a package that addresses crime again. Calling Republicans’ bluff on that,” said Wilson, the Democratic operative. “But also addressing the issues that were in the George Floyd Policing Act. The administration did what they could with the executive order … but I think now that he has a few more votes in the Senate, he could try to add a component that deals with rising crime. As long as it does not negatively affect people of color.” 

“The key is not to say police reform, but improving police relationships with the community,” Wilson said. 

On climate, another big focus, many in the party would like to see Biden go farther than what he has already delivered, pointing to the electoral impact that a progressive policy push can have at the polls.  

“There’s no such thing as doing too much on climate,” said Deirdre Shelly, campaigns director for the Sunrise Movement. “He still has a lot of work to do to secure his legacy.” 

Climate activists and progressive lawmakers want to see Biden declare a national climate emergency and use the Defense Production Act to move in the direction of renewable energy sources — an area that has the potential to transition away from the Manchin-style coal politics that have dominated the Democratic Party for decades.  

While there’s an appetite for it in some corners of the party, some wonder if Biden has the desire to change so drastically, particularly ahead of what’s likely to be another brutal presidential cycle in 2024. 

Nonetheless, they plan to make the case loudly that it’s worth trying.  

“Look at Biden’s poll numbers from the spring to now,” said Shelly. “Young people were not excited to vote months ago, and after he passed a climate bill, a gun bill and canceled student loans, they improved significantly — and led to nearly record-breaking turnout,” she said. “That’s no coincidence.” 

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