President Biden surprised many back in February, when he stuck to his guns on a $1.9 trillion comprehensive COVID relief package as his first major piece of legislation. After campaigning as a centrist with a belief in bipartisanship perhaps best described as Sorkinian, Biden refused to water down the bill into something Republicans could live with.
Since then, however, the nascent commander in chief has shown that he is indeed susceptible to public pressure on a variety of issues. But what’s most interesting about this pattern is that, while Biden does keep capitulating, it’s mainly to the left.
After activists expressed fury over a surge in migrant children detained at shelters back in March, Biden’s administration quietly reduced the number of children in child detention centers by 88% over the following five weeks. In April, when the president attempted to break a promise made during his first foreign policy speech on February 4—to raise the historically low refugee cap of his predecessor—Biden’s progressive colleagues raised hell. Sure enough, he soon reversed his near-reversal, quadrupling Trump’s refugee ceiling to 62,500. And most recently, after holding out on waiving patents on COVID-19 vaccines for poorer countries around the world, despite a campaign pledge to do so, Biden came around once again.
The president’s signature move seems to be almost breaking promises, but then caving in to pressure and doing what many on the left consider The Right Thing. It may not be ideal, but it’s better than progressives feared—and it’s a total sea change from Trump, who seemed to delight in cruelty and chaos, and viewed backing down on anything as a sign of weakness.
It’s not just a view held by Trump, either. Flip-flopping is often depicted as a grave political sin made by the rudderless. It was the definitive brush the right used to tar John Kerry in the 2004 election, for instance. But changing one’s mind, whether under tremendous pressure or otherwise, is also a sign of reasonability. It’s proof that someone is capable of seeing the light.
Biden has certainly proved more than capable. Anyone observing his 2020 campaign got to see Bernie Sanders push him to the left in real time, mirroring previous stances he’d since come around on. Biden was against marriage equality, and then he became so much in favor of it, he helped spur then-President Obama to action. He was against federal funding for abortions for decades, and then in 2019, announced he was now for it. He promoted the 1994 crime bill that notoriously led to an increase in the incarceration of Black men, and finally admitted in 2020 that it was mistake, and one that he pledged to correct through criminal justice reform.
Of course, many activists are concerned Biden will backtrack on that last promise. While he has already eliminated federal contracts with private prisons through an executive action, his pledge to do more seems like the kind of thing his busy administration might de-prioritize. But that’s what constant vigilance—a learned necessity in the Trump era—is for. When Biden gave up on the $15 minimum wage he’d previously expressed support for, as though a Senate parliamentarian were some insurmountable obstacle, activists didn’t give up. The president has since inched forward on the issue, raising the minimum wage to $15 for roughly 390,000 federal workers. This kind of continued scrutiny will help ensure Biden doesn’t sneak in some nullifying fine print beneath the happily-ever-after headline.
It will be fascinating, and instructive, to observe going forward the limits to Biden’s vulnerability to intense criticism from activists as well as progressive party leaders like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Biden has so far bizarrely refused to budge on decriminalizing marijuana, despite the entire country clearly moving in that direction. Will he remain equally stodgy on the bolder parts of the Green New Deal, and continue resisting Medicare For All?
Probably. Considering how many times he’s seen the light in the past, and how frequently he seems forced to look at it lately, I wouldn’t rule just about anything out.