For months, President Donald Trump’s re-election team has been trying out possible lines of attack against Joe Biden: He’s sleepy. He’s creepy. He’s corrupt. He’s soft on China. He’s soft in the head. So far, nothing has stuck. Which may explain why one theme Trump and his supporters have latched onto is that, whatever you think of Biden personally, he is “a helpless puppet of the radical left.”
To which the radical left would surely respond: If only!
As even Trump admits, the former vice president is no progressive revolutionary. The Democratic Party’s activist base, especially its younger members, harbors grave doubts about Biden and has vowed to keep the pressure on as he charts a path forward. One big, basic question on many people’s minds is: Just how far left will Joe go?
Looking to get a sense of how Biden’s governing vision is shaping up, I spent several weeks talking with his advisers, his allies, his critics and other party players. I wanted to know how the rolling crises have, for instance, impacted his search for the perfect running mate (the big reveal of which is expected any day now!), as well as how various policy proposals are being revised and expanded.
It was clear that, fundamentally, Joe is gonna be Joe. But he recognizes the need to respond to all the turbulence — and if there’s one thing Team Biden has a surfeit of, it’s people looking to influence how he does that.
“I’ve really never been in a campaign where so many people every day are reaching out to me with offers of assistance, advice, input, suggestions about everything,” said Ron Klain, who served as Biden’s chief of staff when he was vice president.
“Everybody wants to win,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, one of the campaign’s co-chairmen. “And everybody wants to give their ideas on what they think it takes to win.”
All that input has its downsides. “At some point you have to be able to make a decision and execute a strategy,” Richmond said. He credits the nominee’s tight inner circle for keeping the campaign on track. “You just can’t have a million coaches.”
Some close to Biden have adopted a more absolutist approach. “I get letters and telephone calls from people saying, ‘This is what Biden needs to do,’ or, ‘This is what you need to tell Biden to do,’ ” said Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., chuckling. “I don’t tell him any of it.”
Presidential campaigns are always intense. This cycle, with a sitting president as incendiary as Trump, the Democrats’ desperation to reclaim the White House is at Level 11. This was the case even before the nation got hit with the triple whammy of a pandemic, an economic meltdown and nationwide protests over racial injustice. America is on edge, and many Democrats are jittery — read: panicked — about whether their champion can meet the moment.
The Democratic presidential field started out sprawling. But the final decision boiled down to whether voters preferred a left-wing revolutionary (Sen. Bernie Sanders) or an ideological and dispositional moderate (Biden). Not that Biden doesn’t share progressive goals such as achieving universal health care or combating climate change — his campaign hates it when people call him a centrist — but his vision for how to achieve them is more evolutionary than revolutionary.
For all the passion on the party’s left flank, the milder Biden won out. On April 8, Sanders suspended his campaign.
But the end of the primary did not end the tug of war over the direction of the party.
Progressives in particular see the current turmoil as proof that bold change is essential, and they were buoyed when Biden recently said that the times called for an ambitious, FDR-size response.
“He seems to be recognizing that, in the midst of COVID-19, simply going back to normal, which was his original orientation, is insufficient,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party. “This is actually an opportunity for a transformational agenda.”
The question, of course, is what exactly this transformational agenda will look like — and who will get to shape it.
Skepticism about Biden runs deep on the left. During more than four decades in public office, he earned a reputation as a pragmatic centrist (sorry!) — the guy President Barack Obama sent to negotiate deals with congressional Republicans that no one else wanted to be in the room with. Some progressives regard him as just the sort of compromised, compromising, politics-as-usual establishment tool standing in the way of meaningful change, and they fear that he has surrounded himself with other establishment tools who see the activist base as a threat to the existing power structure that must be neutralized.
“There’s a whole wing of the Democratic Party establishment that doesn’t simply want an electoral victory,” they want it on terms that let them “weave a narrative” to discredit the left, Mitchell said. “They want to defeat Trump and progressives in one fell swoop.”
This may be an overstatement. But plenty of Biden allies clearly weren’t sorry to have the party’s revolutionary wing taken down a notch in the primaries. They consider it a vindication of the nominee’s politics and persona — and a thumb in the eye of all the cool kids who said he could never win. “If the Biden campaign had bent to the collective political advice of Twitter, it would have done a lot of things differently and probably would not have been successful,” Klain said. “In the end, he’s run this campaign on these instincts, his judgment and his experience.”
So he’s not listening to Twitter. Who is he listening to?
As the saying goes: Personnel is policy. But the campaign has been cagey about who is advising it and how the policy sausage gets made. Members of its extended economics team, for instance, were ordered to keep quiet about their campaign work. They can tell friends and colleagues, according to a memo acquired by the New York Times, but should not mention their affiliation “on social media such as Facebook or LinkedIn or in your professional bio.” And they should steer clear of the news media. Period.
Some names have trickled out. Progressives are not happy that Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff/congressman/mayor of Chicago is advising the campaign on economic policy and political strategy. (The left’s grievance list against this former Clintonite is long, and his mayoral tenure was marred by serious police scandals, including the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, which prompted protests and an investigation by the Justice Department.) “Not the sign we want to see,” said Rahna Epting, the executive director of the grassroots group MoveOn.
Even more explosive was the April news that Lawrence Summers has been offering his economic insights. A veteran of the Clinton and Obama White Houses, Summers is viewed as a neoliberal, business-cozy monster by the left, his name invoked with a level of distaste normally reserved for child predators.
In early May, more than two dozen progressive groups sent an open letter to Biden, demanding that he remove Summers from any campaign advisory role and “exclude him from a future Biden administration.” Charging that Summers had “put the interests of large corporations ahead of working families in the United States and around the world, fueled the climate crisis, and undermined efforts to ensure gender equality,” they declared it “hard to imagine a worse person than Larry Summers to guide the next President toward an economy that works for all.”
The Biden campaign has met such criticisms with assurances that it is listening to a wide range of voices.
With Biden having spent the last half-century collecting friends, aides and advisers, not to mention this campaign’s fast-growing official staff, the org chart for Team Biden can be hard to decipher. His inner circle is defined differently depending on whom you ask, and even reasonably senior staffers aren’t always clear about who does what. But whether you think in terms of concentric circles or Venn diagrams or pyramids of power, there are legions of people offering counsel.
For instance, the campaign is consulting more than 100 left-leaning experts on economic policy. The nominee’s regular briefings are conducted by a smaller core of liberal economists, former Obama officials and advisers to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
On foreign policy, the nominee has a large network of working groups subdivided according to specialty: nuclear proliferation, the Middle East, China, etc. Who is running these groups, and how much real influence they have, is hard to pin down. For all Trump’s ravings about China, international matters typically receive less play in presidential races than do domestic issues such as jobs or health care — meaning the Biden campaign is facing relatively little leftward pressure. When Biden and Sanders formed a collection of working groups in the spring to hammer out joint proposals on various policy issues, foreign policy was not even among the topics tackled.
This likely suits Biden just fine. Foreign policy is kind of his thing. His expertise runs deep. He knows the players and the issues. As vice president, his instincts were more cautious and minimalist than those of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Times once described the two as representing “the yin and the yang of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.”
But, in this as in so many areas, Biden is a solidly establishment player, and he relies on a clutch of trusted hands, including Julie Smith, Tom Donilon and Tony Blinken, who sits atop the campaign’s foreign policy shop. Blinken has been with Biden for nearly two decades and served as his national security adviser in the Obama White House.
Don’t expect his team to be taking on the military-industrial complex or taking up calls to slash funding for the Pentagon. The nominee’s message thus far has been mainstream and soothing, with talk of rebuilding frayed alliances and restoring American leadership on issues ranging from nuclear arms to the Middle East to global warming.
Other top policy dogs: Stef Feldman is the campaign’s official policy director, while Jake Sullivan serves as a combination gatekeeper and air traffic controller, gathering input, coordinating info and bringing order to the chaos across fields and working groups. Bruce Reed, one of Biden’s chiefs of staff in the Obama White House and a former head of the now-defunct centrist Democratic Leadership Council, also plays a central advisory role. (He used to brief Biden on campaign trips — in the pre-COVID days when people could still travel.)
Many of those with the most influence operate outside any official lines of authority. Biden’s inner circle includes longtime loyalists like Klain; Mike Donilon (brother of the aforementioned Tom), Biden’s political guru; Steve Ricchetti, who was another of his chiefs of staff in the Obama administration, and Ted Kaufman, who has been with Biden since his 1972 Senate race. These are the kitchen cabinet folks who make progressives super nervous. They are considered establishment fogies unlikely to challenge the nominee or push him to think big.
The inner ranks are not entirely closed to newcomers. Anita Dunn, a veteran of Obamaworld, effectively took control of Biden’s primary campaign in the shake-up following his loss in Iowa, and continues to wield serious clout. But Dunn is herself a Washington fixture and an object of suspicion for some on the left.
“He’s not listening to the folks he needs to listen to,” said Yvette Simpson, who leads the political action committee Democracy for America.
In some cases, these innermost insiders take on specific tasks. Klain is the point-person on debate prep. When there is an important speech to be given, Biden huddles up with Mike Donilon. But, more important, they’re around to provide general support and counsel. These days, that tends to mean lots of video meetings and phone calls — so many virtual meetings, say team members. There are still only three people staffing Biden’s Delaware home. For the most part, campaign business, including senior staff meetings, continues to be conducted remotely.
When it comes to political strategy, Mike Donilon is Joe’s go-to guy. He has been with Biden since the early 1980s and has been called Biden’s “alter ego.” He was central in helping the vice president explore — and ultimately opt against — running for the White House in 2016. In “Promise Me, Dad,” Biden’s 2017 book about his son Beau’s battle with brain cancer, he recalls Donilon studying his face one night, not quite five months after Beau’s death, and realizing that the vice president wasn’t up to a campaign. “I don’t think you should do this,” he told Biden, who announced his decision not to run the next day.
Donilon was also the brains behind the current campaign’s core message that this is a battle for “the soul of America” — spend much time in Biden world and you will get sick of this phrase — and that Biden was the candidate to unify a wounded nation. Some others on the team initially found the approach hackneyed, but not Biden. So far, cheesiness seems to be the comfort food many voters are craving.
Ricchetti tends to keep a low profile, but he is the indispensable man. He handles much of the delicate outreach to — and fields plenty of incoming from — all the twitchy governors, mayors, members of Congress and other political eminences who need hand-holding.
And he is among the handful of confidants to whom Biden turns when hard decisions get made. As one top adviser put it, “Mike is the last person he talks to on message, strategy, advertising and polling. Steve is the person he talks to about everything else.” When Beau was dying, Biden asked Ricchetti, then his chief of staff, to keep him overscheduled as a way to power through the pain and fear. This at times put Ricchetti at odds with Jill Biden, who worried that her husband was running himself into the ground. Often, “the two of them would conspire” to get the vice president “to ease off for a while,” Biden wrote in “Promise Me, Dad.”
Family has always played a central role in Biden’s life and political career. His sister, Valerie Biden Owens, managed all of his Senate races and his first two presidential runs. This time, she’s serving as a key surrogate and confidante.
So too is the nominee’s wife. Klain, who has known Jill Biden for more than three decades, says she has morphed from a reluctant political spouse into an enthusiastic participant, “particularly on issues of education.” (Jill Biden is a longtime educator who, until recently, taught English at a community college in Northern Virginia.) “I think the White House experience really changed things for her,” he said, explaining that she came to appreciate the contributions she could make by engaging the public.
And, of course, in a pinch, Jill can double as security. One of the primary’s more charming episodes was on the night of Super Tuesday, when she body blocked an anti-dairy protester who stormed the stage during Biden’s victory speech. He later joked: “Whoa, you don’t screw around with a Philly girl, I’ll tell you what.”
Biden, age 77, knows that he is seen by many as a dinosaur. During the primary, he explicitly pitched himself as a “transition candidate” who aimed to serve as a “bridge” for a new generation of leaders. Although his team does not like to discuss it, the conventional wisdom is that Biden most likely would be a one-term president. This has fueled a greater-than-normal frenzy around the vice-presidential pick, which the campaign has said it plans to announce around Aug. 1.
Supercharging speculation, Biden vowed to put a woman on the ticket. But he provided few other hints as to what he is looking for, touching off a lobbying free-for-all by the hopefuls and their cheering sections.
Some progressive groups are pressing for Elizabeth Warren, even as some business interests have argued against her. Many people think that, since Black voters rescued Biden’s primary candidacy, he should put a Black woman on the ticket — a drum beat that has grown louder with the fresh focus on racial justice.
This has brought leaders such as Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, and Rep. Karen Bass of California, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, into the spotlight. Sen. Kamala Harris is thought to have an edge on the rest of the pack, even if her stint as California’s attorney general concerns many progressives.
But other political watchers have made the case for Rep. Val Demings, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the former Georgia state legislator and candidate for governor Stacey Abrams, the former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Michelle Obama … At this point, it’s hard to find a major female political figure who has not been floated as a VP possibility.
Which brings us back to Biden’s governing vision and policy plans.
In the closing weeks of the primary, Biden began gently inching left on certain issues in a reassuring gesture to progressives. Shortly before the final debate, he endorsed Warren’s bankruptcy reform and embraced a version of Sanders’ plan to make four-year public colleges tuition-free for many students. The day after Sanders dropped out of the race, Biden called for lowering the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 60.
After receiving Sanders’ endorsement, Biden kicked things up a notch. As proof of their commitment to party harmony, the former rivals created a half-dozen of those working groups, called “unity task forces.” The groups — each with five or six appointees from the Biden camp and three from the Sanders camp — were charged with drawing up recommendations on health care, climate change, criminal justice reform, immigration, education and the economy.
This gave the ideological wings of the party a safe space in which to come together, listen to each other and hammer out ideas everyone could live with, say Biden insiders. With the pandemic having derailed the usual modes of outreach, the groups were a way to productively channel the energy of the Sanders revolution.
The groups’ final recommendations, released in an 110-page document July 8, featured some wins for the left, such as the withholding of federal funds from states that use cash bail and an accelerated timetable for achieving net-zero emissions.
Progressive activists I spoke to pointed to the experiment as a hopeful sign that the campaign was taking their ideas seriously and they were pleased that some of their influential allies, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, were included.
“There is improvement in the climate crisis and criminal justice sections, compared to Biden’s previous positions on the subject,” said Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution, a grassroots group spun out of Sanders’ 2016 presidential run. “There should be no doubt that this is a direct result of outside pressure at this moment.”
But the proposals stopped short of endorsing systemic overhauls like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All, and steered clear of hot button issues like abolishing ICE, decriminalizing border crossings, fully legalizing pot and banning fracking. The document is a statement of progressive goals — but it is not pushing for seismic disruption.
“There are some lines we’re not going to cross,” Klain said. “He’s not going to embrace Medicare for All. He did not run on Medicare for All. He ran on a campaign that critiqued Medicare for All, and that’s not going to change.”
Biden is “not a revolutionary who is going to blow everything up,” said Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, an old friend of Biden’s who now holds his old Senate seat.
Biden also swiftly came out against the “defund police” movement. In fact, the reform plan he put forward included a funding boost for community policing — which did not endear him to some activists. Around 50 progressive groups sent Biden a letter warning that failing to back a more aggressive overhaul could cost him support among Black voters. Maybe. Maybe not. Black voters’ views on policing are complicated. And Biden’s basic instinct remains not to raze but to “Build Back Better,” as he has named his economic plan.
On July 9, Biden visited a metal-works factory on the outskirts of Scranton, Penn., his hometown, to talk up Part 1 of that plan. This first plank focused on reviving manufacturing and included measures such as a $300 billion increase in R&D investment and $400 billion in procurement spending on American-made goods. He promised more to come in a populist speech with a touch of nationalism.
The following week, he debuted his four-year, $2 trillion plan for investing in infrastructure and clean energy. And on Tuesday, he proposed a $775 billion investment to tackle the nation’s “caregiving crisis.” His next big announcement is expected to be his plan to address racial inequity.
Election Day is just over three months away. As it nears, Democrats’ attention will shift toward the transition process and who should do what in a possible Biden government. At that point, say insiders, things will really get crazy.
Michelle Cottle is a member of the New York Times Editorial Board, focusing on U.S. politics. She has covered Washington and politics since the Clinton administration.