When Joe Biden, a 78-year-old white male moderate, was sworn in as US president, it was seen as only a matter of time before progressives became restive and “Democrats in disarray” headlines were dusted off.
But two months in, the party remains uncharacteristically united. Biden is being hailed as an unlikely radical, drawing comparisons with transformative presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson – his very reputation as a steady centrist enabling him to move further and faster.
How long can the Democratic honeymoon last?
One key arbiter of this grace period is the influential figure of Nina Turner, a longtime backer of Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-declared democratic socialist beaten by Biden in last year’s party primary. She believes the signs are encouraging – so far.
“He’s doing all right but we’re going to press on, we’re going to keep pressing,” says Turner, 53, currently campaigning for election to Congress in Ohio. “We haven’t got all that we need but this is a good start. The people are the north star, not those of us who are politicians, and their needs are great. You got 33 million people out there who need a $15-an-hour minimum wage. So, a good start but we got many more miles to go.”
A former Ohio state senator, Turner was a national surrogate for Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, led its spin-off grassroots organisation Our Revolution and served as national co-chair of Sanders’ 2020 run. Her own shot at national office in Ohio’s 11th congressional district has come about after Marcia Fudge resigned to become housing secretary under Biden.
Turner was endorsed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including Jamie Raskin of Maryland. If successful in the Democratic primary in August and the special election in November, she would cement her position as a leader of the left of the party.
Ohio voted twice for Barack Obama but then twice for Donald Trump as Republicans made gains among blue-collar voters. Turner reflects: “When I ran for secretary of state in 2014, what I heard in the rural areas of the state was there is a need for Democrats to show that it’s not just two corporate parties that people are choosing between, that the Democratic party really does get it.
“We got to go back to the roots of FDR and the roots of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm – that kind of service speaks to the people of the great state of Ohio, whether they’re urban, suburban or rural. I know that it does because I was out there on the stump for President Obama, especially in 2012.”
Biden’s sweeping $1.9tn coronavirus relief package, including direct cash payments to millions of Americans and measures to cut child poverty nearly in half, was seen as a win for working families. But it was not an unalloyed victory: Sanders’ amendment to include increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour was struck down by Republicans and moderate Democrats.
Turner says: “The Covid relief bill is certainly a good start. That $1.9tn is a big deal; I think it’s 10% of GDP. It’s strong and the reason why we’re there is because progressives were pushing. Now we need to get that $15-an-hour minimum wage over the finish line because it’s the floor and not the ceiling.
“We got to address the systemic problems that were there before the pandemic with systemic solutions and I believe the Democratic party can do it. And I’m going to Congress to help them along the way.”
Biden’s bold advance may soon stall, however, on Capitol Hill. Senate Republicans in the minority can use a procedural mechanism called the filibuster to block his legislative agenda on gun control, healthcare, voting rights and much else. Many on the left regard the filibuster as a relic of the Jim Crow era and are calling for it to be abolished so that Democrats could pass bills with a simple majority.
But Democratic senators such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema continue to support it. “They are on the wrong side of history,” Turner says. “Senator Joe Manchin needs to get a spine. People deserve to have robust debate in both chambers and not have it prohibited by people who want to play games with people’s lives.
“While they collect their salary off the taxpayer’s dime, people like Manchin and Sinema have the pure and unadulterated gall to stand in the way of the people getting the resources that they need. There’s a moral contradiction there that must be addressed.”
Manchin, from pro-Trump West Virginia, has defended the filibuster by articulating hopes of reviving bipartisanship. Biden promised to unify the nation but found Republicans unyielding in their opposition to the coronavirus relief bill. Turner warns the president against over-stretching to accommodate the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“President Obama came in as the diplomat that he is – ‘I want bipartisanship’ – and tried to negotiate with these Republicans. Dr Maya Angelou said, ‘When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.’ They already showed us Democrats who they are and we ought to believe them and so I don’t want to see President Biden fall into that trap.
“It was tried and tested under President Obama: the Republicans under Senator McConnell are just not going to do right and so Democrats are going to have to take the rein for these two years that we have and use the people’s power on the people’s behalf.
“That is why the people gave us the presidency. That is why they answered the call in Georgia and that is why they allowed Democrats to keep control of the House. Now we’re going to have to show people something or we might be in for a rude awakening in 2022.”
Turner, an assistant professor of history and podcast host, argues that opinion polls show a majority of Americans agree with progressives on issues ranging from the Green New Deal to canceling student debt, from increasing the minimum wage to reforming the legal system, especially for racial justice.
“The thing that we are seeing coming from President Biden, even though it might not be all that progressives want, the progressives cast the die. The American people might not call themselves progressives, but when we drill down to talk to them about the issues, they are right where we are.
“What we’re talking about is not radical. The people who are out of touch are people like Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Mitch McConnell because the last time I checked, there are poor people in Kentucky and there are poor people in West Virginia, just as there are poor people in Ohio who need their elected leaders to provide relief for them. That’s all we’re asking.”
In the New York Times, Ezra Klein has noted that the $1.9tn stimulus package looks a lot like the proposals Sanders has fought for all his career. “Bernie Sanders didn’t win the 2020 election,” he wrote. “But he may have won its aftermath.”
Does Turner believe that, after all these years, Sanders has been vindicated?
“Sometimes visionaries are ahead of their time and, whether it was popular or not, he has stayed consistent and now the people have caught up with his vision,” she says. “The progressive movement – but America, by extension – is right where Senator Bernard Sanders is on these issues. We’re going to keep pushing.”
An intrigue of the next four years is whether Biden will backslide – and whether Sanders will call him out on it. Turner adds: “You can both recognise somebody saying that President Biden’s on the right path and at the same time continue to push. Those things are not mutually exclusive. So I wouldn’t say the progressives are necessarily keeping their powder dry; they’re saying we are off to a good start but we got to make this thing better.”