Joe Biden has a problem: the young people who fueled Bernie Sanders’ second-place campaign are not very interested in Joe Biden. Biden has a well-known enthusiasm gap and even though he has dominated recent primary states, younger voters tended to prefer Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Progressive student groups around the country are declining to endorse Biden. A group of leftwing youth organizations sent an open letter to Biden demanding better policies if he wants their support.
On Monday, Sanders endorsed Biden, as he has long said he would. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has remained skeptical, saying that Biden needs to be made “uncomfortable” before there can be any kind of party unity. Many younger people share Ocasio-Cortez’s perspective; they are waiting to see what Biden can offer rather than reflexively supporting him because he is the Democrat.
Why is Biden struggling with young progressives? Well, one reason is that he has spent a lifetime opposing key progressive goals, and used to be proud of his reputation as one of the Senate’s “most conservative” Democrats. He was anti-abortion, pro-Iraq war and in the pocket of big banks. Even today, Biden says he has “no empathy” for young people who complain about indebtedness and precarity. He has told millennials who raise concerns about his environmental policies that they should “go vote for someone else”. Plenty have been willing to do just that. So while some commentators, such as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, have suggested that activists and left media are responsible for Biden’s “unity problem”, the more blameworthy culprit is Biden himself.
In fact, it doesn’t seem as if Biden has much interest in solving his “unity problem”. In an ostensible effort to reach out to the left, Biden recently debuted new policies on healthcare and education. Did he adopt the policies recommended in the activists’ letter, namely Medicare for All and canceling all outstanding student debt? No, he did not. Instead, he merely proposed lowering the existing Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60 and canceling tuition-related debt for students who attended public colleges who earn under a certain income.
The first of these policies almost seems like a deliberate insult. Biden’s response to those young people demanding a better health policy is to offer a policy that won’t help any of them for decades. And to understand just how pitifully stingy this “concession” is, remember that dozens of Democratic senators, including plenty of “moderates”, have already endorsed lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 55. You can find an op-ed in Forbes (not exactly the Democratic Socialists of America newsletter) suggesting 50 would be a better age. Bill Clinton proposed 55 in 1998, and Hillary Clinton advocated 55 in 2016. So Biden’s big concession to the left is actually more conservative than a centrist Democratic proposal! It’s not nothing, but it’s about as close to nothing as a policy can get without literally being nothing, and it shows that Biden isn’t serious about courting the left.
Remember, too, that we’re only talking about the platform. This is where negotiations start. By the time a proposal has gone through the political process, it inevitably gets watered down. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get the Medicare age dropped from 65 to 63 by the year 2030 or something. And even that prospect assumes that Biden is serious about fighting for his platform. At election time, politicians have an unfortunate habit of promising voters whatever they think voters want to hear. Needless to say, they don’t always follow through, and you’re often better off looking at their record than their rhetoric. From Biden’s record, it’s more plausible that he’ll follow through on his reported plan to put Michael Bloomberg and JPMorgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, in his cabinet than that he’ll overhaul the healthcare system.
The student debt plan is a disappointment, too. Why only public colleges, when so much unsustainable debt comes from private universities? Why only tuition-related expenses? Why is it means-tested? If Biden wants to impress the left, he will need a big, sweeping plan, not a plan with dozens of qualifiers and caveats that recalls Kamala Harris’s infamous proposal to forgive debt only for “Pell grant recipients who start a business that operates for three years in disadvantaged communities”.
I actually really hope Biden embraces one of the big left policy proposals such as Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, because he can’t afford to write off progressive votes, and the stakes of this election are high. If Donald Trump is re-elected, it will be a disaster: he will be emboldened and more powerful, and will end his second term with almost complete control of the courts. Democracy as we know it may disappear altogether; US militarism will escalate; carbon emissions will spiral out of control; and brutal new immigration policies will be introduced. Trump needs to lose, but Biden is already a weak candidate, and he will be even weaker if he can’t turn out the progressive base.
Many progressives are going to have a difficult time voting for Biden. He has shown contempt for them and betrayed many of the causes they care about. To make matters worse, Tara Reade’s credible sexual assault allegation against Biden will make it difficult for those who consider themselves allies of women and supporters of #MeToo to vote for him in good conscience. Biden has a long way to go to convince the left he’s worth supporting.
So far, though, it seems as if Biden is mostly concerned with reassuring rich Democratic donors and party bigwigs that he will keep his promise that “nothing would fundamentally change”. That could almost be Biden’s campaign slogan at this point. But it doesn’t seem like a winner. He will need to do better if he’s going to stand a chance of beating Trump.
Nathan Robinson is the founding editor of Current Affairs. He is a Guardian US columnist
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