They were pointed questions, not personal criticisms. But they will have conveyed a warning to Joe Biden that the patience of the left of the Democratic party and its leaders in ‘the Squad’ of progressive politicians is not infinite.
“Are we passing the deal that helps working people the most?” asked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the firebrand New York congresswoman and best known member of the squad. “Are we passing the deal that makes the most jobs? Are we passing a deal that brings down the most climate emissions? Are we passing a deal that raises wages and actually improves our infrastructure for the next generation?”
Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance on the influential TV program Morning Joe last week came with the US president weeks into negotiations with Republicans over a massive infrastructure spending package – and apparently little to show for it.
The squad and others on the left of the party have remained broadly supportive of Biden as he seeks to restore an era of bipartisan cooperation. But with his agenda stalling on Capitol Hill, frustrations are mounting and threatening to crack the facade of Democratic unity.
It was Ocasio-Cortez, a social media star with a global profile, who hailed Biden’s first hundred days in office as having “definitely exceeded expectations that progressives had”. After all, the president’s staggering $1.9tn coronavirus relief package had been swiftly passed by Congress and signed into law, albeit without a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage that liberals have long sought.
Now cold reality is intruding, however. Legislation on voting rights, gun safety, immigration and police brutality is faltering in a House of Representatives where Democrats hold a slender 220-211 majority and a Senate split 50-50 with Republicans (vice president Kamala Harris gives the party the tie-breaking vote).
Biden’s next big ticket item, the American Jobs Plan, which initially proposed more than $2trn for infrastructure, is facing a rockier road. He conceded ground in negotiations with Republican senator Shelley Moore Capito that ultimately collapsed. Then a bipartisan group of senators came up with a $1.2trn proposal but, progressives say, it fails to address the climate crisis, healthcare and childcare.
Democratic leaders are now discussing a two-step process in which they pass a smaller bill with bipartisan support but then follow up with a second measure passed through a process known as budget reconciliation, which would require near total party unanimity.
The underlying challenge for Biden is how to keep together an unwieldy Democratic coalition that encompasses conservative senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia – which is Donald Trump country – and senator Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist from Vermont, who this week drafted a $6trn infrastructure package.
Then there is the squad, the left-leaning group of House members that now consists of seven people of color. The more that Manchin digs in his heels against ambitious legislation, the more restive the squad is likely to become, raising difficult questions over whether Biden is applying sufficient pressure to bring the doubters on board.
Yvette Simpson, chief executive of the progressive organization Democracy for America, said: “Right now people are really getting frustrated because it’s been six months and we don’t see Joe Biden engaging in the way that he should to push for more support. In fact, he’s negotiating against us and what Democrats want.
“So I think there’s a growing sense of frustration among progressives and it’s understandable. We’re feeling like the clock is running out and we’re wasting valuable time and that’s where you’re going to start to see the squad and other members of the progressive movement push back and saying, ‘OK, we’ve got a limited window of time here. We need to put up or shut up’.”
With more than two in three Americans supporting the infrastructure bill, according to a Monmouth University poll, Simpson argues that the squad is on the right side of history. “Their relentlessness, their fearlessness and their persistence on this should be rewarded; they should not be punished because they are fighting for what we should be doing anyway.
“There’s going to be some blowback if the squad is fighting for things that we actually should get done and the rest of the party is saying, oh no, Republicans aren’t on board, oh no, let one person decide that he’s going to hold up an entire agenda for the entire nation, that the entire nation wants overwhelmingly.”
Although the Biden administration has actively engaged with progressives in its early months, there have been some flash points. Ocasio-Cortez and others were quick to speak out when it emerged that Biden intended to retain Trump’s cap on the number of refugees allowed into the US; the administration blinked first and backed down.
Squad members including Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib sharply criticized Israel for its recent bombing of Gaza and challenged the Biden administration’s unwavering support for the country. And when Harris told Guatemalans, “Do not come” to the US, Ocasio-Cortez called the comment “disappointing” and noted that it is legal to seek asylum.
Ocasio-Cortez has also been pushing Biden to face up to the fact that bipartisanship with a radicalized Republican party is a doomed enterprise. She tweeted: “Pres. Biden & Senate Dems should take a step back and ask themselves if playing patty-cake w GOP Senators is really worth the dismantling of people’s voting rights, setting the planet on fire, allowing massive corporations and the wealthy to not pay their fair share of taxes, etc.”
Jamaal Bowman, one of the squad’s newest members, said bluntly that Manchin “has become the new Mitch McConnell”, referring to the Republican senate minority leader infamous for obstruction, after the West Virginia senator declared support for the legislative filibuster while opposing an expansive voting rights bill.
The interventions carry weight in part because of the squad’s outsized influence in both mainstream and social media. Ocasio-Cortez has 12.7m followers on Twitter. Activists praise them for speaking with moral clarity about Washington’s failings in a way that strikes a chord with the public.
Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, said: “I don’t think they are outside mainstream thinking around the frustrations that people have with the Senate as an institution or the limitations that present themselves with such a narrow margin and with Joe Manchin continuing to buck his own caucus. They’re playing a very useful role.”
Their willingness to dissent is a sign of party strength, not weakness, Mitchell argues. “When Joe Biden moves the struggle forward, they will give him credit for it. There are examples where the Biden administration has been outside of what we would consider progressive values and they’ve course corrected and it was, I think, because the squad were not afraid to call it.
“It led to the Biden administration actually getting better on those issues. That’s an example not of disunity, but co-equal branches operating as they should.”
But when it comes to the current legislative gridlock, some commentators argue that the squad would be wrong to take out their frustrations on the president, given the balance of power in the Senate.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “I don’t know how you criticise Biden for Manchin. Biden is putting up the legislation they’d like. The problem is Congress and the sheer numbers. It’s an arithmetic problem more than an ideology problem.”
Democrats’ narrow majority in the House should, in theory, give the squad more leverage over party leadership than ever. They threatened to torpedo a $1.9bn spending bill to upgrade US Capitol security in the wake of 6 January insurrection over concerns about more money going to police; eventually three voted no, three voted present and one voted yes; the bill passed by a single vote.
Dave Handy, a New York-based political activist and consultant who worked on Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, said: “We have a very slim majority in Congress. The squad now wield more power than they’re giving themselves credit for. I don’t know why they’re ignorant of their bargaining position and the hand that they’re holding.”
“Everybody else at the table seems to be aware of this. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema in the Senate are very aware of the cards that they’re holding. The squad is completely aloof. I’m not even sure they know that they’re playing poker. They might think they’re playing checkers.”
Handy argues that the squad should pressure Biden and other Democratic leaders much harder. “I don’t think that they’re wielding as much influence as they could be. The squad was elected to be rabble rousers. They are there to agitate. Theirs is the role of a reformer in Congress and, in my estimation, in this current Congress, they have not been doing that.”