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The price progressives paid for getting rid of Trump: A moderate president

President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event to

President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event to name his economic team at the Queen Theater Tuesday. Credit: Getty Images/Alex Wong

Progressives are already registering their disappointments with President-elect Joe Biden. When he announced that Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) one of his campaign co-chairs, would serve as director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, the climate group Sunrise Movement tweeted that Richmond "has taken big money from the fossil fuel industry, cozied up w/oil and gas, & stayed silent while polluters poisoned his own community." Justice Democrats spokesman Waleed Shahid denounced incoming presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti as a "former pharma lobbyist" who "has represented groups vociferously opposed to Medicare For All and the public manufacturing of prescription drugs." Antony Blinken, the designated secretary of state, while well-regarded by national security professionals across the board, is very much a foreign policy hawk in the mold of, well, Joe Biden.

The left's frustration is understandable (though some appointees, like incoming chief of staff Ron Klain and treasury nominee Janet Yellen, are better received in those quarters), but there really isn't much ground for disappointment. As the Reagan-era mantra goes, "Personnel is policy," and Biden promised a moderate administration, with nods at Obama-era priorities and even bipartisanship.

In the Democratic primary race, Biden argued that this was the way to beat President Trump, and it worked. Incumbents don't often lose, and for Trump to do so while a majority of voters told Gallup they were better off than they were four years ago is extraordinary. Despite Trump's post-election antics, the race wasn't even close. Biden scored a larger share of the popular vote than any challenger since Franklin D. Roosevelt facing down Herbert Hoover, and his moderation was almost certainly key to that success.

Biden ran ahead of House Democrats and most of the party's Senate candidates in key states such as Maine, North Carolina and Georgia. One notable exception was former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who won his Senate race positioned to the right of Biden ideologically. Voters wanted Trump gone, and they like some of the Democrats' ideas, but there's little sign of a hunger in the electorate for sweeping progressive change. A general-election presidential candidate who promised that probably would have done worse.

Even a moderate Democratic president backed by big congressional majorities would be likely to deliver major policy changes — just as Barack Obama did in 2009-2010. That's not going to happen in Biden's Washington, though (at least not initially), and not because of whom he appoints. The congressional math simply doesn't support it.

Congressional deadlock will fuel the left's taste for aggressive executive action. But how much sense does it make to cast the appointments of figures such as Richmond; Ricchetti, who was chief of staff to Vice President Biden; and Blinken, Biden's former national security adviser, as major betrayals? The personnel-is-policy lament originated in the context of an insurgent president who, conservatives believed, had promised a clean break with the Eisenhower-Nixon moderate GOP establishment. The reality of governance made it inevitable that Ronald Reagan would rely to an extent on old Washington hands, but the right sought to limit their influence and feared betrayal from within. Similarly, many Democrats backed Obama in the 2008 primary because they wanted to avoid a restoration of Bill Clinton's administration. Watching many key positions later go to Clinton veterans stung.

On that score, much of the current bellyaching feels like characters reading a script that was written with an Elizabeth Warren or Julián Castro administration in mind — a narrative that doesn't fit the actual circumstances. Biden promised to beat Trump and put competent people back in charge, and that's what he's doing. Anything else progressives get is gravy.

Progressive journalist Zeeshan Aleem defends whining about Biden appointments, saying, "This is a critical moment for dissent, and a situation where narrative-formation can be a substantial form of leverage." Not really. The election results don't leave progressives with important leverage. Senate confirmations will be controlled by a clutch of moderates in both parties. If Democrats win both of Georgia's Senate runoffs in January, then they can write a budget reconciliation bill that's exactly as ambitious as very-slightly-left-of-center Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana want to see. Other bills will need to be bipartisan.

That's not to say progressives ought to sit down and shut up. But they do need to choose their battles. Frederick the Great is credited with saying, "He who defends everything defends nothing." A case in point: The effort by several progressive congressional Democrats to keep "deficit hawk" Bruce Reed away from the Office of Management and Budget is considerably more credible if you're not complaining about every longtime Biden ally who's up for every job.

There's also more to life than leverage. Biden's team faces the genuinely difficult question of how to get things done with a sharply polarized Congress. The idea of student debt cancellation via executive action has gained steam largely because progressives developed the insight that this is a thing that can actually be done. But cancellation can come in various forms, and not many people are sold on the merits of canceling all student debt (including for, say, recent Harvard Law School graduates). Developing a more targeted approach that meets skeptics' concerns should be possible and would be a big win. Similarly, progressives have an opportunity to tell the White House what their priorities and red lines in congressional negotiations are. Do they want Biden to block any tax cuts for the rich, or do they want him to show flexibility if, in exchange, he can win something important as a concession? And if so, what would that be?

Even the most left-wing White House staff members will find it challenging to make progress given the congressional math. And even the most moderate Democrats have policy ambitions grander than what Congress is likely to pass. It's going to be a frustrating time for all Democratic factions. But there's no gain in responding to frustration by nursing grievances over a fake sense of betrayal. Biden will do the job Democrats hired him to do. And the most valuable commodity in Washington's new order won't be "leverage" but viable ideas.

Matthew Yglesias writes the Slow Boring newsletter, hosts "The Weeds" podcast and is the author of "One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger." He wrote this piece for The Washington Post.

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