CHICAGO – President Joe Biden would seem an unnatural fit for the activists at Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of progressives that was created to harness online rage over George W. Bush's administration. More recently, it has championed the message of economic populism from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two of Biden's rivals for the Democratic nomination in 2020.
But the antipathy toward Democrats seen as too mainstream or moderate did not largely extend to Biden at the group's recent conference in Chicago. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, even concluded the event by recounting how she had become a Biden convert.
“When Biden was in, I was like, ‘Oh, man,’” said Jayapal, D-Wash., lamenting that Sanders and Warren had fallen short in the presidential primary. "But I gotta tell you, I am a Biden fan now.”
That brought cheers, which was no easy feat given that pro-Palestinian activists moments earlier had shouted down Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., on the same stage.
At past Netroots conferences, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was booed and Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted a presidential candidate forum in 2016. Biden, as vice president, was heckled over Obama administration immigration policies.
Jayapal's comments point to Biden's progress in winning over his party's left wing, an important part of the coalition he is relying on to win a second term. Many progressives have cheered steep federal spending increases on major social programs and green energy, as well as Biden's renewed plan to offer student debt relief after the Supreme Court struck down his original efforts.
“This isn’t someone who’s spent the first term doing all kinds of objectionable things,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a veteran of Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign who also helped progressive Brandon Johnson win election as Chicago's mayor this spring. “I think the sense is, he’s had a much more successful, impactful, consequential presidency than progressives expected.”
Similar sentiments have been echoed by Sanders, a Vermont independent, and Warren, D-Mass. Progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., recently endorsed Biden's 2024 campaign. Some, though, remain angry that Biden did not deliver on other big promises, including slashing fossil fuel production, advancing a federal policing overhaul and expanding voting rights.
“The narrative about the successes of the Biden administration is smoke and mirrors," said India Walton, a progressive who beat Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown in the 2021 Democratic primary but lost to him in the general election.
Walton complained that Biden had not done more to protect abortion and civil rights after Supreme Court rulings that weakened both. She also noted that student debt will continue to deal crushing financial blows to millions of people, even with Biden's attempted remedy.
“We have not ‘Built Back Better,’” said Walton, referencing Biden’s 2020 campaign slogan. “And it’s very frustrating to be a working-class American and being fed this ‘vote blue’ narrative, when the real conditions of our everyday lives are not changing.”
Such a backlash could hurt Biden in 2024 given that he is likely to face a challenge from the left — progressive activist Cornel West is mounting a Green Party run — and could be squeezed from the center — the political group No Labels is trying to recruit a centrist candidate.
That means even small erosions of progressive energy for Biden might erase the thin margins that delivered him critical swing states like Arizona and Georgia in 2020.
A factor that could neutralize those threats is that Donald Trump, the early Republican front-runner, could again be Biden's general election opponent. In 2020, some hesitant progressives were so appalled by Trump that they turned out to vote for Biden despite their deep reservations.
But it might be difficult to reassemble the same broad voter bloc that put Biden in the White House if some elements are motivated more by fear of Trump than enthusiasm for Biden. This group includes majorities of college graduates, women, urban and suburban residents, young people and Black Americans.
“I think people are not clear about what they actually got for that vote,” DaMareo Cooper, co-executive director for the progressive Center for Popular Democracy, said about some Biden supporters from 2020.
Cooper said Biden and top Democrats need to do a better job “messaging what actually has happened.” Referring to opposition to Trump's candidacy, he said: “There’s going to be a motivation factor. And I don’t think we should assume that people are just going to go out and vote for the same reason.”
Biden acknowledged the importance of turning out even reluctant progressives in 2020, when he told that year's all-virtual Netroots conference in a taped address, “I badly need you.”
The president, who was in Europe and then at Camp David during the group's recent gathering, made such no such pleas this year. His campaign was little mentioned in panel discussions, speeches, training sessions and after-hours parties. At the same time, relatively little attention was paid to West or No Labels, or to Biden's nominal Democratic opponents, anti-vaccine activist Robert Kennedy Jr. and self-help author Marianne Williamson.
Ganapathy said that progressive support for Biden runs deeper than simply attempting to thwart Trump once more.
“There’s a lot that this president and this administration can stand on in terms of their record," he said. "It doesn’t have to be a ‘Don’t vote for that guy.’”
Not everyone is convinced.
Anabel Mendoza, a 25-year-old media relations professional and Chicago native who recently moved to California, said Biden “ran on a lot of promises, but many of those have been unfulfilled and I think he could be bolder.”
“There is a lot at stake in this country, and young generations are feeling that," said Mendoza, pointing to slow federal progress on combating climate change and gun violence, as well as on immigration, an issue where she said Biden “kept in place a lot of Trump policies and that’s something I firmly disagreed with.”
But Mendoza also said “in no world am I ever going to go for Trump."
“When I go out and vote for a candidate, it might not be the candidate who has everything that I want," she added.
Walton has similar feelings. "As badly as I would love to sit this one out and prove a point,” she said, she'll be voting Democratic in 2024.
“Am I going to not vote and give the country away to another four years of Donald Trump?" Walton asked. "Absolutely not.”
Rahna Epting, executive director of the progressive activist organization MoveOn, said Biden “leveraged the first two years of his administration to pass some of the most progressive and people-first policies we could have ever dreamed of.”
She said Biden is no “movement candidate," but he does not have to be a star on the left for progressives to turn out for him in 2024.
“When push comes to shove, they’re going to vote for Joe Biden," Epting said. "For stability, for someone who is governing for the people, no matter what was left on the table in the last congressional cycle.”