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Progressives Gear Up to Fight for More Than Just “Unity” From President Biden

Those in the center hailed a return to normalcy — but normalcy, as many noted, is still very far away.

President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural address on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. Following a tumultuous and, at some points, violent four years led by former president Donald Trump, and amid a pandemic that has transformed the fabric of the country and left over 400,000 dead in the U.S., many celebrated a feeling of going back to normal.

NBC anchors said during their inauguration coverage on Wednesday that Biden’s inauguration would be a return to “radical normalcy” — echoing a message that pervaded Biden’s campaign. Unlike his fellow, more progressive candidates, Biden didn’t promise sweeping changes. In fact, in a quote that would somewhat haunt his campaign, Biden promised wealthy donors at a fundraiser last June that, were he to be elected, “nothing would fundamentally change.”

Many of Biden’s campaign promises were echoes of the Barack Obama years, along with pledges to reverse the damage done by Trump and reinstall stalwarts from the time of his vice presidency under Obama — like his tepid commitments on immigration and rejoining the Paris climate agreement.

In his inaugural address, Biden emphasized that the country would move forward from Trump, focusing on the “defeat” of the violence, extremism and racism of the Trump years. “I know the forces that divide us are deep, and they are real,” Biden said. “But I also know that they are not new.” He noted that divisions like racism have existed for decades but were especially concentrated when Trump militants stormed the Capitol on January 6. Above all, Biden focused on unity, coming together as the “United States of America,” he said.

“If you still disagree, so be it,” he said. “That’s Democracy. That’s America… I will be president for all Americans.”

As the transition from Trump to Biden was underway, progressives have noted that, while being rid of Trump may be a step in the right direction, there is still much work to be done to push Biden toward important reforms that go far beyond undoing what Trump has done. After all, the concentration camps at our southern border were an Obama-era invention.

Unity, for instance, was also a common thread during the 2020 election cycle — and, while it was mostly used to call for Americans to come together and form a harmonious post-Trump era, it was also weaponized by the Democratic establishment in some ways.

As an opinion writer for The Hill noted during the 2020 Democratic primaries, “if Bernie Sanders or Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) point out a politician like Joe Biden’s past support for the war in Iraq, the cries for unity come pouring in. But that is not the case when a representative of the Democratic political establishment feels the need to put their thumb on the scale.”

Biden’s political past has been checkered — progressives have criticized his record on criminal justice, the Iraq war and health care. He said, rather infamously, last year that he would veto universal health care if it were to pass Congress. And his inauguration falls during a disastrous pandemic that, save for miracles, will take many, many months of hard work by competent public health officials to undo.

Progressives have pointed out that, now that the U.S. has a president who could even be susceptible to pressure from the left, there is much more work to be done in the pursuit of justice. “Joe Biden and the political actors who will be subjected to pressure from the left in the coming months and years will not be ideologically converted,” wrote Osita Nwanevu of The New Republic. “But there are moments in history when, if conditions are right, the resolve of critical actors with an instinct for political self-preservation can be cracked and material gains can be made. We may well be on the cusp of one now.”

In some ways, progressives have already swayed Biden in crucial ways. Revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipelines, something that he’s planned to do on his first day in office, wouldn’t be on the radar without progressive activists. And, as talk of canceling student debt became popular on the left over this election cycle, Biden has added it to his list of things to request Congress to do on day one.

Within the wreckage of the Trump presidency, which took many more than the 400,000 lives that succumbed to the coronavirus pandemic, there are miles yet to go until this country could return to a modicum of normal — if it ever could — and even more miles to tread to begin reaching forward.