Why AOC and other ‘Squad’ members are now defending Joe Biden

In February, as Israel’s war in Gaza raged, Ilhan Omar, the progressive representative from Minnesota, levelled an especially withering charge against President Joe Biden: his White House, Omar said, was responsible for “greenlighting the massacre of Palestinians”.

Yet in recent days, with Biden now struggling to save his presidency, it is Omar and fellow members of “the Squad” — the clique of leftwing representatives that has entered Congress in recent years — who have been among his strongest defenders.

In various interviews, Omar has praised “the best president” of her lifetime and urged fellow Democrats “to do everything that we can to make sure that we are pushing Biden across the finish line in November”. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who in 2018 became the Squad’s inaugural member and brightest star when she upset a 10-term Democratic incumbent to win a congressional district in New York, has also come to the stricken president’s aid. 

“Joe Biden is our nominee. He is not leaving this race. He is in this race and I support him,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters on Monday.

Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Squad member, said her fellow Democrats “were losing the plot” in pushing to oust Biden. 

To many, the change in tone has been startling. In an inversion of the usual order, those now threatening Biden are not the party’s young radicals but long-serving members of the establishment, such as Virginia Senator Mark Warner, as well as deep-pocketed donors on Wall Street and in Hollywood.

The Squad’s support for Biden is not yet universal. One member, Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American congresswoman from Michigan, has been a vocal critic of the president’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza and urged Democrats in her state to vote against him in the party’s primary election there in February.

More than 100,000 Democrats — in a crucial battleground state Biden won by just 154,000 votes in 2020 — opposed him in the primary, exposing some of the bitter divisions in the party that are now made plain again in the debate over the president’s fate. Tlaib and other members of the Squad did not respond to requests for comment.

As for the other Squad members, one mainstream Democratic consultant was so baffled by their embrace of Biden that they suspected a cynical motive: in supporting a weakened president, this person speculated, perhaps they were willing to countenance a Trump presidency since that would invigorate their progressive cause?

Ilhan Omar
Ilhan Omar has urged fellow Democrats ‘to do everything that we can to make sure that we are pushing Biden across the finish line in November’ © REUTERS

In fact, say progressives, it is less complicated than that. As long as Biden stayed in the race, said one strategist who has advised socialist candidates, there was little upside in opposing him and perhaps some credit to be banked for supporting him. 

Even if the president did step aside, there was no obvious progressive champion waiting in the wings. Kamala Harris, the vice-president, may have some shared sympathies with the Squad. She would be the first female president, and is of Black and Indian descent. But she has never been one of them. She made her career, after all, as a tough-on-crime prosecutor.

“Biden is not the perfect candidate, but he’s better than anything else we’d get,” said a person familiar with the thinking of AOC’s team. 

If anything, the strategist worried that progressives risked being made scapegoats for the ensuing chaos that some foresee if Biden is nudged aside. “It wouldn’t be helpful for progressives to be seen pushing him,” said the strategist, nothing that the left was always blamed by “the more moderate wing whenever elections don’t go well”.

Others fear that wealthy donors will influence the outcome of a proposed “mini primary” of alternative candidates to make sure their business interests are protected.

For Omar and Cori Bush, a Squad member from Missouri, there are pressing electoral calculations. Both are facing primary challenges in August. Holding closer to the president could neutralise criticisms that they have failed to adequately support his agenda.

That was the argument at the centre of a $15mn advertising blitz funded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying group that helped to doom Jamaal Bowman, a Squad member from New York — and Israel critic — who was defeated by a centrist challenger last month.

Aaron Regunberg, a progressive activist who served in Rhode Island’s state government, accepted that some his colleagues may honestly believe that Biden is the party’s best chance at victory in November. But he believed that was dangerously mistaken.

Soon after Biden’s poor debate performance nearly two weeks ago he and other volunteers formed a group called Pass The Torch to push for an alternative candidate.

Pass The Torch, he said, was now gaining support from “Democrats across the board” who were united by their concern about the 81-year-old Biden’s ability to campaign effectively and beat Trump. “There really isn’t an ideological valence to how this is shaking out,” Regunberg said.

While progressives did not necessarily cheer Biden’s elevation as the Democratic party’s nominee four years ago, many have been pleasantly surprised by his presidency. 

Biden has exceeded their expectations with his support of labour unions, his climate policies, his antitrust enforcement against big business and his $1.2tn infrastructure bill. Bowman and his fellow Squad members voted against the latter, but said it was a tactical move to express their discontent over the president’s abandonment of a related package of social spending.

Even with those disagreements, progressives say they have enjoyed productive relations with the White House, particularly when Ron Klain served as the president’s chief of staff.

The issue that has strained the relationship is Israel’s war in Gaza, and the contempt that many feel for a president they believe has been trampled by Benjamin Netanyahu, the rightwing Israeli prime minister. For some progressives, that issue is so emotional as to outweigh all others.

Said the strategist: “We loved most of Biden’s presidency.”

Additional reporting by James Fontanella-Khan in New York

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