Jan 22, 2021 - Economy

Biden's centrist words, liberal actions

Illustration of a man tearing open a suit like superman to reveal a raised progressive fist symbol beneath

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Biden talks like a soothing centrist. He promises to govern like a soothing centrist. But early moves show that he is keeping his promise to advance a liberal agenda.

Why it matters: Never before has a president done more by executive fiat in such a short period of time than Biden. And those specific actions, coupled with a push for a more progressive slate of regulators and advisers, look more like the Biden of the Democratic primary than the unity-and-restraint Biden of the general election.

The big picture: Biden handed some of his most visible positions, including Treasury Secretary, to "old-timers" like former Fed chair Janet Yellen, says Joseph Trevisani, senior analyst at FXStreet.

  • "But the power positions, where vast changes can be effected with a rule or regulatory change, are going to the younger officials like Rohit Chopra," Biden's choice to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The backstory: Trump appointee Kathy Kraninger resigned as CFPB director, clearing the way for Biden to nominate Chopra, an FTC commissioner and acolyte of Sen. Elizabeth Warren who worked with her on establishing the CFPB, as its next director.

  • That, coupled with a Wall Street Journal report that Biden is set to name former Obama Treasury official Michael Barr as Comptroller of the Currency, the major regulator of big banks, looks like the continuation of a more progressive trend.

On immigration, a coalition of 200 U.S. mayors challenged the new administration to adopt a highly progressive agenda — one that would give everyone a pathway to citizenship — only to find their announcement upstaged by Biden's pledge that he would try to enact nearly all the reforms they are pressing for.

Between the lines ... Biden wants to have his cake and eat it too, says Jaret Seiberg, financial services and housing policy analyst for Cowen Washington Research Group:

"That will work in the short-term, but eventually those progressives who are taking over key jobs will impact the regulatory environment. Changes will be more dramatic than what the market may be expecting based on Biden’s cabinet picks and other top advisers."

The other side: The party's center has been shifting left for years, and Biden arguably just moved with it.

  • His executive actions so far have largely just rolled back parts of the Trump legacy, including rejoining the Paris climate deal, and freezing 11th hour regulations pushed through by the last administration.
  • Biden also extended a Trump-era student loan payments pause, and foreclosure and eviction moratoriums, that that were set to expire.

One sign of the delicate dance to appease the most progressive members of his party: In response to Biden's decision to extend the student loan pause, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: "OK now let’s cancel them."

  • Biden's campaign said it would ask Congress to cancel $10,000 in student debt for borrowers, CNBC reported earlier this month.

Courtenay Brown and Jennifer Kingson contributed reporting.

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