Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is walking a fine line when it comes to President Biden, endorsing him ahead of the 2024 election while also criticizing some of his policies and staying silent on what her role will be on the campaign trail heading into next year.
The progressive congresswoman confirmed earlier this year that she would back Biden, pointing to the threat of another possible Donald Trump presidency. That decision put to rest speculation she might support a primary challenge to the president.
But Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t said whether she plans to act as a campaign surrogate for Biden like her fellow progressives in Congress, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). And she has been vocal about her differences with the administration over parts of their agenda.
“While the President and AOC may not agree on everything politically, I believe that their disagreements make their alliance even more powerful,” said Hassan Martini, a Democratic strategist who runs the group No Dem Left Behind.
That official embrace of Biden in July, just three months after he announced his candidacy, was seen as a good-faith gesture for what’s expected to be a close and potentially volatile race. She was showing, in effect, a willingness to use her star power to help elect someone whose brand doesn’t necessarily align with her own.
In discussing her support for Biden, Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview with Pod Save America over the summer that “there are ebbs and flows” during his administration, but ultimately chose to highlight the high points. “He’s done quite well, given the limitations that we have,” she said in that interview.
Her ideological differences with Biden are certainly not a secret. Some of her biggest grievances have come over disagreements on immigration, energy and the environment, where a generational clash of world views has caused friction between the 33-year-old congresswoman and the 80-year-old president.
In a recent New York Times interview, Ocasio-Cortez pointed to Biden’s approach on the migration crisis and the southern border as a point of serious contrast.
“Immigration is arguably this administration’s weakest issue,” she told the Times this week. “This is one area where our policy is dictated by politics, arguably more so than almost any other.”
“There are very clear recommendations and suggestions that we have made to the administration to provide relief on this issue, and it’s my belief that some of the hesitation around this has to do with a fear around just being seen as approving or providing permission structures, or really just the Republican narratives that have surrounded immigration,” she said.
But for the second consecutive presidential cycle, those disagreements are being downplayed to some degree out of concerns that Trump or similarly right-wing contenders will win. Where she wants to go further on the border, Biden’s allies have taken a step back, and progressives have been frustrated by the lack of unison and clarity.
“I see the criticism that she takes from every possible direction right, left, center, you name it,” Martini said. “To her credit, she just keeps on fighting.”
Ocasio-Cortez, too, has expressed some discontentment with the job at hand.
“There have been times where this work has been extremely challenging, and I didn’t know if I would survive in this position,” she told the Times, acknowledging that she has “a very great responsibility” in her elevated position to get it right.
The divided Congress has been challenging for progressives who have implored Biden to keep moving leftward as much as he can. In the areas where he has been able to use the executive branch to his advantage, many credit him for going further than where he has been as a longstanding Senate centrist. They see his ability to adapt as reflective of the party’s broader shift, which has evolved on things like a $15 minimum wage and decriminalizing marijuana, both policies Biden plans to campaign on in 2024.
Ocasio-Cortez has often been at the forefront of those fights and has faced backlash from establishment Democrats for pushing an agenda that they believe is too liberal in some swingier states and districts.
Anticipating a bitter battle next fall, however, Democrats have warmed to the idea of having a range of voices from the party’s spectrum stumping for Biden at the top of the ticket. But it remains to be seen how far Ocasio-Cortez will go to help the president win reelection.
Sanders and Khanna, who respectively represent the old and new guard of the progressive wing on Capitol Hill, are providing a roadmap for what that can look like. The two liberals were in New Hampshire recently talking up the reelection case for Biden and warning about the dangers of the Trump-aligned GOP. Sanders, who competed against Biden in 2020, has been seen as an ally for his administration, and Khanna, who has national aspirations of his own, has shown deference to the president while traveling to states like Iowa and South Carolina.
As with Sanders, Democrats believe Ocasio-Cortez can come in handy with fundraising. She has reliably inspired people from a variety of backgrounds to give small donations to help candidates get over the finish line. While some Democrats say she’s less novel as a surrogate this cycle, they believe she can still help give a boost in places like state parties.
Still, there’s some lingering skepticism about the influence of high-profile Democrats when the electoral college and a handful of battlegrounds will ultimately determine control of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“This race is local,” said Michael Ceraso, a campaign strategist who is working to promote down-ballot Democrats in North Carolina and Kentucky. “It’s the state infrastructure.”
“She will make news and coverage and bring money in, but if she was mum, didn’t say much, it wouldn’t doom us,” Ceraso said. “Progressives who donate to Biden don’t need AOC or any progressive’s permission to do so. They’ll do it because they’ll see the writing on the wall.”
For those Democrats who see Biden winning the general election, some still believe he needs all the help he can get.
There’s an underlying concern about totally unpredictable factors, including the timing of Trump’s court dates and the status of his mounting indictments.
A potential third-party spoiler is also a factor on Democrats’ minds, sparking fear that an insurgent candidate could pull support from Biden.
Those concerns have caused the party to consider how their broad bench could be used most effectively in a close contest.
They see Cornel West, a progressive who’s running on the Green Party ticket, as particularly worrisome. The decision from Sanders, for whom West served as a campaign surrogate, and AOC not to endorse the Harvard leftist also provides an element of loyalty to getting Biden reelected — something that was less apparent in the early phases of past cycles.
“If Cornel West is in the race then the leading voices of the progressive left, like AOC, will matter in keeping his vote total small while juicing turnout for Biden,” Kessler said.
“Ultimately, presidential races are decided by the vast ideological middle of the electorate. But Ralph Nader and Jill Stein proved that even a small insurgency from the left can be decisive. AOC’s voice would be needed in that situation,” he added.
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