Progressives offer strategic aid to Biden as he fights for his presidency

Four years ago, progressive supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic presidential primary were Joe Biden’s sharpest critics. And four weeks ago, they were hammering the president over his handling of the war in Gaza.

But now, as Biden fights to keep a grip on the party after his calamitous debate performance, many of those same detractors are emerging as critical allies.

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, both regulars on the campaign trail for Biden and Democrats, have offered the president lifelines this week, publicly backing him during one of the tensest moments of his political life.

“He has made it abundantly clear that he’s in this race, he is not leaving, and I am here to support him and I’m here to make sure that we win in November,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters on Monday. Biden, a source familiar with their conversation told CNN, called Ocasio-Cortez this weekend. Sanders has acknowledged the president’s debate performance was “bad,” but also criticized the media for trying to make the election into a “beauty contest,” when Americans are – or should be – “voting for policy.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks have also caught the attention of other progressive House members and their staffs. In one recent text message reviewed by CNN, an aide to a progressive House member told a colleague, “Honestly, if the squad were to say anything, I want them to say” what Ocasio-Cortez did on Monday. “So the centrists own this mess.”

Another staffer for a different progressive member, in a separate message, made a similar argument.

“If we’re gonna say anything let’s say what AOC is saying,” the staffer said in a text reviewed by CNN. “So that whatever chaos is ensuing in the party is the centrists battling it out.”

The strategy headlined by Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders is not unanimously popular across the progressive universe, some of which remains skeptical of aligning too closely with the president. But it reflects both the increasingly cagey approach to Washington politics adapted by some on the left during Biden’s presidency and an understanding, according to multiple sources familiar with internal conversations, that calling now for Biden to quit the race would have little effect on his decision while offering fodder for outside groups – as they did in working to oust Rep. Jamaal Bowman – to accuse progressives of being disloyal to the president and the party.

“Even if we have been strong critics of Biden, especially over the Gaza stuff before the debate, it is not to our advantage, both in terms of being effectual in removing him or having him withdraw, to be the loudest ones calling for him to withdraw,” said one Democratic strategist in close contact with several progressive offices. “That would only backfire on them and actually maybe help him stay in power.”

Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar told CNN on Tuesday that conversation around Biden’s fate is all but over. He will be the nominee, she said, and anyone who thinks otherwise is living “in an alternate universe.”

“In this moment, progressives are thinking about what it means for us to continue to build on the progress that we have made,” Omar said. “And we know that a Trump presidency poses a great threat to that progress. And the reelection of Biden allows for us the opportunity to continue to push for progress.”

The Biden campaign declined to comment.

Another progressive strategist offered a blunt assessment of the dynamics between the Biden campaign and lefty lawmakers.

“Progressives are always damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and I think we all know they’re not going to be what keeps Biden in or out of this race – that’s up to Biden and the people around him,” the strategist said.

House progressives expect to meet directly with Biden in the coming days as the White House schedules sitdowns with assorted party factions. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries had his own meeting with progressive caucus leaders on Tuesday, a source familiar with gathering told CNN.

“I am fully behind him as our nominee, until he is not our nominee,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “There are serious concerns that have been raised.”

Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, who is facing a tough primary challenge in her St. Louis district, said that for all the “concerns” aired at the Democratic caucus meeting on Tuesday, the fundamental goal – defeating Trump – was unifying.

“It’s just making sure that there is a path,” she said.

Bush has not committed to a position, indicating that some members of the progressive bloc in Congress are still deliberating about their next steps.

“The whole squad has not endorsed the president. Some have. Some have not said anything publicly. We haven’t said anything publicly,” Bush said. “Right now, I’m listening to my constituents and I’m hearing from my colleagues.”

Though there is a social media chorus criticizing Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives for not trying to undermine Biden, the message from leaders like Sanders has been clear: It’s time to end the drama and back Biden.

“I think (Biden) had a terrible debate. Nobody disagrees with that, I think he’s been doing better since that debate. I think he’s got to get out there. He’s got to talk to people,” Sanders told CNN’s Kaitlin Collins on Monday night. “I think that he has the ability to be an excellent president. But what we need right now in that campaign is an agenda that speaks to the next four years. People are hurting.”

Longtime Sanders campaign adviser Nina Turner, a former state senator in Ohio and DNC member who has never been shy in criticizing the president or Democrats, recently wrote in a Newsweek op-ed that she believed Biden should leave the race. But rather than push for a leftist replacement, she backed Vice President Kamala Harris to take over.

Her logic in coming to that decision, she explained, largely followed what more typically cautious Capitol Hill progressives have been saying.

“I think we’re getting too caught up in a mess that we didn’t make,” Turner said of the infighting over Biden’s fate. “The more moderate neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party will never let progressives have a progressive candidate, so why are we sweating this?”

The suggestion that progressives could vault one of their own to the nomination during an open convention, Turner added, was little more than fan fiction.

“We don’t have a horse in this race,” she said. “So we need to settle down and we need to focus on pushing and keep doing what we’re doing, which is to try to push this party further to the left. Whoever it is, we are going to push them and make demands.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at