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Young Progressives Hope Biden Will Act On Climate Change, Gun Control, Student Debt


Young voters turned out in potentially record-setting numbers that helped deliver the presidency to Joe Biden. As NPR's Juana Summers reports, young progressive activists plan to hold Biden's administration accountable on priorities including climate change and gun control, though Congress may slow his agenda.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: When Joe Biden addressed the nation for the first time as president-elect, he said that his victory was supported by the broadest and most diverse coalition in history.


JOE BIDEN: Democrats, Republicans, independents, progressives, moderates, conservatives, young, old, urban, suburban, rural, gay, straight, transgender, white, Latino, Asian, Native American.

SUMMERS: Now Biden is facing high expectations from one big and especially diverse segment of that coalition, young voters and, particularly, young progressives who say they want to see him deliver on their priorities. Many of these young voters had been engaged in major social movements around gun laws, climate change and race and justice.

Ben Wessel is the executive director of NextGen America.

BEN WESSEL: I think the role of these activist movements and getting young people off, you know, the fence and into the streets or into the polling place, it can't be ignored. It's really this sense of agency that young people say there's something to rebel against, but I am hopeful that we can fix it.

SUMMERS: According to an analysis by CIRCLE, a research center at Tufts University, somewhere between 50- and 52% of eligible voters under the age of 30 cast a ballot in November's election. At the same point in 2016, CIRCLE estimated youth voter turnout in the low 40s. Those young voters, according to CIRCLE's analysis, preferred Biden over Trump by a 25-point margin, and Biden received overwhelming support from young voters of color.

Maxwell Frost is the national organizing director of the student-led group March For Our Lives.

MAXWELL FROST: President-elect Biden does have a mandate with young people. The people who voted for him the most were young people, so his greatest mandate is with us. And we expect him to use that bully pulpit and to use the presidency to educate millions of people on our issues and set an agenda that will set the foundation for change.

SUMMERS: There is a sense of urgency among young progressives, mixed with a hope that a Biden administration will be receptive to their issues. They've pointed to instances in which Biden has shifted left on issues like forgiving student debt and climate, as well as the joint policy task forces that Biden announced with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders after the Democratic primary came to an end.

Varshini Prakash is a co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led activist group. She was a member of the climate focus task force. After Barack Obama was elected, she says activists waited too long to put pressure on him.

VARSHINI PRAKASH: We can't make the mistake that we - that the climate movement made with Barack Obama in 2008. We have got to be out on the offensive on Day 1.

SUMMERS: The Sunrise Movement is already publicly pressuring the incoming administration to appoint progressives to key Cabinet roles. This comes as Democrats are reckoning with their hopes for a Senate majority, an outcome dependent on winning two Senate runoff elections in Georgia. But Prakash said that even if Republicans hold the Senate, Biden must still be accountable to the groups that helped him win the White House.

PRAKASH: We've also got to be clear with Joe Biden that even if he doesn't have the Senate, that is not an excuse to not do everything in his power to address the climate crisis.

SUMMERS: Progressive leaders also warned that if Biden does not pursue their priorities, there's a risk that a generation that showed up in November may become disengaged in the future.

Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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