How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Became One of Joe Biden’s Most Valuable Boosters

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When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez erupted on the national stage back in 2018 in a stunner of a Democratic primary, a lot of Establishment Washington braced for the arrival of a Tea Party-style troublemaker from the Left. Six years later, that assessment wasn’t so much wrong as undercooked. While the former bartender remains a key ally to the Left, AOC’s main job in 2024 may be President Joe Biden’s most valuable pinch-hitter.

As mainstream Democrats were tearing their hair out over new questions about the President’s mental acuity, there was Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday not only reaffirming her backing of Biden, but not-so-subtly slapping down those in her wing of the party screaming for him to step aside. “I know who I'm going to choose. It's going to be one of the most successful Presidents in modern American history,” she told CNN.

The boosterism comes days after a special counsel released a damning report that blasted Biden as a forgetful figure who would be impossible to convict on charges he mishandled classified information because he is so obviously aged. The White House and its allies called the report hackish and a hit job, but nonetheless Democratic insiders dispatched all available surrogates to spin reporters that Robert Hur’s disclosures about Biden’s alleged “diminished faculties” were misleading and inappropriate. And, when needed the most, those allies include Ocasio-Cortez as part of the Establishment defense.

That turn of events is deeply frustrating to many of those who first helped Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist, get to Washington by toppling a 10-term Democratic incumbent. In the six years since, she has found the solid footing of a pragmatic disruptor. She’ll cause trouble—as she did last year in opposing a must-pass spending bill—but not needlessly or at a real cost to her party.

And pragmatism, in this case, means understanding that, absent a health emergency, Biden is the Democratic nominee. While most Americans—86% in the most recent ABC News poll—say Biden is too old for another term (compared to 62% saying the same for a 77-year-old Trump), this truth also holds: Democrats are on track to nominate Biden and there is no plausible off-ramp for that outcome at this moment. 

Ocasio-Cortez saw this coming all this way back in July, when she announced her endorsement of Biden for a second term. “I think he’s done quite well, given the limitations that we have,” Ocasio-Cortez said of Biden on “Pod Save America,” a podcast helmed by first-wave insiders of the Obama political machine. But she did allow: “I do think that there are ebbs and flows.”

Democrats are now in a two-legged race to simultaneously cast Biden as a vigorous incumbent who is up to the task while also saying former President Donald Trump is just as old. That tension was clear as Ocasio-Cortez made her defense of Biden this week as she resorted to Republicans’ favorite tactic: WhatAboutism. “I think right now, when it comes to the president’s age, folks are talking about how he’s 81,” she said. “But we have to look at—first of all—Donald Trump is around the same age. They could have gone to high school together. And beyond that, Donald Trump has 91 indictments.”

Ocasio-Cortez has been a case study of how a perceived radical can be useful for a national party in the middle of a branding crisis. National Democrats for years have struggled to define their agenda, swinging unpredictably between the fevers of Bernie Sanders’ socialist-sympathizing campaigns and the lulls of Pete Buttigeig’s technocratic lesson that surprisingly carried him to victory in Iowa’s 2020 caucuses. A tent that holds not just billionaire Mike Bloomberg but also plain-spoken Midwesterner Amy Klobuchar, contrarians like Joe Manchin and instigators known as The Squad is of questionable durability.

And then there’s Ocasio-Cortez, who has shrewdly figured out how to stand apart from the Establishment while also being a key component to the party’s successes. Her aspirational Green New Deal became a boogeyman for conservatives but helped to shape much of Biden’s ambitious Covid-19 relief efforts that doubled as the biggest environmental agenda in history. While a critic of long-standing power structures in Washington, she never voted against making Nancy Pelosi the Speaker. She has meddled in plenty of primaries with mixed success, but even her detractors say her endorsement of Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts helped him survive a threat from Rep. Joe Kennedy.

Ocasio-Cortez won her first primary—and, really, the election that followed—despite being outspent 7-to-1 by the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House. She got to Washington with a stated indifference to the Establishment and cast votes that put her opposite most of her colleagues. She blew-off party meetings and messaging dictates. But over time, she has found ways to work across the aisle, to be part of the team on must-pass pieces of legislation, and to turn from a one-time aide to liberals like Ted Kennedy and Sanders into a Biden backer. Her performances during committee hearings have been well prepared and highly useful in distilling the actual topics at hand.

“I had to prove to this world of Washington that I was serious and skilled, and that I wasn’t just here to make a headline, but that I was here to engage in this process in a skilled and sophisticated way,” she said last year. And for national Democrats, she could be a useful guarantor for the rising Left that is going to be crucial if the party has any hope of stopping Trump’s return to power.

Stylistically, Ocasio-Cortez remains as sharp as ever—and as triggering to her critics. Yes, she wore a dress emblazoned with the message “Tax the Rich” to a gala full of such rich people. Yes, she was a cover subject for Vanity Fair, posing in clothes conservatives said cost $14,000. And, no, she was not going to apologize for being a successful woman who may rival only Pelosi in being an avatar for the Democratic Party. “I mean, I think I’m kind of at the point where no matter what I do, if I wake up in the morning, there’s going to be someone who has something to say about that,” she said on the red carpet of the Met Gala.

All of which helps to explain why Ocasio-Cortez may be more important to Biden’s re-election than many in Washington realize. For the very voters who are feeling left out of Biden’s to-do list—young voters, voters of color, women—Ocasio-Cortez may be what salves those worries. She’s never going to persuade the exurban country-club set to shelve their worries about Biden and his age, but she can amp up turnout in groups that may remain cool to his re-election. Ocasio-Cortez understands this and Biden’s team understands this. Which is to say, as his campaign weighs how to deploy the army of surrogates ready to shore up his support over the next nine months, one of the most powerful VIPs may be AOC.

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