Biden Forges a New Democratic Paradigm
Well, that was a Joe Biden who could win re-election.
In his second State of the Union address, the president exhibited such a surprising display of vigor, such a capacity for empathy, such a knack for storytelling, and such a mastery of political improvisation that it’s easy to overlook the fact that the speech itself was almost a refoundation of American liberalism. On-the-stump improvisation has always been the bane of Biden’s rhetorical existence, but his snap response to Republican heckling—effectively compelling them in real time to back off their otherwise perpetual and instinctual war on social insurance—was a moment of political virtuosity the likes of which we almost never see in public life, much less in Biden’s public life. He may have been gamed by Joe Manchin behind closed doors, but he just gamed the Republicans before an audience in the tens of millions.
All of which may eclipse just how thoroughly Biden’s speech set the Democratic Party and American liberalism on sounder economic and political ground than they’ve been since the New Deal. Compare Biden’s analysis of what ails the American economy to those put forth by some previous Democratic presidents—Carter and Clinton most particularly, but at times, Obama as well—and what you see is a thorough repudiation of what once was the Democratic establishment’s holy writ. Biden declared that globalization, once touted as a solution, was really the problem. The doctrine of “Buy American,” so ridiculed by Wall Street Democrats and the self-proclaimed pragmatists who viewed corporate globalism as the inevitable way of the world, was not only affirmed by Biden but made a requirement for federally funded infrastructure projects.
Just a decade ago, when the Steelworkers union protested that building the new span of the Oakland Bay Bridge with Chinese steel wasn’t really such a hot idea, they were scorned as not just protectionists but primitives by the party’s moneymen. Decades ago, the Democratic presidential primary campaigns of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (a progressive populist) and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (an economic nationalist) were dismissed by polite opinion and the party establishment as so much pandering to a dwindling blue-collar constituency that failed to heed Bill Clinton’s college-centric stump-speech adage that “what you earn depends on what you learn.”
Decades ago, when Economic Policy Institute (EPI) founder Jeff Faux argued that the R&D tax credit should be fully rewarded only when a new product was not only devised in America but manufactured here as well, Faux’s was a voice in the wilderness. Last night, Faux’s sentiment was echoed by the president, who lamented that while Americans had invented the semiconductor and once produced 40 percent of the planet’s store of them, today we produce just 10 percent, a decline that Biden’s massive funding of domestic semiconductor production is intended to reverse.
Faux was just one of a number of progressive economic thinkers who could justly claim to be the intellectual authors of portions of Biden’s speech. Taking a line from Seattle businessman Nick Hanauer, Biden committed the party to “middle-out” economics, as opposed to the top-down variety beloved by Republicans and corporate Democrats. Biden also proposed quadrupling the tax on corporations that buy back their own stock rather than investing their profits in research or production or, outrageous though it sounds, higher wages—an idea whose father is economist William Lazonick. Readers of the Prospect or Democracy, accustomed to advocacy for industrial policy, antitrust actions, and worker rights, would have found Biden’s analysis and proposals old hat, save that this time, they were coming not from the pages of lefty magazines but from the president of the United States. (In fact, it was the first time the word “antitrust” was mentioned in a State of the Union address since 1979.)
Doctrinally, Biden’s address was a wholesale repudiation of the economics of both the Carter and Clinton presidencies, against which EPI and a few outliers like the Prospect’s Bob Kuttner, economists Lester Thurow and Barry Bluestone, and socialist Michael Harrington had railed. As those dissidents’ predictions came to pass, as wages stagnated and the middle class shriveled, growing majorities among House Democrats voted against trade accords like NAFTA and permanent normal trade relations for China, which were nonetheless enacted with Republican and establishment Democratic support. In time, the critical chorus swelled to include Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders’s legions, and two generations of young, but not entirely up-and-coming, Americans: the millennials and Gen Zers.
It may have taken the shock of Donald Trump’s working-class support to spur the Democrats to acknowledge what Biden termed in his speech “the hollowing out” of Middle America under Democratic as well as Republican administrations. It may have taken the Republicans’ majority support within the white working class, and growing support within the Black and brown working class as well, for Democrats to pledge, as Biden did last night, to devote unprecedented resources to a “blue-collar blueprint” for our hollowed-out regions, to invest, as Biden said, “in places and people who’ve been forgotten.”
And so, a completely asymmetric war for blue-collar America has commenced. Biden and the Democrats hope to woo at least some of it back through investment and through policy to affirm “the dignity of work,” the mantra of Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, whose staunch opposition to globalization and the ensuing hollowing-out has made him the only Democrat who can win statewide in Ohio. Republicans, as Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders made clear in her official Republican response to Biden’s speech, hope to consolidate their gains among working-class voters by depicting Biden as a creature of the woke left. She railed against critical race theory (which she referenced with the initialism “CRT,” a shorthand that’s likely foreign to the majority of Americans) and touted eliminating the use in her first weeks as governor of the word “Latinx.” Of course, if that was the usage of Arkansas government before she took office, it was put there by her Republican predecessor.
By their details shall you know them. Sanders axed “Latinx.” Biden called for laws and rules that banned hotels adding “resort fees” to their bills and airlines charging extra when families want to sit together. Biden seems to me to have the better of that argument, both small and large. I doubt many Arkansans have encountered the word “Latinx,” which is the necessary prerequisite to being bothered by it, while I suspect more Americans have encountered those resort or family-sitting-together fees. Biden’s wager is that by addressing actual problems that non-rich Americans encounter, he can make headway against the culture-war issues that often are metaphors for what the right says are attacks on working-class culture.
Besides, Biden is a hard target to slime with the charge of wokeism. Cultural issues were anything but the major focus of his speech last night, the core of which was really a straightforward appeal to working-class voters that was not just culturally affirming but also economically tangible. You have to go all the way back to Harry Truman to find a Democratic president who made those themes the centerpiece of his presidency. And against all odds, we should recall, Truman was returned to office.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.
Used with the permission © The American Prospect, Prospect.org, 2023. All rights reserved.
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