By Ezra Klein
Joe Biden just offered a window into what a Biden-Trump rematch might look like. Well, part of it, at least.
The wildness of Donald Trump’s political style often obscures — at least to his critics — the more banal dimensions of his appeal. The strongest of Trump’s arguments, and the one Biden has the most to fear from in 2024, is economic. In 2016, Trump ran as a businessman savant who would wield his mastery of the deal in service of the American people. “My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy,” Trump said. “I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States.”
Trump said that elites had sold you out. They traded your job to China. They let your bridges and roads and buildings crumble. They respected the work they did — work that happens behind a computer screen, work that needs fancy degrees, work that happens in offices rather than factories and cities rather than towns — and dismissed the work you did. They got rich and you got nothing. Exit polls found that Trump won large majorities among those who thought the economy was “fair” or “poor.”
Trump did not, during his presidency, turn that critique into an agenda. There were islands of action — trade policy foremost among them — but the order of the day was incoherence. Infrastructure weeks came and went. Tax cuts were tilted toward the rich. There was no strategy to restore America’s manufacturing prowess or rebuild bargaining power for workers without college degrees.
But Trump had the good fortune to take office during an economic boom. And he kept that boom going. He worked with congressional Republicans to tax less and spend more, budget deficits be damned. He appointed Jay Powell to the Federal Reserve, and Powell kept money cheap and the labor market hot. Unemployment, in February 2020, was 3.5 percent. Wages were rising and inflation was low.
Then Covid hit, and Trump worked with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to flood the economy with trillions of dollars in support payments. Joblessness spiked, but workers overall didn’t suffer. This is Trump’s deepest well of strength in a 2024 rematch. Only about a third of voters approve of the job Biden has done on the economy. Polls show Trump is the more trusted economic manager, by far.
On Wednesday, in Chicago, Biden previewed the counterargument he’ll make in a much-hyped speech defining “Bidenomics.” Biden’s case is this: What Trump only promised, I delivered.
Biden set his economic policies in contrast to “40 years of trickle-down.” Trickle-down economics usually describes the theory that tax cuts at the top will lead to prosperity at the bottom. Biden is using it to describe a more expansive economic order — what sometimes gets called “neoliberalism.” Trickle-down, in his telling, was the philosophy that “it didn’t matter where you made things.” It “meant slashing public investment and looking the other way as “three quarters of U.S. industries grew more concentrated.” Forty years, as alert readers will note, encompasses not just the administrations of Donald Trump and George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, but Bill Clinton and, yes, Barack Obama.
This is a point worth dwelling on. The Biden administration is thickly populated with veterans of the Obama and Clinton White Houses. But it doesn’t see itself in comfortable continuity with those legacies. It sees itself, in key ways, as a break with them.
Back in May, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser (and a key aide, before that, to both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama), made this explicit during a speech to the Brookings Institution. Sullivan slammed the belief that “the type of growth did not matter.” That had led, he said, to administrations that let Wall Street thrive while “essential sectors, like semiconductors and infrastructure, atrophied.” He dismissed the “assumption at the heart of all of this policy: that markets always allocate capital productively and efficiently.”
And he tendered a modest mea culpa for his own party. “Frankly, our domestic economic policies also failed to fully account for the consequences of our international economic policies,” he said. In letting globalization and automation hollow out domestic manufacturing, Democrats had been part of a Washington consensus that “had frayed the socioeconomic foundations on which any strong and resilient democracy rests.”
Biden’s speech in Chicago tried to show he was a Democrat who had learned these lessons. First, there was his emphasis on place. “I believe every American willing to work hard should be able to say where they grew up and stay where they grew up,” he said. “That’s Bidenomics.” Later, he said it again. “I believe that every American willing to work hard should be able to get a job no matter where they are — in the heartland, in small towns, in every part of this country — to raise their kids on a good paycheck and keep their roots where they grew up.”
I talked to Jared Bernstein, the chairman of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, about the thinking here. “One of the pretty bereft assumptions of traditional economics is that you don’t need to worry about place because, as long as there are good jobs somewhere, people will go there and get them,” Bernstein told me. “It doesn’t really work that way.” One reason it doesn’t work that way is housing costs. “The idea that you can relocate from rural America, where housing is cheap, to expensive-housing America, even with the pay differentials, is a bit of a fantasy,” he said.
Biden’s answer is built around the investments being made by the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. You don’t install wind and solar farms in Manhattan and San Francisco. You don’t even necessarily do it in blue states, much to the chagrin of Democratic governors. Biden pointed to Weirton, W.Va., “where a steel mill closed in the beginning of the century” and, because of him, an iron-air battery plant is “being built on the same exact site, bringing back 750 good-paying jobs, bringing back a sense of pride and hope for the future.” The Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean energy research firm, estimates that Biden’s red states will get $623 billion in clean energy investments by 2030, compared with $354 billion for blue states.
All these factories and battery plants and electric-vehicle charging stations and auto manufacturing facilities give Biden his strongest line against Trump. After comparing the infrastructure weeks Trump never delivered and “the infrastructure decade” he did, Biden noted: “Construction of manufacturing facilities here on U.S. soil grew only 2 percent on my predecessor’s watch in four years. Two percent. On my watch, it’s grown nearly 100 percent in two years.”
Biden made a point of saying that in the economy he’s building, “we don’t need everyone to have a four-year degree. It’s great if you can get one; we’re trying to make it easier for you to get one. But you don’t need it to get a good-paying job anymore.”
Bernstein didn’t pull his punch on this one. “I’ve been part of Democratic administrations where, basically, the solution to labor market woes was to go to college. The president has seen through that.” Biden, he continued, “realizes something everybody should know. About two-thirds of the work force isn’t college-educated. And there’s no version of Bidenomics that leaves two-thirds of the labor force out.”
But here, Biden’s policy argument was a little thinner. He talked up his support for unions and apprenticeship programs, but he named more proposals to help people go to college than to help them get good jobs without a degree.
The best thing Biden has done for less-educated workers is preside over a tight labor market. Unemployment has been below 4 percent since February 2022, and workers who are often on the margin are making gains. The Black-white employment gap has nearly closed, and wage gains have been particularly strong for workers without a college education. But the Biden administration’s pride in those numbers only underscores the real problem it faces: Americans felt good about the economy under Trump. They don’t feel good about it under Biden.
The reason is simple: Real wages have been falling because inflation has been rising. Biden’s long-term investments, his efforts to rebuild American manufacturing and create millions of news jobs decarbonizing the American economy, will take time to pay off. People have to live in the economy now, not a decade from now.
The good news — for both Biden and America — is that real wages have risen over the past few months. Inflation is down by more than half since its peak. Forecasters who were confidently predicting a recession in 2023 are now hedging. Mark Zandi, of Moody’s Analytics, thinks we’ll escape the downturn altogether. Whether the good economic news continues may well decide the 2024 election. Biden has co-opted the best of Trump’s ideas and pursued them with a diligence and focus that Trump never did. But that won’t mean much if voters still find themselves yearning for Trump’s economy.
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Ezra Klein joined Opinion in 2021. Previously, he was the founder, editor in chief and then editor-at-large of Vox; the host of the podcast “The Ezra Klein Show”; and the author of “Why We’re Polarized.” Before that, he was a columnist and editor at The Washington Post, where he founded and led the Wonkblog vertical. @ezraklein
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