Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has unveiled two potent economic plans in as many weeks.
The Made in America blueprint aims at using $400 billion in federal procurement to buy U.S.-made products, as well as revitalizing manufacturing, investing in innovation, supporting easier unionization and increasing the minimum wage.
The second plan addresses climate change, proposing $2 trillion invested over four years to increase the use of clean energy across the economy.
“These are the most critical investments we can make for the long-term health and vitality of both the American economy and the physical health and safety of the American people,” Biden said in a speech in Wilmington, Del. “When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, the only word he can muster is ‘hoax.’ When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs.’”
The two proposals are part of a set of more than 40 agendas addressing small businesses, education, healthcare, veterans, infrastructure, marginalized communities and more. If they contain elements of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “she’s got a plan for that,” it’s no coincidence. The Biden and Warren staffs collaborated.
It makes for shrewd politics. Biden’s version of “America first” undercuts President Donald Trump’s economic populism, which may have given Trump the 80,000-vote edge in three Midwestern industrial states to win the Electoral College in 2016. This week, a poll has Biden leading Trump by 13 points in critical Pennsylvania.
At the same time, Biden’s platform is the most progressive seen in decades. With the calming face of vice president for “No Drama Obama,” it might create a big tent for liberals and centrists, Never-Trump conservatives, Black voters and suburban whites.
As an economic statement, it represents a decisive break from the old consensus that’s been lumped under the term “neo-liberalism.” Biden is stepping back from globalization and repeatedly criticizing Trump for allowing China to maintain unfair trade practices and gain advantages in advanced industries and research.
To be fair, however, this was a bipartisan consensus reaching back to the Nixon administration — seeking to manage China’s peaceful rise, hoping Beijing would liberalize and join the American-led rules-based world order. That hasn’t happened, and Trump instigated a misbegotten trade war (with tariffs essentially creating a tax on U.S. consumers) as his response. Either way, both parties are now highly critical of the world’s second-largest economy.
Biden wouldn’t be the bad actor that Trump has been — antagonizing allies, undermining international relationships, bullying neighbors. The question is whether, and how, Biden can establish American world leadership again. His focus for now is rebuilding the American economy — including combating the pandemic — and coming close to the left’s Green New Deal on climate issues.
Trump’s repeated “infrastructure weeks” produced nothing. Biden’s infrastructure plan is highly specific, and not just on “roads and bridges.”
In addition to proposing aggressive investment in transit for cities, “Amtrak Joe’s” blueprint envisions “the second great railroad revolution.”
The proposal states, “Biden will make sure that America has the cleanest, safest, and fastest rail system in the world — for both passengers and freight. His rail revolution will reduce pollution, connect workers to good union jobs, slash commute times, and spur investment in communities that will now be better linked to major metropolitan areas.”
Trains are already the cleanest way, next to limited river barges, to move people and freight. Electrification would reduce emissions further. High-speed rail (HSR), a commonplace in other urbanized advanced nations, would be the big leap. HSR serving city pairs and urban corridors would reduce the need for carbon-emitting airliners on shorter flights.
He pushed back against the danger of “the Democrats want to take our cars” with a comprehensive list of ways to build a cleaner 21st century automobile industry with American jobs.
The Biden recommendations to address climate change are also shrewd: emphasizing job creation.
Too often, efforts to slow planetary catastrophe from climate change are portrayed as job killers. The cost of change is too high, critics say. End of story. Hence, Trump’s emphasis on fossil fuels and his EPA rolling back clean-air rules. Even so, coal-mining jobs didn’t recover from their long-term decline and fracking is being smashed by bankruptcies.
In reality, the costs of unaddressed climate change are here already. Among them are coastal flooding that’s sure to grow worse, intensifying wildfires, damage to agriculture and fisheries, drought, health risks, severe storms, and major metropolitan areas either facing untenable heat (Phoenix) or submersion (Miami) in the coming decades.
Studies have placed the cost of climate change to the economy at hundreds of billions of dollars annually as the century progresses — if we do nothing. And this doesn’t include the disruption caused by mass migration and war. (Climate change was a factor in the Syrian civil war).
One question that will dog Biden is whether the big banks and Wall Street emerge to continue their destructive roles in job losses and offshoring of industries. Would he be another “Wall Street Democrat”?
His agenda is far more ambitious and progressive than Obama’s in 2008. The New York Times reported this month that the former vice president has sought the counsel of “more than 100 left-leaning economists and other researchers.”
The story continues: “Those advisers are also a key to how he may try to bridge divides between his center-left outlook and the views of young, progressive activists who want him to embrace a bolder agenda of taxing the rich and spending heavily on social programs.”
As telling is Biden’s increasingly cordial relationship with Warren. If he’s elected, he won’t be a prisoner of the financial elite.
That’s an “if” that can’t be taken for granted. Despite Trump’s failures, ongoing self-destruction and lack of a strong economy, no one should count him out. Voters will be presented with the sharpest choice in years, not least in economic policy — and, of course, temperament.
And President Biden can only achieve his aspirations if Democrats keep the House and take the Senate.
It’s a long way to November.