Biden's new economic pitch sounds familiar: "Buy American"

My God. The sonofabitch went full MAGA.

By no means do I think Joe Biden would have embraced a “Buy American” agenda if left to his own political devices. A guy from Scranton who’s presented himself as working-class for decades should have made repatriating American jobs one of his foremost agenda items, but Sleepy Joe is “associated with the more neoliberal and trade-friendly instincts of centrist Democrats,” as Greg Sargent puts it. He’s very much a free-trading post-NAFTA mainstream Democrat, VP in an administration that pushed TPP.

But “Buy American” is a no-brainer for him under the political circumstances in which he finds himself. On the one hand, it should help him claw back some of the white blue-collar votes that went to Trump in 2016, ultimately making the difference that year in Rust Belt states. Trump’s been urging the public to buy American since his first months in office and reportedly has been planning a new initiative about it for campaign season — only to wake up today and find that Biden’s stolen some of his thunder.

“Buy American” can only help Biden with workers who disliked both candidates four years ago but opted for Trump in the belief that he cared more about their jobs. On the other hand, Biden’s also under pressure from the left to make some concessions to the progressive populist agenda. Sargent reports that Team Joe consulted with Elizabeth Warren and her team on this rollout, hoping to emulate their “economic patriotism” pitch from the primaries. Likewise, Bernie Sanders’s campaign website included in his program for “fair trade” policies this item: “We must also expand ‘Buy American,’ ‘Buy Local,’ and other government policies that will increase jobs in the U.S.” The left is watching Biden to see if he intends to do anything meaningful for the working class or if it’ll be neoliberal business as usual once he’s elected. “Buy American” is his answer.

So it’s a no-brainer. If the idea helps Biden take votes from Trump in the center and shores up his own base on the left, he has every reason to propose it. It’s cynical in the sense that Sleepy Joe’s probably not a true believer, but one might have said the same in 2016 about Trump and various right-wing cultural priorities, like ending abortion. In the end it doesn’t matter what he believes, it matters that he’s identified a real concern among constituents and is prepared to respond to it. The weird thing about Trump is that he’s only ever applied that logic to the right: He’s had numerous opportunities lately to reposition himself as a centrist by addressing concerns of swing voters, from making containing coronavirus a higher priority than reopening businesses to showing more conciliation towards anti-racism protesters, but he just keeps doubling down on his base. Biden, by contrast, is making a play for undecideds:

Joe Biden plans to unveil a proposal Thursday to spend $700 billion on American products and research, challenging President Trump’s “America First” agenda with a competing brand of economic nationalism and setting the stage for an election-year showdown over the country’s financial future…

“Biden does not accept the defeatist view that the forces of automation and globalization render us helpless to retain well-paid union jobs and create more of them here in America,” says a 15-page summary. “U.S. manufacturing was the Arsenal of Democracy in World War II and must be part of the Arsenal of American Prosperity today, helping fuel an economic recovery for working families.”…

His new platform focuses heavily on using the power of the federal government to promote a U.S. domestic manufacturing base. He is advocating a $400 billion procurement initiative to spur demand for American products and services, as well as a $300 billion investment in U.S. research and breakthrough technologies. Half of the $300 billion is in clean-energy initiatives that were previously announced, the campaign said.

The plan also calls for the government to launch a 100-day “supply chain review” that could require federal agencies to buy only medical supplies and other goods manufactured in the United States.

The last part is shrewd, as it tees him up to keep attacking Trump over America’s COVID disaster. The country’s still coping with shortages of PPE as cases surge in the south and California. That’s certainly not all Trump’s fault; in fact, a Trumpier manufacturing agenda in prior administrations might have averted our difficulties in keeping the shelves stocked. But presidents inevitably are blamed for the crises that happen on their watch so Democrats are going to leverage that.

“Buy American” does something else important for him. Biden has two major vulnerabilities as a candidate, one being whether he’s fit for office. That judgment will be rendered in November based on how he performs in the public eye over the next four months. The other is Trump’s advantage on the economy. Even now, with his polling sinking in virtually every other aspect of policy, POTUS continues to hold an edge on Biden on the economy. The logical thing for Biden to do under those circumstances is to coopt some of the more popular parts of Trump’s economic agenda that are simpatico with liberalism. Tax cuts are out, obviously. But “Buy American” is the sort of thing he can do to signal to lower-income voters that the White House’s interest in repatriating jobs won’t end if they roll the dice on a change in presidents in January. You can have the sweet parts of Trumpism without the bitter parts, he’s telling them.

Sounds like he’s already picked up one voter!

Whether Biden will actually stick to this agenda once corporations begin complaining about rising costs is a separate matter, but one he and Democrats won’t need to start worrying about until November 4.

By the way, “Buy American” isn’t the only bone he’s thrown to the left this week. Yesterday a “unity task force” of Biden and Bernie allies released a joint policy program aimed at making lefties more comfortable with voting for Biden this year. E.g., they’re going to expand federal health-care programs but not quite to the point of “Medicare for All.” One noteworthy participant was pleased with the results:

The price of that 15-year “shave” was omitting any reference to the Green New Deal and avoiding any call for a ban on fracking, which would be a campaign-killer for Biden in Pennsylvania. Whether progressives would be as willing to compromise on matters like that if they were facing a Republican president less unpalatable to them than Trump is unclear, but since it’s Trump they’re facing the “kumbaya” moments come more easily. He’s the great Democratic uniter.

I’m … not sure this is the soundbite Biden wanted out of the “unity” huddle, though. Sure, it’ll help with progressives, but increasingly it looks like progressives are in the bag. It’s centrists he may need to win over. No surprise that the RNC would clip this soundbite and start circulating it, hoping that centrists will see it.