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Opinion Joe Biden just ate Trump’s populist lunch

Former vice president Joe Biden in Dunmore, Pa., on Thursday. (Matt Slocum/AP)
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Had President Trump followed a truly populist economic program — forgoing tax cuts for the rich, passing an infrastructure bill, refraining from trying to take health care away from millions of Americans — he might have improved his standing with voters (before the coronavirus calamity) and boxed out Democrats who have always done best when pitching a bread-and-butter economic message to blue-collar voters. Instead, Trump followed the supply-side, pro-donor and pro-wealthy playbook that Republicans have locked themselves into for decades.

On Thursday, former vice president Joe Biden snatched the populist mantle back from Trump. The Post reports: “Joe Biden unveiled 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’s plan is aimed squarely at workers based on a message of “fairness.” As he explained on Thursday during a speech in Dunmore, Pa., the presumptive Democratic nominee seeks “an economy where every American enjoys a fair return for their work — and an equal chance to get ahead. An economy that is more powerful precisely because everyone is cut in on the deal. An economy that says investing in the American people and working families is more important than the nearly $2 trillion dollar tax break Trump predominantly handed out to the richest Americans.”

Calling it the “Build Back Better” plan, Biden proposed investing in manufacturing, something Trump promised but failed to deliver. The Biden plan includes “$400 billion to purchase products and materials our country needs to modernize our infrastructure, to replenish our critical stockpiles, and to enhance our national security.” The plan also promises to fight unfair trading practices; fund green energy jobs; invest $300 billion in research in new technologies (thereby “creating millions of good-paying union jobs”); support a caregiving and education workforce (e.g., paid sick leave, child care); add more money for education; and secure the Affordable Care Act (e.g., lowering the cost of prescription drugs, stopping surprise medical bills and providing a public option to cover the millions of Americans without care). Finally, he vowed to present a complete agenda for rectifying racial inequality.

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It remains to be seen whether he will have more success than previous presidents in boosting manufacturing, which is becoming a smaller sector of the economy and creates fewer jobs than during the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, this is a robust, progressive agenda that throws in some nationalistic language (American jobs!) but is not overtly protectionist nor inward looking. (The most he would promise is that he would “stand up to the Chinese government’s abuses, insist on fair trade, and extend opportunity to all Americans.”) However, it is far from the “socialist” moniker Trump wants to affix to him. There is no indictment of capitalism, no Medicare-for-all and no invocation of a “Green New Deal.” This is precisely the sort of center-left agenda Biden is known for. Conspicuously absent is one measure that would greatly improve productivity and innovation: expansion and reform of legal immigration. At least for now, he is not going to give Trump a hook to claim he is an “open borders” extremist.

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Biden, whose staff consulted with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), managed (apparently) to satisfy the left wing of his party without putting forth something that will scare the rest of the electorate. Generally, this is how every winning Democratic candidate since World War II has campaigned. It has been good politics to run on an active federal government working for the little guy — especially when your opponent has been rewarding the super-rich and corporations.

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