And he is creating the sort of multiracial electoral coalition that has always been the only workable path to progressive governance.
Understanding how the pieces of Biden’s strategy interact is the best way to square two seemingly contradictory facts: That Biden is running as a moderate, and that he has put forward the most progressive platform a Democrat has offered in years.
Biden is indeed a moderate to his bones and prides himself on working with Republicans. He knows that President Trump’s irresponsible and divisive presidency is encouraging relatively conservative voters to break ranks and back a Democrat — often, for the first time in their lives.
At the same time, he and his advisers recognize that rising economic inequality, the decline in well-paying manufacturing jobs, the weakening of unions and growing regional disparities require robust government intervention to create a more just form of capitalism. They also see how economic and racial injustices aggravate each other.
What allows Biden to be both a moderate and an economic reformer is that it is no longer radical to acknowledge the high costs of inequality, and Biden’s objectives are thoroughly mainstream.
Republicans want to kill the Affordable Care Act indirectly through the courts because they know it’s unpopular to advocate ripping apart the protections it offers. Trump talks incessantly about infrastructure investments without delivering a dime. Few dispute that the United States’ child-care system is inadequate, or that caregivers, including essential workers, are often badly paid.
By addressing the climate crisis through investments in efficiency and new energy sources, Biden turns actions to try to avert environmental catastrophe into an engine of job creation. And his tax plan is middle- and working-class friendly: Virtually all of the tax increases to pay for his program would fall on the top 1 percent of earners and on corporations.
As for trade, Biden talks of bringing home supply chains in certain industries and criticizes Trump’s approach to China not for being too tough but as “chaotic,” “erratic” and mere “bluster that’s only stiffed American workers.”
With Trump’s behavior and record serving as wedges to divide the center-right coalition, Biden has been left free to pursue bridge politics on his own side.
His strong criticisms of Trump’s record on race, his attacks on “extremist white supremacist groups menacing our communities,” and his choice of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate have solidified Biden’s already strong support among Black voters.
Now, he is launching direct appeals to working-class Whites, particularly those who voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but shifted to Trump in 2016. “A lot of White working-class Democrats thought we forgot them and didn’t pay attention,” Biden told reporters during a visit to Pennsylvania this month. “I want them to know . . . I get it. I get their sense of being left behind.”
He drove the appeal home in a speech in Erie, Pa., last weekend. “The president can only see the world from Park Avenue,” Biden said. “I see it from Scranton. . . . That’s why my program to build back better is focused on working people.” On Monday in Toledo, he said of Trump: “His only metric for American prosperity that he values is the Dow Jones.”
He seems to be getting through. Steve Rosenthal, a union strategist with access to labor polling, said Biden was “running a solid 10 points ahead of where Hillary Clinton was in union households nationally,” and even better in swing states.
There’s irony in how Trump’s 2016 victory pushed Democrats in a more progressive direction on economic and class issues.
The success of a right-wing candidate might typically be expected to pull a center-left party closer to the middle. But precisely because Trump won the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin due to defections among disgruntled blue-collar voters, he brought home — even to Democrats who are middle-of-the-road on economic questions — the need for a more populist appeal and more thoroughgoing economic change.
A second irony: Because labor Democrats are often seen as old school, Biden’s arguments are inherently reassuring and carry moderate resonances. But creating a labor liberalism for the 21st century would be no small achievement. In his benign and prudent way, Joe Biden is in the business of fundamentally restructuring American politics.