The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden and Trump battle in the Rust Belt, each glossing over his own record

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks about President Trump during a campaign stop in Warren, Mich., on Sept. 9. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
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President Trump and Joe Biden are aggressively seeking to exploit weaknesses in each other’s treatment of American workers as they blitz a trio of Rust Belt states plagued by economic decline.

Biden, the Democratic nominee, delivered a scathing rebuke of Trump’s economic stewardship in Michigan on Wednesday, bellowing outside an autoworkers union hall that the president had fallen well short of his promises to stem a tide of job losses and outsourcing. Biden presented a new proposal to penalize American companies for moving manufacturing and service jobs overseas and then selling their products back in the United States.

“He now hopes we don’t notice what he said, or won’t remember,” Biden said of Trump, his voice rising to a yell at times during his address. “He’s failed our economy and our country.”

Trump plans to hold a campaign rally at an airport hangar in Freeland, Mich., on Thursday. He is airing a commercial in the state that says the economy is “coming back to life” and portrays Biden as a threat to stall that progress. The president won Michigan by three-tenths of a percentage point in 2016, part of a shocking Upper Midwestern sweep that propelled him into the White House.

Four years later, Michigan, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where both candidates will be on Friday, have captured the attention of the two campaigns. Biden holds narrow leads in all three states in most polls. Both candidates are seeking to capitalize on economic anxiety in the region, deploying risky strategies that have drawn scrutiny to their records.

Although Biden is running on a staunchly economic nationalist platform promising huge new investments in American industry, he has faced criticism from Trump and even fellow Democrats for his past support of the North American Free Trade Agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership, both sweeping trade deals that have drawn the ire of labor unions.

And while Trump promised to bring back manufacturing jobs and crack down on the practices of some multinational companies, his populist rhetoric produced uneven and occasionally disastrous results in office. The number of manufacturing jobs in the United States has remained far below levels under previous administrations. Critics have argued his tax law encouraged firms to move abroad. And his trade war has devastated farmers in Midwestern states.

Biden’s trip to Michigan on Wednesday was his first since securing the Democratic nomination. He spoke at an autoworkers union regional headquarters in Warren, a suburb of Detroit that typifies the battlegrounds that strategists in both parties expect to determine the election. Warren is in Macomb County, where a previous generation of Democrats flipped to support Ronald Reagan and which twice voted for Barack Obama before supporting Trump for president.

“In 2016, those working people said, ‘You know what? Washington and Lansing, really? What have you all done for me? This is some rich guy from New York who made a lot of money for himself. Maybe he can help me, you know? Let me just try something different,’ ” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), whose district includes Warren. “A lot of people in Macomb County voted for him for economic reasons. And now they are going to vote against him for those very same reasons because he has not delivered.”

Biden’s speech underlined similar themes, and it served as one of his sharpest attacks yet on Trump, with the former vice president lambasting the president for comments he reportedly made disparaging fallen soldiers and remarks stating he sought to play down the dangers posed by the novel coronavirus. “It’s beyond despicable. It’s a dereliction of duty. It’s a disgrace,” Biden said.

But the economy was his main focus. Speaking against the backdrop of a large American flag and gleaming American-made vehicles, Biden called Trump’s trade policy “reckless and chaotic” and accused him of thrusting the country into recession.

He proposed a 10 percent surtax that would penalize American companies for moving manufacturing and service jobs overseas and then selling their products in the United States. He also promoted a 10 percent tax credit to spur businesses to invest in domestic job creation and boost the U.S. economy.

The surtax would apply to the profit that companies reap from U.S. sales of products or services rendered abroad instead of domestically. It would result in a 30.8 percent tax rate on such profit, Biden’s campaign said.

“I’m not looking to punish American business. But there’s a better way. Make it in Michigan. Make it in America,” Biden said.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced a tax credit incentivizing businesses to keep jobs in the United States on Sept. 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

His plans come on top of a previously released “Build Back Better” economic blueprint, which was designed to counter Trump’s “America First” agenda.

Biden’s critics prefer to zoom in on a different chapter of his résumé, pointing out his support as a senator for NAFTA and as vice president for the TPP, which Biden has since said he wants to renegotiate.

“Biden voted for NAFTA, pushed TPP and did China’s bidding for his entire 50 year career in Washington, DC,” the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted Tuesday. “He’s directly responsible for gutting the middle-class and sending American manufacturing jobs overseas. Don’t fall for his lies!!!”

Trump allies have looked to public opinion of the president’s economic record, which has generally been more favorable than support for his handling of the pandemic and other issues, as a ray of hope for winning a second term.

Advisers close to the president’s campaign say he has clear advantages in tying Biden to unpopular trade deals, higher taxes and banning fracking, though Biden has said he opposes new permits but not an outright ban on the process of extracting fuel from rock.

The president’s allies point to his confrontation with China over economic policy, as well as modest growth in some of the domestic industries he has shielded with protective tariffs. Trump has also pushed federal agencies to buy goods made in the United States. And while overseeing the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, Trump has supported trillions in new spending and measures such as extra unemployment payments and $1,200 stimulus payments for millions of Americans.

But Trump frequently has had to defend his decisions. The president has balked at Democratic calls to provide $1 trillion in coronavirus-related aid to states and cities. He has also made little progress on an infrastructure package he touted as a top priority. And his tax plan, signed in 2017, gave large breaks to corporations and the wealthy.

“In 2016, Trump went all over my state promising to be a different kind of Republican, like spending big on infrastructure and protecting Social Security. But in office, he has governed for the top 1 percent and has done absolutely nothing for workers,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Penn.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, citing the tax law and attempts to repeal President Barack Obama’s health-care law.

The contest over the Rust Belt has taken on more urgency than ever with two months left before the election, as Trump attempts to defend his 2016 gains and Biden tries to push voters back to their Democratic leanings. Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania all feature large urban areas with many liberal voters of color; moderate suburbs that have swung away from Trump since he took office; and White, rural areas still largely drawn to the president.

Beyond the economy, Trump is seeking to portray himself as a bulwark against violent protesters, and he has frequently stoked racial tension — divisive strategies he used against Hillary Clinton four years ago that have become hallmarks of his presidency.

Biden is casting himself as a unifying figure capable of healing the deep racial, political and economic wounds he says Trump has carved into the country. Chief among them, Biden has argued, is Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, including the devastating setbacks to the economy the virus caused.

“This is a recession created by Donald Trump’s negligence, and he is unfit for this job,” Biden said Wednesday.