If Joe Biden rolls on from a surprising Super Tuesday surge to secure the Democratic nomination, he’ll have Rep. James Clyburn to thank. The popular South Carolina congressman withheld an endorsement for Biden until just before his home state voted on Saturday. Biden, of course, handily won there, setting the stage for last night. But Clyburn’s blessing also came with pointed criticism. Biden, he said, was suffering from a lack of emotion. During an appearance on MSNBC Tuesday night, Clyburn argued that Biden had devoted too much time to “laying out policy.”
“People were not feeling it,” Clyburn said. “They were not feeling him. So I wanted his speechmaking to be more feeling.”
The trouble with Clyburn’s point is that Biden has not, in fact, laid out very much policy. On economic policy, in particular, Biden not only doesn’t have the right ideas to take on a right-wing populist like President Donald Trump, but he doesn’t seem to have any ideas.
On his campaign website, Biden argues: “This country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers and CEOs and hedge fund managers. It was built by the American middle class.” It’s a nice sentiment. But Biden doesn’t have a Wall Street reform plan. Even the short-lived campaign of lifelong bank backer Mike Bloomberg released a paper detailing how he’d decided to get tough on his old friends.
The same is true for trade policy. Last year, Biden refused to say whether he supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership ― the trade deal he pitched as then-President Barack Obama’s vice president. When the California Trade Justice Coalition asked candidates to fill out a survey on trade policy ahead of the state’s primary, Biden didn’t even bother to respond, whereas Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and billionaire Tom Steyer all agreed to detail their positions on key trade matters.
Trade policy will be a big deal in 2020. It has been the central economic focus of Trump’s entire term in office, and he will be trumpeting a new bipartisan trade pact with Mexico supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself as proof that he made good on his campaign promises to stick it to Mexico, however misleading this line may be. It may well have been the decisive issue in the 2016 campaign. Biden’s strategy thus far has been to hope it just goes away. It won’t.
When Biden does make concrete commitments, they’re not terribly ambitious. Like every other Democrat running for president, he has pledged to repeal the Trump tax cuts for the super rich and corporations. He’s also said he wants to close the capital gains loophole for multimillionaires, making a vague pledge to increase taxes on stocks, bonds and real estate owned by the ultra-rich. But Biden doesn’t get specific, while Warren and Sanders offer explicit, detailed tax rates, asset thresholds and revenue estimates for a much more aggressive wealth tax targeting the rich. Biden’s initiatives might slow the acceleration of American inequality back to the rate seen during the Obama administration ― but they will not fundamentally address its causes.
The ostensibly progressive keystone of Biden’s platform is a nationwide $15 minimum wage. This would make a difference for millions of workers. But there’s a reason why just about every 2020 presidential hopeful across the ideological spectrum made the exact same commitment during their campaigns. A $15 minimum wage just isn’t that big of a deal anymore.
Labor unions have now been waging the Fight for $15 for nearly eight years. During that time, much of the purchasing value of that $15 an hour demand has been eaten away by the rising cost of living. Based on nationwide consumer price inflation alone, $15 in 2012 is worth closer to $17 today. But this figure obscures how much more expensive life has become in major cities. In New York, for example, where the Fight for $15 first broke out, rental prices increased by a massive 33% between 2009 and 2017. So while New York now has a $15 minimum wage law on the books, its value seems much less impressive when rents have been rising twice as fast as wages.
Biden’s other more obviously progressive promise is on Social Security, in which he has pledged to boost the program’s minimum benefit payment to 125% of the poverty line and increase benefits for recipients who have been receiving payments for at least 20 years. A lot depends on the details of these plans, however, and Biden’s sudden pledge to expand Social Security is at odds with his consistent advocacy for Social Security cuts during his tenure in the Senate.
There’s more to Biden’s economic plan, but most of it involves piecemeal reforms ― small batches of funding to patch holes without any uniting vision or principle to hold it all together. There’s $20 billion for rural broadband infrastructure, $40 billion a year in research and development funding for green energy, an extra $1.7 billion a year in grants for new infrastructure programs and $4 billion a year for “transformational projects.” Biden’s promise to spend $100 billion to “modernize” American schools sounds like a lot of money ― but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $700 billion that the government ― federal, state and local ― already spends on education every year.
None of these initiatives are bad ideas. They won’t hurt anybody or break anything. But they won’t solve very much, either. Taken together, they amount to a pledge not to think too hard about America’s economic problems — or do too much to solve them.
If you believe that the only economic problem facing the United States is the current occupant of the White House, Biden’s economic pitch makes a great deal of sense. But Trump didn’t get elected out of nowhere. His thunder on the campaign trail in 2016 against rapacious bankers and trade ripoffs resonated not only with Republicans, but with many Democratic voters. If Biden wants to defeat that message in November, he’ll need to do better — or at least do something.