the national interest

Biden’s Campaign Has a New, Populist Theme. Will It Work?

Changing things up. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Joe Biden began his campaign by framing it as a mission to salvage “the soul of America,” and to save it from the racism and indecency of Donald Trump. Over the last two days, he has revealed a new theme — Park Avenue versus Scranton — focused on economic populism.

Biden’s new pitch focuses on a different set of Trumpian vices than his divisiveness and bigotry. Biden portrays the president as a wealthy scion who inherited all his money, measures the economy solely by the stock market, and looks down on regular people. Biden has gone out of his way to cite the fact that he would be the first president in more than thirty years not to have an Ivy league degree (and drew applause from the Scranton crowd when he mentioned it Thursday night.)

“I spent a lot of my life with guys like Donald Trump looking down on me—looking down on the people who make a living with their hands, people who take care of our kids, clean our streets,” he said. Biden has even used this frame of Trump-the-imperious-snob to work in material that he might have previously used as evidence of norm-shattering. Biden quoted reports of Trump calling military volunteers “suckers” and “losers,” and using them to show Trump thinks he’s too good for regular Americans.

Is this new message smart? On the one hand, it’s strange to alter your message you’ve been hammering for more than a year and used to lead the polls consistently throughout. Biden has made enormous gains with college-educated white voters, who might be less attracted to populist economic themes. And he is attempting to center the campaign more as a direct contrast — Scranton Joe versus Park Avenue Donald — as opposed to a referendum on a highly unpopular incumbent whose campaign has been trying to turn the referendum into a choice election.

On the other hand, there’s also good reason for the change. One thing voters don’t know about Trump is that he inherited his money. Only 53 percent of Democrats, and 42 percent of Republicans, could identify Trump’s father as wealthy. That fact can undermine his claim to be a business genius who can produce an economic recovery. (Biden might need to spend more time explaining that Trump inherited a healthy recovery from the Obama administration and did not increase economic growth.) Biden’s straightest shot to winning the electoral college runs through upper-Midwest states that have disproportionate numbers of white working class voters.

Biden managed to go through the primary without committing himself to any of the unpopular parts of the progressive agenda, instead cherry-picking the popular parts: a public option, higher taxes on the rich, green energy build-out, tax cuts for families, and so on. Trump is always going to dominate the campaign — he is simply too outrageous not to command attention — but Biden could do more to call attention to his program.

In general, the Democratic party’s greatest advantage for decades has been the belief it represents the interests of working class people (and the Republican party’s biggest liability is its association with wealth). Trump overcame some of that disadvantage through a combination of rhetorically distancing himself from traditional Republican positions and behaving like such a lout that people assumed he could not have been born into privilege. But the whole populist masquerade was always a lie. Trump gave up his populist promises — there was no terrific health insurance for everybody, no tax increase on himself, no infrastructure bill — and governed as a traditional Republican, just more corrupt and authoritarian. His tax cut for the rich is unpopular, and he is reduced to promising that the other domestic programs will come along any day now.

The facade was begging to be torn down. And now that is how Biden is planning to go at him.

Biden’s Campaign Has a New, Populist Theme. Will It Work?