WASHINGTON, DC – Populism surged in response to the 2008 financial crisis. On the political left in the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement, overblown concerns about income inequality, and Bernie Sanders’s unexpectedly strong 2016 presidential primary campaign signaled a large shift from the more centrist politics of the pre-Great Recession era. On the right, of course, Donald Trump rode a wave of populist grievance, xenophobia, and nationalism to win the White House.
Promising a return to normalcy, Joe Biden then beat Sanders in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary and defeated Trump in the general election. Yet in his 2023 State of the Union address – which should be viewed as the roadmap for a potential re-election campaign – Biden, too, offered an ample serving of populism. Despite his defeat of an incumbent president in 2020 – an uncommon feat in US history – Biden apparently thinks that the 2024 election will unfold in a Trump-Sanders world.
Consider how Biden positioned himself on four key issues. First, he advocated “buy American” policies for government contracts, championed domestic manufacturing workers, and criticized previous administrations for not doing enough on this front. He then announced “new standards to require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects” – from lumber, glass, and drywall to fiber-optic cables – “to be made in America,” declaring, “On my watch, American roads, American bridges, and American highways will be made with American products.”
Second, Biden championed the “record number of personnel working to secure the border, arresting 8,000 human smugglers and seizing over 23,000 pounds of fentanyl in just the last several months.” He then urged Congress to pass his “plan to provide the equipment and officers to secure the border.”
Third, he took a hawkish tone on China, arguing that the US is now “in the strongest position in decades to compete with” the Chinese. “Winning the competition with China should unite all of us,” he averred.
Lastly, Biden criticized Republicans for allegedly wanting to cut spending on Medicare and Social Security, thus positioning himself as the protector of those programs. “If anyone tries to cut Social Security, I will stop them,” he declared. “And if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I will stop them.”
Biden would find no disagreement from Trump on any of these issues.
Of course, the president and his team would object to any comparison between him and his predecessor. They might point out that, along with increased border security, Biden also called for a pathway to citizenship for certain immigrants. Trump demonized immigrants and restricted their numbers. They might also note that it has long been a mainstream position in the Democratic Party not to reduce projected future spending on Social Security and Medicare – even though President Barack Obama was open to such cuts.
But even acknowledging such distinctions, Biden’s re-election roadmap shares much, in both contour and tone, with Trump’s brand of economic nationalism.
It also shares much with Sanders’s left-wing populism. Biden hammered big corporations and billionaires for not paying their “fair share,” and condemned “Big Oil” for its “outrageous” profits. Directly pitting “the people” against “the elites,” he said, “I think a lot of you at home agree with me that our present tax system is simply unfair.” He then called for a “billionaire minimum tax” and a quadrupling of the tax on stock buybacks.
To be sure, a few of the policies that Biden highlighted make sense. Offering a pathway to citizenship for unlawful immigrants brought to the US as children (the so-called Dreamers) in exchange for more measures to secure the border should be a no-brainer. Similarly, an increasingly hawkish posture toward China has become reasonable.
But populist and nationalist impulses nearly always lead to bad policy. “Buy American” will not create jobs; it will merely increase the costs facing taxpayers and lead to fewer infrastructure projects. Taxing stock buybacks will not stimulate investment; it will simply lead corporations to funnel excess cash toward dividend payments. And the president should be rooting for more billionaires, rather than stoking class conflict by demonizing them for their success and targeting them with punitive tax treatment.
Finally, anyone who has looked at the data knows that projected future spending on Medicare and Social Security must be cut to keep those programs viable for the low-income, low-wealth elderly who will depend on them most. If current trends continue, both programs – and interest payments on the debt – will devour the federal budget and slow productivity growth.
The US needs to move past populism, nationalism, and “grievance-onomics.” Doling out favors to selected industries and firms, denying fiscal reality, retreating from the world, and demonizing successful companies and individuals will not help typical workers and households.
Both parties should be competing over how best to strengthen the economy and increase participation in economic life. They should start from a position of optimism about the future. They should accept the empirical reality that hard work does pay off, and that Americans have agency. And they should reject the zero-sum, conflict-based thinking that underpins all varieties of populism and economic nationalism.
Biden isn’t Trump or Sanders. But he is foreshadowing a re-election campaign that will sound too much like them. He was supposed to bring us out of the unhelpful chapter that began with the 2008 crisis. Turn the page, Mr. President.
Michael R. Strain is Director of Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.