Joe Biden Needs to Do More Than Bash Donald Trump
The Punch and Judy show that Joe Biden and Donald Trump put on in Iowa on Tuesday was gold for social media and cable ratings—in terms of genuine news value and substance, not so much. Biden asserted that Trump represents a “fundamental threat” to the values, international standing, and democratic system of the United States, a truth that has been stated many times before. Trump called Biden “Sleepy Joe” and suggested that he was mentally weak. (For more on the back-and-forth, read the post by my colleague Eric Lach.)
The campaign theatre served both men’s immediate purposes. Trump views politics as prizefighting. During recent briefings about his 2020 reëlection campaign, he seemed distracted and tried to change the subject, the Times reports. The challenge from Biden, the former Vice-President, gives him something to focus on—and someone to attack. As for Biden, his campaign is largely based on the perception that he is the Democrat best placed to defeat Trump. It makes sense for Biden to go after Trump early and portray 2020 as a referendum on a rogue President. Such a framing plays to Biden’s strength in the early polls and, to some extent, it sidelines the other Democratic candidates.
But attacking the President, as much as it’s necessary, isn’t enough. Going forward, Biden also needs to explain how he would address the underlying problems that have disfigured American democracy and given a mountebank like Trump his chance: an alarmingly lopsided economy and an increasingly paralyzed political system. Making that case might help Biden inoculate himself against charges, coming from the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party, that he is an out-of-touch centrist. More importantly, it would demonstrate that Biden understands that the challenges facing the United States go far beyond one man, however loathsome he may be.
While Biden and Trump were in Iowa, I spent a bit of time with an invaluable resource that is now available on the Federal Reserve’s Web site: a set of Distributional Financial Accounts that provide detailed quarterly estimates of U.S. household wealth going back to 1989—two years after Biden launched his first Presidential campaign. These accounts show an alarming economic chasm that has grown wider and wider during the past three decades.
America has always been an inequitable place, of course. At the end of 1989, the richest one per cent of households had an over-all net worth—assets minus debts—of $4.83 trillion, while the entire bottom fifty per cent had a net worth of $0.77 trillion. That was a gaping divide, to be sure, but it pales next to the current one. At the end of 2018, the net worth of the top one per cent was $30.37 trillion; the net worth of the bottom fifty per cent was $1.17 trillion. Over the past three decades, the ratio between the two figures—a rough-and-ready measure of how fairly the economic spoils are being divided—has gone from about six to one to roughly twenty-six to one.
Biden, who has long positioned himself as a tribune of ordinary working families, is well aware of the surge in inequality and who has benefited from it. “This country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers and C.E.O.s and hedge-fund managers,” he said in the speech that launched his campaign. “It was built by you—the great American middle class.” He has also promised to take some remedial actions. “When I’m President we’re going to have a fairer tax code,” he said in Iowa on Tuesday. “We’re going to get rid of hundreds of billions of dollars in tax loopholes that have no economic or societal rationale. We’re going to build an economy that doesn’t just reward wealth; we’re going to build an economy that rewards work. We’re going to build an economy that works for everyone.”
At this stage, however, Biden’s economic pledges are lacking in detail. At a time when other candidates have promised to introduce a wealth tax (Elizabeth Warren), a sizable new tax credit for middle-class households (Kamala Harris), baby bonds (Cory Booker), and a federal jobs guarantee (Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders among others), Biden hasn’t yet laid out how he intends to halt, let alone reverse, the mushrooming inequality of the past few decades. He’s still got time, but he’ll need to be ambitious. The tendency for the very richest to swallow up most of the economic gains is now so well established that incremental measures are unlikely to have much impact on it.
An important reason that the plutocrats have fared so well over the past thirty years is that the G.O.P. has been resolutely defending their interests—Exhibit A: the Trump-G.O.P. tax cut of 2017—and blocking any countermeasures. During his second term, Obama put forward a number of progressive policy ideas, including eliminating the “basis step up” loophole in the tax code that that allows rich families to pass down wealth untaxed. The Republicans blocked every one of these ideas, refusing even to consider them. If Biden became President and the G.O.P. maintained control of the Senate, his Administration would surely receive the same treatment.
And yet, in recent days, Biden has been advertising his ability to work with Republicans should he make it to the White House. “With Trump gone, you’re going to begin to see things change,” he said at a fund-raiser on Monday night. “Because these folks know better. They know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing.” On Tuesday, the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pressed Biden about this remark, and he didn’t back down. “The system isn’t broken,” he said. “The politics is broken.”
That’s a pretty meaningless distinction. The system that Biden venerates depended on a willingness to make compromises, which in the case of the G.O.P. disappeared years ago. In their 2012 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein noted how the Republican Party had become “an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise … and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges.”
In a column about Biden’s statement at the fund-raiser, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent suggested that it amounted to political positioning. “Biden’s aides believe rank-and-file Democratic voters want to hear that their nominee will successfully work with Republicans,” Sargent wrote. “They cite polling that shows large majorities of Democrats see this as very important.”
Maybe that’s what is going on, but it adds to the impression that Biden believes Trump is a ghastly aberration, and that if we could just get rid of him everything would be fine. If that’s actually what he thinks, he really is out of touch.