Friday’s unexpectedly strong jobs report has made trickier the already difficult task Joe Biden faces in outlining his economic agenda. As the general election approaches, the former VP confronts a choice: call for the restoration of an economy to a pre-COVID norm or frame the pandemic as a pivot point for reimagining America’s basic economic structures.
From a purely substantive standpoint, Biden’s options are not all that complicated. The widespread belief is that there simply is no going back to a time before COVID. While the economy may have added 2.5 million jobs in May, studies project that roughly 40 percent of the jobs lost because of the pandemic will not return. Even under Friday’s positive headlines, there were worrying signs. While those who were temporarily laid off during the pandemic began going back to work, the number of people who had permanently lost their jobs rose by nearly 300,000.
That didn’t stop President Donald Trump from crowing about restoration. In a 40-minute, almost entirely extemporaneous address on Friday morning, the president pledged that the country “will go back to having the greatest economy in the world” and that the recovery would be even better than a V-shaped bounce back. “This,” he said, ”is a rocket ship.”
On a fundamental level, that may seem strangely off-key. With unemployment still in double digits, Trump’s happy talk about rocket ships runs the risk of seeming insensitive or out-of-touch. But even some Democrats acknowledge that there is an element of nostalgia to the idea of simply going back to what the country had—and that it could prove politically persuasive.
“It’s somewhat reminiscent of when Trump said he was going to bring back manufacturing jobs or coal miner jobs,” said Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur turned upstart presidential candidate. “When folks heard that, on some level they didn’t actually believe that those jobs were going to come back. But, still, it spoke to their pain. The easiest thing to express politically is: we’re going to get you back on your feet. That’s the easiest thing to say. People like to hear that. But is saying it going to make it happen? No.”
Wary of ceding the argument to Trump, Democrats say it is imperative that Biden begin formulating a plan that the public finds both transformative and tangible. Economic uncertainty can be a profound electoral force—as witnessed in the 2008 elections. But voters, they say, are inclined to move to the candidate promising them a clearer future, not necessarily one making the case that the future will demand pain and sacrifice and be dependent on concepts like worker retraining and investments in emerging industries.
“Having a credible alternative to Trump's assurance that all will be well is going to be valuable,” said David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s 2008 top strategist. “You do need to offer hope. But at some point hope needs to be converted into tangible action. So he needs to strike that balance. He can’t be maneuvered into a position where Trump is the purveyor of hope and optimism and Biden is a naysayer.”
For those who have worked in this space, however, it is reductive to see the debate as an either/or, in which restoration is an easier political sell than transformation. In fact, they argue, the opposite may very well be true.
The pre-COVID economy had low unemployment levels, but it also had systemic inequality, incredible concentrations of wealth and power, and a fraying social safety net that became painfully exposed by the pandemic. Even the measures meant to help stave off economic ruin caused by the pandemic, they note, skewed towards the connected and well-financed, with the small business lending program being a prime example. Pledging to tackle those issues as part of the recovery could be more electorally tenable than leaving them unaddressed.
“I think what COVID has done is it has brought this longer-term debate forward in the most in-your-face possible way. That’s just the reality,” said Sarah Miller, who runs the American Economic Liberties Project, a new anti-corporate monopoly group. “From my perspective, reorientation of policy to confront monopolies and corporate power is not a radical or extreme position. The status quo is a radical and extreme situation actually. What we want to do, basically, is prevent large corporations from stealing from workers and consumers and small businesses and to give entrepreneurs and small businesses a fair shake.”
Biden’s team seems to recognize the notion that economic transformation is salable, though perhaps not as deeply as others had in the Democratic field. He has talked mostly in generalities about using antitrust laws to tackle monopolies and endured criticism for either being too modest or lacking specifics on policies like expanding childcare.
On Friday, he said he’d soon be unveiling an economic plan which would center on infrastructure, wage increases, and investments in “innovation,” manufacturing and “care-giving.” He stressed that the three-pronged crises around public health, jobs, and inequity and indignity endured by African Americans were interconnected.
His larger frame was that the pre-COVID norm was a launching pad but not necessarily something for the scrap heap. What the country needed, Biden said, was “not just to build things back to the way they were before COVID-19, but to build back better.”
Democrats are eager to hear more. Ben Labolt, another former Obama adviser, stressed the need to reimagine the bloodlines of the economy for an age in which in-person services may be considered a relic. “The last financial crisis led to the creation of the gig economy,” he noted. “What new industry can emerge from the challenges facing our country today?”
Miller called for a “reorientation of how government functions vis-à-vis consolidated corporate power.” Tech platforms, she said, needed to be broken up and regulated, and Biden would be wise to outline a proposal that would address the issues that COVID exposed, from inequality in the health-care system to national security fragilities.
Yang said that his talk with Biden had left him convinced that both he and the campaign understood the severity of the challenge ahead. But he also didn’t sugarcoat how daunting he felt that challenge would be. “It’s going to be millions of jobs [lost] among people that have like the lowest level of financial stability,” he said. “So that the level of despair in the country is going to skyrocket to depression levels. And there’s nothing on the table that’s going to fix that.”
And then there was Tom Perriello, a former congressman and now the executive director for U.S. Programs at the Open Society Foundations. He spoke about the post-COVID need to tackle touchstones like employer-sponsored health care, to invest in paid leave and childcare, and to address the fragility of infrastructure and supply chains. But he also said Biden would be wise to talk about restoration in the present and then push for transformation when he took office.
For those worried, Perriello had a fairly bold idea for how Biden could alleviate their fears. The former VP, he advised, should announce forward-thinking cabinet members before the actual election.
“Biden has compelling reasons to announce a few senior appointments together,” said Perriello. “First and foremost, the scale of this pandemic and its economic fallout truly demands senior officials ready to operate at full speed on Day One. They should feel a moral urgency to start building their teams and plans immediately. Secondarily, no individual VP choice can energize every part of the Obama coalition—demographic or issue groups—that needs reinforcement. Putting too much pressure on a single appointment almost guarantees it will cause backlash.”