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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brownstein: Biden Bets on the Working-Class

Ronald Brownstein explains “Biden’s Blue Collar Bet: The president hopes to cut many ribbons throughout the next two years” at The Atlantic. An excerpt:

Although Biden also supports an ambitious assortment of initiatives to expand access to higher education, he has placed relatively more emphasis than his predecessors did on improving conditions for workers in jobs that don’t require advanced credentials. That approach is rooted in his belief that the economy can’t function without much work traditionally deemed low-skill, such as home health care and meat-packing, a conviction underscored by the coronavirus pandemic.“One of the things that has really become apparent to all of us is how important to our nation’s economic resiliency many of these jobs are that don’t require college degrees,” Heather Boushey, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, told me this week.

Politically, improving economic conditions for workers without advanced degrees is the centerpiece of Biden’s plan to reverse the generation-long Democratic erosion among white voters who don’t hold a college degree—and the party’s more recent slippage among non-college-educated voters of color, particularly Latino men. Biden and his aides are betting that they can reel back in some of the non-college-educated voters drawn to Republican cultural and racial messages if they can improve their material circumstances with the huge public and private investments already flowing from the key economic bills passed during his first two years.

Biden’s hopes of boosting the prospects of workers without college degrees, who make up about two-thirds of the total workforce, rest on a three-legged legislative stool. One bill, passed with bipartisan support, allocates about $75 billion in direct federal aid and tax credits to revive domestic production of semiconductors. An infrastructure bill, also passed with bipartisan support, allocates about $850 billion in new spending over 10 years for the kind of projects Biden celebrated yesterday—roads, bridges, airports, water systems—as well as a national network of charging stations for electric vehicles and expanded access to high-speed internet. The third component, passed on a party-line vote as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, provides nearly $370 billion in federal support to promote renewable electricity production, accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, and retrofit homes and businesses to improve energy conservation.

Brownstein adds that “Biden could be cutting ribbons every week through the 2024 presidential campaign—which would probably be fine with him. Biden rarely seems happier than when he’s around freshly poured concrete, especially if he’s on a podium with local business and labor leaders and elected officials from both parties, all of whom he introduces as enthusiastically (and elaborately) as if he’s toasting the new couple at a wedding. At his core, he remains something like a pre-1970s Democrat, who is most comfortable with a party focused less on cultural crusades than on delivering kitchen-table benefits to people who work with their hands.”

That sounds like a wise strategy all Democrats ought to embrace. But that won’t be easy, as Brownstein notes:

…Biden, with his “Scranton Joe” persona, held out great hopes in the 2020 campaign of reversing that decline with working-class white voters, but he improved only slightly above Hillary Clinton’s historically weak 2016 showing, attracting about one-third of their votes. In 2022, exit polls showed that Democrats remained stuck at that meager level in the national vote for the House of Representatives. In such key swing states as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona, winning Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates ran slightly better than that, as Biden did while carrying those states in 2020. But, again like Biden then, the exit polls found that none of them won much more than two-fifths of non-college-educated white voters, even against candidates as extreme as Doug Mastriano or Kari Lake, the GOP governor nominees in Pennsylvania and Arizona, respectively.

Call it ‘restrained optimism.’ As Brownstein writes, “The Democratic pollster Molly Murphy told me she’s relatively optimistic that Biden’s focus on creating more opportunity for workers without a college degree can bolster the party’s position with them….Yet Murphy’s expectations remain limited. “Just based on the negative arc of the last several cycles,” she said, merely maintaining the party’s current modest level of support with working-class white voters and avoiding further losses would be “a win.” Matt Morrison, the executive director of Working America, an AFL-CIO-affiliated group that focuses on political outreach to nonunion working-class families, holds similarly restrained views, though he told me that economic gains could help the party more with nonwhite blue-collar voters, who are generally less invested in Republican cultural and racial appeals. No matter how strong the job market, Murphy added, Democrats are unlikely to improve much with non-college-educated workers unless inflation recedes by 2024.”

“What’s already clear now,’ Brownstein concludes, ” is how much Biden has bet, both economically and politically, on bolstering the economic circumstances of workers without advanced education by investing literally trillions of federal dollars in forging an economy that again builds more things in America. “I don’t know whether the angry white people in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin are less angry if we get them 120,000 more manufacturing jobs,” a senior White House official told me, speaking anonymously in order to be candid. “But we are going to run that experiment.”

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