In 2016, Donald Trump ran for president against his fellow Republicans and then against Hillary Clinton by promising economic nationalism: a break with the bipartisan enthusiasm for globalization, an end to outsourcing, a manufacturing revival, new infrastructure spending, frank competition with China instead of friendly integration.
Seven years later, President Joe Biden just gave a State of the Union speech whose key themes and most enthusiastic riffs could have been lifted — albeit with more Bidenisms and fewer insults — from Trump’s populist campaign.
There was an implicit condemnation of both parties for their neglect of the heartland and industrial policy and infrastructure. There was a lament for the forgotten man, the Americans “left behind or treated like they’re invisible” and “the jobs that went away.” And there was a none-too-subtle subtext in the policy boasts: What Trump once promised, I’m delivering. A bipartisan infrastructure bill. Tougher buy-American rules. Reindustrialization. Taking on Big Pharma. Big investments in technological competition with Beijing.
All of this was wrapped together with the most familiar of Democratic themes: Tax only the rich, don’t ever touch Social Security and Medicare, spend infinitely on education. Meanwhile, Roe v. Wade and the supposed crisis of democracy, so central to the Democrats’ midterm campaigns, were invoked as partisan rallying cries but mostly pushed deep into the speech, long after the president was finished with his main pitch — an argument for a new economic nationalism, brought to you by Blue Collar Joe Biden.
It’s a message whose potency Republicans underestimate at their peril — especially those Republicans intent on playing into Biden’s hands by reviving the worst ideas and strategies of the Tea Party era. Combine this kind of message and that kind of OP folly with the hoped-for economic soft landing of continued job growth and diminished inflation, and you can see the path to Biden’s reelection.
But the speech also included plenty of reminders of all the forces that can’t be mastered by infrastructure spending, China bashing and clever appropriations of Trump’s 2016 themes.
There’s the pain of the inflation rate, which is diminishing but still outstripping wage growth and for which there is no real Biden policy solution except hope that the trend line continues down. There’s the war in Ukraine, where the perils of escalation would still unravel the provisional successes of our policy. There are zones of concern or crisis like crime and the border, where the Trump imitation ends and the demands of Biden’s base make it hard for him to fully wrestle with the problems. And there’s the general spirit of malaise and bad feeling, the hangover from COVID and the shadow of drug addiction and atomized despair, that neither party can really answer — but that leaves progressivism with its faith in constant social progress particularly tongue-tied.
Finally, there’s the problem of Biden himself — coming off a better-than-expected midterm result, with decent economic news to boast about and yet still facing a landscape where a majority of his fellow Democrats don’t want him to run for reelection. Did he reassure some of those voters with his cheerful sparring, his gameness for answering GOP heckles? Or did he confirm their doubts with the way his ad-libs wandered and his longer teleprompter sentences slurred together?
In terms of this speech, this performance, I’d bet more on reassurance. But the campaign trail requires a lot of performances, and our oldest-ever president’s quest for four more years has a long, long way to go.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.