Joe Biden still doesn’t have a campaign theme

What will Joe Biden run on?

That question must be keeping Biden’s handlers up at night. The presumptive Democratic nominee needs a big bold theme to animate his campaign and excite voters; something like, for instance, “Make America Great Again.” Currently, his message is about as stimulating as cow’s milk.

With the election merely six months away, and the former vice president eager to deflect attention from Tara Reade’s accusations of sexual assault, Biden needs to break out. But how?

Some have suggested the former VP could campaign on reinvigorating our virus-crippled economy. After all, he’s running on President Obama’s legacy, and during the eight years he served as wing-man, the White House did oversee a recovery from the financial crisis.

But, the nation during that period chugged along in second gear; President Trump was elected in part because he promised to do better. That he did, putting the pedal to the metal and, through deregulation and lower taxes, causing optimism to surge and growth to accelerate.

Trump will campaign on reawakening the country’s animal spirits and overseeing a rebound, saying he did it once and he can do it again. Ironically, the excellent jobs market and increased incomes of just four months ago threatened to take away that major GOP campaign plank. Americans had become blasé about the robust economy; sadly, that is no longer the case.

Some advisers are pushing Biden to tout his management abilities, highlighting his oversight of the 2009 Recovery Act enacted to combat the Great Recession. After all, legislators are now spewing trillions of dollars across the land; taxpayers will want someone to watch where they land.

Republicans would love to revisit Biden’s role in directing that $787 billion stimulus program. While the Obama administration promised the spending would create 3.5 million new jobs within two years, the claim quickly pivoted to jobs “saved.” And, while Obama vowed that the budget-buster would keep unemployment below 8 percent, 2009 proved to be the first of four straight years when the jobless rate would top that level.

At the end of the first year, with $340 billion spent, then-Vice President Biden claimed the outlays had “created or saved” 640,000 jobs; that sounds pretty good, until we found out that only 30,000 of those jobs were in the private sector. Mainly, Biden funneled the funds to states and municipalities to plump up local budgets. Because teachers didn’t get laid off, their jobs were “saved,” though in reality most of those folks were not going to get pink slips anyway. Nice sleight of hand.

“My message today is that we’re on track,” Biden boasted at the time, even as unemployment neared 10 percent. He failed to mention that each job, by his calculations, cost $248,000.

In 2009, to his credit, Biden pressed local politicians not to spend stimulus funds on “stupid things.” But as the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, they ignored his advice and delegated only 10 percent to infrastructure. Worse, projects funded included $783,000 on a study of why young people consume malt liquor and marijuana, $92,000 for Army Corps of Engineers costumes for mascots like Bobber the Water Safety Dog and $219,000 on a study of college “hookups.”

Indeed, the late Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R-Neb.) published a detailed report on 100 such unnecessary and frivolous projects, including pumping stations for failed golf courses, anti-terrorism funding for a dinner cruise company and an anti-capitalist puppet show.

In 2010, Obama told the nation the stimulus money had “created or saved” two million jobs, a claim rated by Politifact as “Half True.”

So, maybe Biden shouldn’t focus on his management of the stimulus.

Still searching for a theme, Biden’s team recently decided he should run on getting tough on China, and ran an ad depicting Trump as “rolling over” for Beijing during this coronavirus shutdown. The suggestion is ludicrous. If President Trump has carved out new ground anywhere, it is in pushing back against China. The president has called out Beijing not only for unfair trade practices, but also for monstrous intellectual property theft and dishonesty on a wide range of issues, including the coronavirus.

In January when Trump cut off airplanes bringing visitors from virus-infected China, Biden called the president’s approach to Beijing “xenophobic.” Most Americans would describe his decision as critical.

Biden is correct that Trump has tried to keep his “phase one” trade deal intact even while criticizing Beijing for misleading the world about the Wuhan virus. But that agreement was good for U.S. farmers and manufacturers; indeed, it was a worthy first step towards leveling our trade relations and curbing China’s chronic theft of American know-how. Why junk a deal that was so hard-won?

Also, Beijing controls far too much of our drugs and medical supplies, and obliquely threatened to use that unfortunate dominance to hobble our fight against the pandemic. Going forward, Trump will need to wean the U.S. off such a reliance; that will be one of his campaign platforms, and it will resonate.

Meanwhile, Biden has a long history of appeasing China, including during his stint as VP. His son Hunter also muddies the water, having served on the board of a Chinese state-run firm. This will not be a winning issue for him.  

Democrats are already using the pandemic to push an agenda of “fairness,” arguing that the worst impact from the disease has been felt by minorities and low-income Americans. Some will respond to this message, which has energized progressive Democrats. But if the economy begins to rebound in the third quarter, as some economists project, Trump will remind voters that a robust jobs market is the best welfare program on earth.

He will be right. Never forget: It really is the economy, stupid.

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. Follow her on Twitter @lizpeek.

Tags 2020 presidential campaign 2020 presidential election American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Biden family China Donald Trump Hunter Biden Joe Biden Joe Biden John McCain Political positions of Joe Biden Presidency of Barack Obama Tom Coburn Trump

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