Can Biden find a third way between Trumpism and Obama-era globalism?
In announcing his picks for important foreign policy positions in his administration, President-elect Joe Biden called for a “foreign policy for the middle class.” And in a press release on his incoming economic team, Biden envisioned them addressing “the structural inequities in our economy.” But what would this look like in practice, and is it even possible? Can Biden’s foreign policy and economic teams find a “third way” between so-called Trumpism and Obama-era globalism?
“Bidenism” will no doubt face constraints from both the left and the right. But it might find some rare common ground as well. Indeed, adopting a pragmatic approach in both domestic and foreign policy that prioritizes those who were “left behind” will be key for both Democrats and Republicans moving forward.
Biden and his team need to show that “building back better” and “putting American workers first” are more than just empty campaign promises. And they know it. As expected, the nominated teams, which hail largely from the Obama and Clinton administrations, faced quick criticisms that they would seek a return to Obama-era policies. But recent comments from Biden’s nominees suggest that they recognize how the world and U.S. public opinion have changed since they were last in power. For the incoming foreign policy and economic teams, that means acknowledging the truth of Trump’s assertion, shared by progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), that globalization has failed many working-class Americans.
For example, on the foreign policy side, Jake Sullivan, whom Biden has said he will nominate as national security adviser, was an advocate for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal under Obama. But he has since acknowledged that such free trade agreements overlooked the costs to American workers. And Antony Blinken, whom Biden has tapped to be secretary of state, has noted that “rising nationalism” will need to factor into decisions regarding international cooperation.
Meanwhile Janet Yellen, whom Biden has announced he will nominate as Treasury secretary, has made similar comments regarding globalization’s shortfalls. Further, while focusing first and foremost on economic recovery from the pandemic, the incoming nominees have underscored long-term goals of addressing rising pre-pandemic inequality and unemployment gaps, especially in rural areas. And Biden himself, alongside members of his team, are engaging more substantively with labor union leaders.
Acknowledging workers’ grievances is a promising first step. But translating those concerns into meaningful policy on the foreign and domestic levels will be a bigger challenge, especially as the urgent challenges of the pandemic and recovery will take precedence over more structural aims. But these aren’t mutually exclusive; indeed, Biden’s “build back better” plan centers workers in recovery efforts, and members of the economic team, learning from Obama’s experience, have indicated that they will push back against accepting austerity policies that hamper recovery and hurt the working class most.
Of course, domestic policy will most likely be constrained by a Republican Senate and renewed debt concerns by conservatives. But there is a real interest for both Republicans and Democrats to identify and tackle the actual issues driving the economic grievances that fueled much of Trump’s populist resonance. And reorienting grievances around shared class interests may help dampen Trump’s racialized rhetoric around immigrants and demographic shifts, and counter some of the cultural cleavages that have contributed to unprecedented polarization in the U.S.
Biden’s foreign policy team is being defined largely by its multilateralist approach. But this is also a team of pragmatists who are well aware that many Americans feel alienated by perceptions of a foreign policy elite. Thus, while restoring relations with allies, they will be cautious of moves that undermine working-class interests at home, re-engaging with the diplomatic elements of globalism while being clear-eyed about the limitations of unbridled globalization. Indeed, Biden has stated that he will maintain many of the tariffs introduced by Trump, especially those on China, but Bidenism will seek more cooperation and coordination with allies in implementing those pressures.
Charting a third way between Trumpism and neoliberal globalism won’t be easy or automatic, but Biden and his team are already setting a promising tone in recognizing real economic grievances that were largely overlooked under the Obama administration and exploited under Trump.
Importantly, these grievances are not exclusive to party or ideology. Centering the working class in domestic and foreign policy is a rare opportunity for embracing relative consensus that could bridge rifts between and within both parties. Even if traditional politics stymie some of the policy ambitions of the new administration, a changing tone that engages seriously with working class interests will be a step in the right direction.
Julie Norman, PhD, is a lecturer in the department of political science at University College London (UCL) and a researcher at UCL’s Centre for US Politics. Follow her on Twitter @DrJulieNorman2.