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Biden’s Campaign Needs a Dramatic Gesture. So Here’s a Thought.

A steady diet of economic freedom—and naming the enemies who oppose it—can pack a punch.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

It’s pretty clear that Joe Biden needs something to pep up his reelection campaign. He’s 14 points underwater in terms of approval rating, and he’s tied in the head-to-head polls with a man who led an insurrection against the United States and “jokes” about suspending the Constitution.

Biden also faces some headwinds that he can’t do much, or anything, about. The main one is his age. Inflation is another. A possible Covid resurgence is a third. I don’t even want to spend too much time thinking about that one.

But there are still plenty of things he could do to add some vim and vigor to his campaign. The main one, to me, is simple: Send a clear message to working- and middle-class voters that he is the one who is on their side. Yes, he’s already doing some of this: He talks about unions all the time, and his entire economic frame—“middle-out economics”—is built around the idea of investing in the middle class.

But I would guess that most people don’t know what middle-out economics means beyond the catchphrase. Biden himself rarely defines it with more than one sentence; I’ve always wished he’d give a full, high-profile speech explaining the concept in more detail. I’d also argue this: We live in an age that requires the dramatic gesture. There’s so much white noise constantly coming at us that the high-profile speech (think Barack Obama’s oration on race in America) doesn’t make much difference anymore. And the age of dropping the odd op-ed in The New York Times or The Washington Post and expecting a day’s worth of news and discussion to follow in its wake is long gone.

Biden’s economic ratings in polls are crazy bad. Democrats are starting to grasp what an economic hole they’re in, thanks to Navin Nayak of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, who has led focus groups showing Democrats that voters associate them more with cultural issues than with economics. I’ve seen Nayak’s presentation, and it’s sobering.  

So, back to the dramatic gesture: What could Biden undertake that would stand a chance of providing an aggressive narrative framework for his campaign and maybe get people’s attention?

I take you back now to late 1943. Chester Bowles was a New Dealer and adviser to Franklin Roosevelt who was running the Office of Price Administration. By 1943, it was already clear that the Allies were likely to prevail in the war, and Bowles was thinking ahead to the transition to a peacetime economy, and about how to make sure that Americans’ standard of living would be better after the war than it had been before it. So around Thanksgiving of that year, while Roosevelt was preparing to head to Tehran for a Big Three summit, Bowles wrote the president a note suggesting that he give a speech that might go like this:

Therefore, I propose a second Bill of Rights in the field of economics: the right to a home of your own, the right of a farmer to piece of land, the right of the businessman to be free from monopoly competition, the right to a doctor when you’re sick, the right to a peaceful old age with adequate social security, a right to a decent education.

In his next State of the Union address, Roosevelt unveiled his proposal for an “Economic Bill of Rights.” It included eight bullet points covering the rights to work, food, clothing, and leisure; freedom from monopolies and unfair competition; additional rights to housing, education, medical care, and Social Security. Bowles had hoped that FDR would make this the centerpiece of his 1944 campaign. He did not. He ran mainly as a wartime president. He mentioned the matter only one more time, in a late-October speech in Chicago. But even those scant mentions committed the Democratic Party to a postwar program of economic Keynesianism.

I say Biden and his team should seriously think about going this route—and making the rhetorical commitment on which FDR passed. He should unveil a modern, updated Economic Bill of Rights and make it the centerpiece of his campaign. As for the planks, here are a few preliminary thoughts: a simple, straightforward declaration that he and the Democratic Party will take the side of average Americans over the rich; a right to a job for anyone who wants one and a decent wage for anyone working full time; a right to basic health care; a right to equal treatment of all in the economic realm; a right to an affordable education. Additionally, there should be a clarion call against the pernicious influence of monopoly power, a commitment to continue fighting the effects of climate change, and a promise to act on the housing crisis.

Something like this says to people: We’re on your side. And it would need to do something else too. It has to name a few enemies. I think most people hear “I’m on your side” as an empty promise. But when “I’m on your side” is backed up by specific pledges to take on some specific powerful interests—the pharmaceutical lobby, the large meat processors, Elon Musk—then people pay a little more attention.

Politicians are known by the enemies they’re willing to make. And to be fair, Biden has been willing to make a few. He did recently go right at Big Pharma by rolling out the 10 drugs (after insulin) whose price Medicare will start negotiating. “We’re going to keep standing up to Big Pharma, and we’re not going to back down,” he said. 

I’m not sure I’ve heard a Democratic president say that quite so bluntly. And that’s good, because it’s only by naming a foe that you get people riled up. If I’m in Ohio, it’s all well and good to say, “Go Buckeyes.” But saying “F--k Michigan” packs a lot more punch. It makes people more ready to stand with you.

Biden has changed the economic direction of the country. But not many people save insiders and experts know that. And trying to offer a long explanation about the details to the masses is hopeless. But an Economic Bill of Rights stands the chance of reframing the economic debate and repositioning Biden, and the Democratic Party, as being more concerned about economic issues than anything else (of course, they still need to hammer the GOP on abortion rights, which is a huge winner).

It’s possible that we live in a time when dramatic gestures are passé (unless they’re outrageous and racist, like Trump’s Muslim ban). But I’m not so sure. I think an Economic Bill of Rights, with the right bullet points and the right specific language and the right enemies, can become the focal point of the election. It can reach some swing voters and, by harkening back to the Democrats’ greatest president, galvanize party loyalists. It can become the thing people talk about, the thing to which Trump and the Republicans have to respond. They’ll call it socialism. So be it. Is a living wage radicalism, or is it common sense? That’s exactly the kind of fight Biden needs to be willing to have.