WASHINGTON – Joe Biden stood in a Pennsylvania metal works shop, just miles from his boyhood home, and pledged to define his presidency by a sweeping economic agenda beyond anything Americans have seen since the Great Depression and the industrial mobilization for World War II.
The prospective Democratic presidential nominee promised the effort would not just answer a pandemic-induced recession, but address centuries of racism and systemic inequalities with “a new American economy” that “finally and fully (lives) up to the words and the values enshrined in the founding documents of this nation — that we’re all created equal.”
It was a striking call coming from Biden, a 77-year-old establishment figure known more as a back-slapping deal-maker than visionary reformer. But it made plain his intention to test the reach of liberal populism as he tries to create a coalition that can defeat President Donald Trump in November.
Trump and his Republican allies argue that Biden’s positioning, especially his ongoing work with progressives, proves he’s captive to a “radical” left wing. Conversely, activists who backed Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primary were encouraged, yet cautious, about Biden's ability to follow through while conceding that his plans on issues including climate action and criminal justice still fall short of their ideals.
Biden’s inner circle insists his approach in 2020 is the same it’s been since he was elected to the Senate in 1972: Meet the moment.
“He’s always evolved,” said Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longest-serving adviser. “The thing that’s been consistent for his entire career, almost 50 years, is he never promises things that he doesn’t think he can do.”
Kaufman, who succeeded Biden in the Senate when he ascended to the vice presidency, said Biden’s core identity hasn’t changed: “progressive Democrat,” friendly to labor and business, consistent supporter of civil rights, believer in government and the private sector. What’s different in 2020, he said, are the country’s circumstances — a public health crisis, near-Depression level unemployment, a national reckoning on racism — and the office Biden now seeks.
“If you want to get something done, encourage it,” Kaufman said. “What he learned over history watching campaigns is that you put forth a program, and then you come into office, and everybody involved knows that’s the program you’re offering.”