Joe Biden had a revealing exchange with a reporter at a campaign stop in Iowa last week, one that put the ideological divide between him and his fellow Democratic primary candidates into stark relief. The reporter asked Biden — who by this point in the interview was visibly exhausted — why Iowans should vote for him or, indeed, any other Democratic candidate with the statewide unemployment rate at well below 3 percent under the Trump administration. As the Obama legacy’s apparent heir, the former vice president replied that Trump had inherited a recovering economy from Obama. “They were employed before [Trump] got elected,” he said, “He’s not the reason for that employment rate being down.”
The former claim isn’t strictly true — the unemployment rate in Iowa was 3.4 percent when Trump first took office, and at last count was down to 2.5 percent — but the local reporter, if she knew that, did not point it out. Instead, she responded by asking why, even if Biden’s claims were true, “people [should] want to make a change” at all. After (parsimoniously) insisting that it is “up to [Iowans] to decide,” she pressed Biden yet again: “Make your case.” Biden, running out of steam, dejectedly insisted “I’m not going to.”
Putting aside the bizarre spectacle of a presidential candidate who refuses to make a case for himself, and the related and much-remarked-upon specter of Biden’s declining public lucidity, it’s worth examining the significant rift between Biden and the other leading Democratic candidates that this episode suggested.
If the other Democratic frontrunners — Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in particular — had been asked about the putative economic successes of the Trump administration, they would have followed a predictable script in keeping with their past remarks, attacking the premise of the question. They would have dismissed the numbers out of hand, invoking stagnant wage growth and rising inequality as evidence that the traditional indicators used to measure the health of the domestic economy — GDP, unemployment rate, and, to a lesser extent, inflation — are insufficient. They would have argued that those indicators fail to capture the brutality of a system that works for “the rich and powerful,” don’t consider the costs of health care, and, centrally, fail to account for the distribution of the spoils of growth. Any assertion to the contrary — that declining unemployment numbers and improved growth indicators portend a generally healthy economy — is a sign, to a certain type of Democrat, that you don’t understand what the “real economy” looks like.
Here, for example, is Sanders on Twitter:
Despite what President Trump says, it is not “a hot economy” when 43% of households can't afford to pay for housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a cell phone without going into debt. That is not a hot economy. #SOTU
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) February 6, 2019
Here’s Warren on MSNBC:
There was a time when saying, ‘Hey the unemployment rate has gone down,’ that [was] a great thing. But you know, when people are working at minimum-wage jobs that won’t support them or they’re working two, three, or four jobs to try to pay the rent and keep food on the table, then simply saying ‘The unemployment rate figures have gone down’ just doesn’t get you there.
And here’s Cory Booker on CNN:
I love that Trump is taking credit for a recovery that started under Obama, but the substance [is] this: Who is this economy going to work for? And we had a tax plan that was all about giving the wealthiest people more, more of a break. My vision for this country is that we will target things like a massive increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit to actual workers. We’ve got to make sure that this is a shared recovery, because right now, it definitely is not.
It’s almost too obvious to note that this basic narrative — that the economy is not what it seems, that the official figures on growth and jobs are, at best, oblique indicators of economic reality — has percolated through the organs of progressive thought for some time and has recently become a central feature of Democratic politics. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously insisted that the only reason the unemployment rate was so low was “because everyone has two jobs,” which, of course, betrayed a complete misunderstanding of how the rate is actually measured. With similar distaste for the established metrics of economic success, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer floated a proposal to require the Bureau of Economic Analysis to track the distribution of income growth coincident with its work tracking gross levels of economic growth. “This legislation,” said the press release, “seeks to cut to the heart of the matter and present a clear and accurate picture of who the economy is really working for.”
Both amount to the less-intelligent version of the picture painted by the Economic Policy Institute and similar groups, which contend that wage growth for the ordinary worker has stagnated since about 1973, with productivity well outpacing the expected returns to the labor force. Of course, if you measure productivity differently, you’ll get different results. But whatever their merits, these paradigmatic critiques of the economy — which, of course, have a long history — have filtered down from, inter alia, the blogosphere, Thom Hartmann’s radio show, and the progressive think-tank world to the mainstream of the Democratic conversation and the vernacular of all its presidential front-runners.
Well, almost all its presidential front-runners. There is still Joe Biden, who, by lapse or intent, seems not to be running a campaign built for the economically dark world his fellow partisans describe. The proposed policy reforms outlined on his website are, much like his public rhetoric, more narrow than systemic, more cautious than bold, more practical than idealistic. They are not the platform of someone who thinks the economy and the country are in dire straits. That almost all of his presidential rivals seem to think those things makes for a primary campaign between two starkly different visions of where the country is and where it should go. The outcome will tell us precisely which vision the Democratic base subscribes to.