Biden Echoes Obama’s Broken Promise to ‘Buy American’

In this June 30, 2020, file photo Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Joe Biden is taking a page from Barack Obama’s old playbook Thursday by proposing a $700 million ‘Buy American’ plan.

Economic nationalists stung by Obama’s betrayal of his similar promises in 2008 will be skeptical.

Biden is expected to release plans calling for a $400 billion, four-year increase in government purchasing of U.S.-based goods and services plus $300 billion in new research and development in U.S. technology concerns. Among other policies expected to be announced Thursday, he proposes tightening current “Buy American” laws that are intended to benefit U.S. firms but can be easily circumvented by government agencies.

That echoes a message that helped Obama and Biden win during the last recession. In the 2008 campaign, the Obama-Biden campaign ran “Buy American, Vote Obama” ads in states with large numbers of pro-labor voters. But that plan was scrapped just weeks after Obama took office.

“I think that would be a mistake right now,” Obama said in February 2009. “That is a potential source of trade wars that we can’t afford at a time when trade is sinking all across the globe.”

Biden did not provide any reassurance that the same considerations would not once again result in a post-election return to globalist trade policies. In fact, Biden has a far more extensive record of supporting trade liberalization than Obama did. He supported both the North American Free Trade Agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“We don’t need to guess what a Biden economy would look like since Americans have been forced to live through it once already,” Trump campaign spokesperson Hogan Gidley said in a statement Thursday.

The Biden plan, which mimics the rhetoric of Trump’s “America First” economic nationalism, seeks to take advantage of a weakness created by Trump administration officials who have stymied recent efforts by Peter Navarro to put that philosophy into policy. An executive order requiring federal agencies to buy medical supplies and pharmaceuticals produced in America has been left in draft form for months.

“That executive order has languished for months, however, amid objections by some of Trump’s other senior advisers, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who have warned that it could lead China to limit the supply of personal protective equipment, or PPE, that it is sending to the United States,” the Washington Post reported Thursday.
Despite the appearance of economic nationalism, Biden’s proposals appear to be incoherent and lack substance. Biden talks tough on China but also criticizes the tariffs the Trump administration has imposed, failing to indicate what policy tools a Biden administration would use to back up the rhetoric. Instead of the “speak softly but carry a big stick,” Biden’s plan appears to be to loudly implore China while carrying no stick at all.

The former vice president will discuss the proposals Thursday at a metal works concern in Dunmore, Pennsylvania. It’s the first of a series of addresses Biden plans as he shifts his line of attack against President Donald Trump to the economy. It’s political turf the Republican incumbent once considered a clear advantage before the coronavirus pandemic curbed consumer activity and drove unemployment to near-Depression levels.

An opening emphasis on manufacturing and labor policy is no coincidence: Biden wants to capitalize on his union ties and deliver on oft-made claims he can win back working-class voters who fueled Trump’s upset win four years ago.

Biden will continue in coming weeks with an energy plan to combat the climate crisis and a third package on what the campaign has dubbed the “caring economy,” with a focus on making child care and elder care more affordable and less of an impediment to working-age Americans. Campaign aides told reporters that all of Biden’s policies would target immediate recovery from the pandemic recession and address systemic inequalities Biden says are “laid bare” by the nation’s ongoing reckoning with racism.

“What’s going on here, we need to build back, not just to where we were but build back better than we’ve ever been,” Biden told the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on Wednesday. “We’re going to take a monumental step forward for the prosperity, power, safety and dignity of all American workers.”

Republicans nonetheless have made clear they will attack Biden on trade and the economy, framing the Democratic establishment figure as a tool of the far left on taxes and a willing participant in decades of trade policy that gutted American workers. Trump also has lampooned Biden as “weak on China.”

On trade, at least, it’s a similar line of attack that Trump used effectively against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Biden voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement in the Senate in 1994, an anchor of Trump’s criticism and Sanders’ attacks before that. One of Trump’s signature achievements is an overhaul of NAFTA, which he accomplished with backing from many Democrats on Capitol Hill. In more recent years, Biden has promised the include environmentalism and human rights in trade deals, something economic nationalists warn could shift the focus away from protecting American jobs and the U.S. manufacturing sector.

“Biden’s NAFTA destroyed 850,000 American jobs and his inexplicable support for China killed millions more and forced 60,000 American factories to close,” Gidley said.

The campaign’s outline ahead of Thursday emphasizes that Biden wants a resurgence in U.S. markets before engaging in new trade deals abroad. That includes joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Biden advocated when he served as President Barack Obama’s vice president. Trump opposed TPP as a 2016 candidate and fulfilled his promise to withdraw the U.S. from the deal. China is not a TPP member but could become one in the future.

Trump and Biden have called out China for unfair trade practices, but only Trump has a record of implementing policies to combat those practices.

Biden’s team insisted his approach falls within World Trade Organization rules, but aides also acknowledged that a Biden administration would try to modify an existing WTO deal, the Government Procurement Agreement, which effectively creates a shared open international market for participating governments to secure goods and services.

For now, Biden has not identified how he’d pay for the proposed new spending. Aides said he has identified revenue sources for all ongoing spending proposals but not for the one-time or short-term investments like the $700 billion in procurement and research. That raises the possibility that Biden could declare that spending to be deliberate deficit spending to stimulate the struggling economy.

The 2009 stimulus plan eventually included some Buy American provisions, over the objections of the Obama administration and largely at the insistence of Congressional Democrats, but these were so watered down that they were mostly symbolic. Even so, John McCain and other Republicans claimed they were too ‘protectionist’ and attempted to strip them from the bill.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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