Biden should run on a message of abundance
Things are going pretty well in America, and Biden's policies have largely helped.
The presidential campaigns are heating up, and pretty soon Joe Biden will have to make the case for his reelection. Of course, he can always fall back on a negative message — Donald Trump is an agent of chaos, and every day seems to bring new reminders of that fact. But Americans don’t enjoy voting for the lesser of two evils — they will want to hear why Biden is actively good.
This can be tricky; I’ve seen cases where a candidate chose the wrong message. Most notably, I remember Al Gore in 2000 trying to pivot to a sort of left-populist message of “the people vs. the powerful”. It was a very odd choice for a candidate who had just been Vice President for eight years of prosperity. First of all, with average Americans doing better economically than they had ever done before, why would they be in the mood to introduce disruptive class conflict into the equation? It seems like a “stay the course” type of message, like what George H.W. Bush had used in 1988, would have been smarter. And second of all, if 2000 was the time to launch a populist crusade, why hadn’t Al Gore done that during the previous eight years? Anyway, it didn’t seem to work out too well for Gore.
I think Biden may be tempted to make a similar mistake. His support for Israel has gotten a number of left-leaning young people mad at him (with a little assist from TikTok). One way to shore up this weakness might be to embrace some things that left-leaning young people like, such as a leftist stance on climate policy. This would, in my view, be a mistake.
Biden has given us cheaper energy and struck a blow against climate change in the process
Most leftist climate activists, including the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg, and so on, are still very much mentally stuck in the world of 2010 or earlier. In this worldview, only immediate and punishing reductions in consumption by the people of the rich world can avert catastrophic global disaster. That might have been true a long time ago, but today it’s pure fantasy. First of all, the developed world is shrinking rapidly as a source of global carbon emissions relative to China and the rest of Asia (and no, it’s not because of outsourcing).
But more importantly, big changes in technology mean that the world no longer faces a choice between maintaining modern standards of living and saving the climate from disaster. Cheap solar and batteries — which are still getting cheaper every year — have utterly changed the equation. We no longer face a choice between abundance and climate stability — thanks to cheap green energy, those goals are now one and the same.
Climate wonks and energy wonks are aware of this fact. Businesses are too; this is why Texas, a deep red state, has now surpassed California in solar power.
Texas is also powering ahead with battery storage.
That simply would not be happening if solar were an economically inefficient, expensive form of energy. There is no way that Texans would be building solar at a massive clip if doing so represented an economic sacrifice or a diminution of their standard of living. Ergo, it follows that solar power is not something that makes us poorer. Solar and batteries mean energy abundance — they mean Americans get to consume more, not less. They get cheap electricity for their homes, they get cheap water from solar-powered desalination, and so on.
This is the climate message I think Biden needs. His signature climate policy was called the “Inflation Reduction Act” for a reason. The idea was that cheaper electricity from solar and wind power would push down costs for companies, and thus reduce inflation. The IRA probably hasn’t done anything to lower inflation yet, but the fact that they gave it that name shows that Democrats explicitly conceived of it as an energy abundance policy. So a good message is that we’re generating cheaper, more plentiful electricity for Americans, while also fighting climate change in the process.
In a recent post, Matt Yglesias argued that Biden should focus entirely on a message of cheap energy in general, instead of climate change specifically:
Biden has enacted by far the most consequential climate policies of any president in American history…[But] Biden and the Democrats should triangulate ruthlessly on energy, brag about their successful all-of-the-above [energy] policy, basically never mention climate change, and not enact any new climate-focused policies whatsoever.
I think there’s merit in this suggestion. For example, Biden should absolutely brag about the fact that he helped push U.S. oil production to an all-time high:
As Bill Scher reported in the Washington Monthly a year ago, a lot of this really is Biden’s doing:
After Biden took office, his administration kept issuing oil and gas permits and did so at a slightly faster pace than his predecessor Donald Trump. The health care and energy bill Biden signed last year—the awkwardly named Inflation Reduction Act—yokes oil and gas lease auctions to wind and solar projects on federal lands and blesses such leases in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Cook Inlet.
This has driven gas prices lower. Gasoline is now cheaper than it was a decade ago, and relative to average wages it’s much cheaper:
And this is in the face of OPEC production cuts! That’s something Biden can absolutely brag about.
And he should also brag about how he’s loaning money to shuttered nuclear plants so they can restart operations:
The Biden administration is poised to lend $1.5 billion for what what would be the first restart of a shuttered US nuclear reactor, the latest sign of strengthening federal government support for the atomic industry…The financing comes as the Biden administration prioritizes maintaining the nation’s fleet of nuclear plants to help meet its ambitious climate goals — including a plan to decarbonize the electricity grid by 2035.
The common theme here is energy abundance for the American people.
Including cheap oil and nuclear along with cheap solar and batteries will strike leftist climate activists as a betrayal. But those activists were never going to endorse Biden anyway. They didn’t in 2020, after all.
Meanwhile, Greta Thunberg and many other climate activists seem to be moving on to pro-Palestine activism, while others engage in performative stunts like throwing soup at the Mona Lisa. The “climate left” is not a group of people who can be pleased or appeased by a liberal President like Biden, nor are they a group whom most Americans would like to see appeased.
In other words, Biden should ignore the doomers and focus on a sunny, upbeat message of energy abundance. His policies have helped a lot in that department, and he should take credit for them.
Biden should also embrace a sunny, optimistic message on the economy.
Bidenomics is succeeding, so run on that record
Forty years ago, Ronald Reagan ran for reelection on a platform of sunny economic optimism. This was typified by his famous “Morning in America” ad, in which he trumpeted falling inflation and falling interest rates:
Biden can’t yet brag about falling interest rates. But he can brag about an economy that in most ways outshines the one Reagan enjoyed in 1984. For example:
In 1984, unemployment was 7.5%; in 2023, it was less than half as high, at only 3.6%.
In 1984, interest rates were over 10%; as of today, they’re 5.33%.
In 1984 the S&P 500 returned only 1.4%, after 17.3% in 1983. In 2023 it returned 24.2%.
Objectively, 2024 is morning in America.
Subjectively, Americans are starting to recognize this. While it’s too early to say the electorate is feeling optimistic, it’s clear that excessive pessimism is fading:
The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index rose 9.1 points, the biggest monthly advance since 2005, to 78.8…[T]he pickup in optimism was broad, with improvements across age, income and political affiliation. More than half of households expect their incomes to grow at least as fast as inflation…Consumers’ perception of their current financial situation rose to a two-year high, while expectations for future finances climbed to the highest since 2021.
As a side note, it’s interesting that economic sentiment was also in the dumps at the start of 1983, after a decade of high inflation and two recessions. Over 1983, there was a huge and sustained increase that resulted in the optimism that prevailed by the time Reagan ran his famous ad:
Anyway, Biden has a huge chance here to play the part of Reagan, and remind people that the economy is good. The alternative, of course, would be to play to part of Carter, dolefully lamenting a “crisis of confidence” that may already be passing.
Of course Biden will naturally want to take credit for the improvements, as any candidate would. How much does it make sense for him to do so? Basically, Biden has done four things that might have given the economy a nontrivial boost:
He kept Jerome Powell as Fed Chair, instead of appointing a more dovish chair who might have allowed inflation to run rampant.
He allowed a lot of oil drilling on public lands and encouraged some other countries to start pumping more oil. This helped push down oil prices, giving a boost to the real economy while helping restrain inflation.
He enacted major industrial policies (the CHIPS Act and the IRA) that resulted in a boom in factory construction and hiring in the manufacturing sector.
He kept fiscal deficits fairly large, which might have counteracted the drag on aggregate demand from higher interest rates, and thus keeping the real economy healthy.
If I were Biden, I wouldn’t brag about #4 here, because most people are pretty scared of federal budget deficits. But the other three are good to talk about.
The factory construction boom should especially be a point of pride. In inflation-adjusted terms, this is the most that U.S. businesses have spent on new factories in quite a while.
This boom is in large part a result of the CHIPS Act and the IRA, both of which subsidized investment by the private sector in specific strategic technologies — semiconductors and batteries, respectively. The boom is providing construction jobs today, and in a couple of years when the factories are completed, it’ll provide manufacturing jobs and — most importantly — a flood of real goods.
Those current and future benefits are certainly worth trumpeting. But perhaps even more important is what the factory building boom represents — it represents an administration that actually gets things done.
If you look at the chart above, you’ll notice that there was no factory construction boom at all under Trump — in fact, spending declined in real terms. That was despite the overall strong economy. And it was despite the fact that Trump had come into office explicitly promising to return manufacturing to American shores. Despite tariffs and a whole lot of bluster, he never managed to make any sort of actual progress toward reshoring American manufacturing.
But Biden has. Biden is a lot quieter about manufacturing promotion than Trump was, but it turned out that he was speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Trump talked a big game about reshoring factories; Biden simply went and did it.
So if I were Biden, my campaign message would probably go something like this: After years of stress, Americans deserve a break. Instead of being told that society is crumbling and everything is horrible and we can only fix it by electing a bellowing demagogue, they deserve to treat themselves a bit. They deserve cheap electricity, cheap gas, and cheap housing. They deserve jobs, rising incomes, and rising wealth. And finally, thanks at least in some small part to the policies of the Biden administration, they’re getting what they deserve.
I am no political expert — not by a long shot. But to me, this sounds like a very natural message for an incumbent to run on.