Biden’s Blue-Collar Bet

The president hopes to cut many ribbons throughout the next two years.

By Ronald Brownstein

When President Joe Biden visited Kentucky yesterday to tout a new bridge project, most media attention focused on his embrace of bipartisanship. And indeed Biden, against the backdrop of the GOP chaos in the House of Representatives, signaled how aggressively he would claim that reach-across-the-aisle mantle. He appeared onstage with not only Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, but also GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, a perennial bête noire for Democrats.

But Biden also touched on another theme that will likely become an even more central component of his economic and political strategy over the next two years: He repeatedly noted how many of the jobs created by his economic agenda are not expected to require a four-year college degree.

Throughout his presidency, with little media attention, Biden has consistently stressed this point. When he appeared in September at the groundbreaking for a sprawling Intel semiconductor plant near Columbus, Ohio, he declared, “What you’ll see in this field of dreams” is “Ph.D. engineers and scientists alongside community-college graduates … people of all ages, races, backgrounds with advanced degrees or no degrees, working side by side.” At a Baltimore event in November touting the infrastructure bill, he said, “The vast majority of these jobs … that we’re going to create don’t require a college degree.” Appearing in Arizona in December, he bragged that a plant producing batteries for electric vehicles would “create thousands of good manufacturing jobs, 90 percent of which won’t require a college degree, and yet you get a good wage.”

Economically, this message separates Biden from the past two Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Both of those men, as I’ve written, centered their economic agendas on training more Americans for higher-paying jobs in advanced industries (and opening markets for those industries through free-trade agreements), largely because they believed that automation and global economic competition would doom many jobs considered “low skill.”

Although Biden also supports an ambitious assortment of initiatives to expand access to higher education, he has placed relatively more emphasis than his predecessors did on improving conditions for workers in jobs that don’t require advanced credentials. That approach is rooted in his belief that the economy can’t function without much work traditionally deemed low-skill, such as home health care and meat-packing, a conviction underscored by the coronavirus pandemic.“One of the things that has really become apparent to all of us is how important to our nation’s economic resiliency many of these jobs are that don’t require college degrees,” Heather Boushey, a member of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, told me this week.

Politically, improving economic conditions for workers without advanced degrees is the centerpiece of Biden’s plan to reverse the generation-long Democratic erosion among white voters who don’t hold a college degree—and the party’s more recent slippage among non-college-educated voters of color, particularly Latino men. Biden and his aides are betting that they can reel back in some of the non-college-educated voters drawn to Republican cultural and racial messages if they can improve their material circumstances with the huge public and private investments already flowing from the key economic bills passed during his first two years.

Biden’s hopes of boosting the prospects of workers without college degrees, who make up about two-thirds of the total workforce, rest on a three-legged legislative stool. One bill, passed with bipartisan support, allocates about $75 billion in direct federal aid and tax credits to revive domestic production of semiconductors. An infrastructure bill, also passed with bipartisan support, allocates about $850 billion in new spending over 10 years for the kind of projects Biden celebrated yesterday—roads, bridges, airports, water systems—as well as a national network of charging stations for electric vehicles and expanded access to high-speed internet. The third component, passed on a party-line vote as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, provides nearly $370 billion in federal support to promote renewable electricity production, accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, and retrofit homes and businesses to improve energy conservation.

All of these measures are projected to trigger huge flows of private-sector investment. The Semiconductor Industry Association reports that since the legislation promoting the industry was first introduced, in 2020, companies have already announced $200 billion in investments across 40 projects in 16 states. The investment bank Credit Suisse projects that the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean-energy provisions could ultimately spur $1.7 trillion in total investment (in part because it believes that the legislation’s open-ended provisions will produce something closer to $800 billion in federal spending). And economists have long demonstrated that each public dollar spent on infrastructure spurs additional private investment, which could swell the total economic impact of the new package to $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion, the administration estimates.

Taken together, the three bills constitute a level of federal investment in targeted economic sectors probably unprecedented in recent U.S. history.“The kind of money we are going to see going into these sectors is just unheard-of,” Janelle Jones, a former chief economist at the Department of Labor under Biden, told me. Though rarely framed as such, these three bills—reinforced by other Biden policies, such as his sweeping “buy American” procurement requirements—amount to an aggressive form of industrial policy meant to bolster the nation’s capacity to build more things at home, including bridges and roads, semiconductors, and batteries for electric vehicles. “This is a president that is taking seriously the need for a modern American industrial strategy,” Boushey said.

These measures are likely to open significant opportunities for workers without a college degree. Some analysts have projected that the infrastructure bill alone could generate as many as 800,000 jobs annually. Adam Hersh, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, estimated that about four-fifths of the jobs created under an earlier version of the Inflation Reduction Act passed in the House would not require a college degree, and he told me he believes the distribution is roughly the same in the final package. A Georgetown University institute projected an even higher percentage for the infrastructure bill. More of the jobs associated with semiconductor manufacturing require advanced education, but even that bill may generate a significant number of blue-collar opportunities in the construction phase of the many new plants opening across the country. (The industry is also pursuing partnerships with community colleges to provide workers who don’t have a four-year degree with the technical training to handle more work in the heavily automated facilities.)

Yet even if these programs fulfill those projections, it remains unclear whether they will reach the scale to improve the uncertain economic trajectory for the broad mass of workers without advanced education. These three bills mostly promote employment in manufacturing and construction, and together those industries account for only about one-eighth of the workforce (roughly 21 million workers in all), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Total construction employment peaked in 2006, manufacturing in 1979. Far more workers, including those without degrees, are now employed in service industries not as directly affected by these bills.

What’s more, both of those occupations remain dominated by men. And largely because of resistance from Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Congress didn’t pass Biden’s companion proposals to bolster wages and working conditions for the preponderantly non-college-educated, nonwhite, female employees in the low-paid “care” industries such as home health care and child care. “We can’t [ignore] these millions and millions of care workers, particularly Black and brown women,” said Jones, now the chief economist and policy director for the Service Employees International Union.

Another complication for Biden is that his plans are colliding with the Federal Reserve Board’s drive to tame inflation. Spending on his big three bills is ramping up in 2023, which could increase the demand for—and bargaining power of—workers without college degrees. But the Fed’s push to slow the economy may neutralize that effect by increasing unemployment. “They are undercutting the job creation that we are supposed to be incentivizing,” Hersh said.

The list of further projects tied to these three bills is almost endless. The White House calculates that firms have announced some $290 billion in manufacturing investments since Biden took office; the Congressional Budget Office projects that spending from the infrastructure bill could be more than twice as high in 2023 as last year and then increase again by half in 2024.

That pipeline means Biden could be cutting ribbons every week through the 2024 presidential campaign—which would probably be fine with him. Biden rarely seems happier than when he’s around freshly poured concrete, especially if he’s on a podium with local business and labor leaders and elected officials from both parties, all of whom he introduces as enthusiastically (and elaborately) as if he’s toasting the new couple at a wedding. At his core, he remains something like a pre-1970s Democrat, who is most comfortable with a party focused less on cultural crusades than on delivering kitchen-table benefits to people who work with their hands. In his instincts and priorities, Biden is closer to Hubert Humphrey or Henry Jackson than to George McGovern or Obama.

Less clear is whether that throwback approach—the formula that defined the Democratic Party during Biden’s youth—still works politically. Over the course of Biden’s career, the parties have experienced what I’ve called a “class inversion”: Democrats have performed better among college-educated voters while Republicans have grown dominant among white voters without a college degree and more recently have established a beachhead among nonwhite, non-college-educated workers. For most of these voters, the evidence suggests that cultural attitudes have exerted more influence on their political allegiance than their economic circumstance has.

Biden, with his “Scranton Joe” persona, held out great hopes in the 2020 campaign of reversing that decline with working-class white voters, but he improved only slightly above Hillary Clinton’s historically weak 2016 showing, attracting about one-third of their votes. In 2022, exit polls showed that Democrats remained stuck at that meager level in the national vote for the House of Representatives. In such key swing states as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona, winning Democratic Senate and gubernatorial candidates ran slightly better than that, as Biden did while carrying those states in 2020. But, again like Biden then, the exit polls found that none of them won much more than two-fifths of non-college-educated white voters, even against candidates as extreme as Doug Mastriano or Kari Lake, the GOP governor nominees in Pennsylvania and Arizona, respectively.

The Democratic pollster Molly Murphy told me she’s relatively optimistic that Biden’s focus on creating more opportunity for workers without a college degree can bolster the party’s position with them. She said the key is not only improving living standards, but “validating that this is real work … not the consolation prize to a job that a college degree gets you.” No matter how many jobs Biden’s initiatives create, she said, “if you are treating them as lesser jobs, we are still going to have our problems from the cultural side of things.” Biden has certainly heard (or intuited) such advice. In his speeches, he commonly declares that an apprenticeship as an electrician or pipe fitter is as demanding as a college degree.

Yet Murphy’s expectations remain limited. “Just based on the negative arc of the last several cycles,” she said, merely maintaining the party’s current modest level of support with working-class white voters and avoiding further losses would be “a win.” Matt Morrison, the executive director of Working America, an AFL-CIO-affiliated group that focuses on political outreach to nonunion working-class families, holds similarly restrained views, though he told me that economic gains could help the party more with nonwhite blue-collar voters, who are generally less invested in Republican cultural and racial appeals. No matter how strong the job market, Murphy added, Democrats are unlikely to improve much with non-college-educated workers unless inflation recedes by 2024.

What’s already clear now is how much Biden has bet, both economically and politically, on bolstering the economic circumstances of workers without advanced education by investing literally trillions of federal dollars in forging an economy that again builds more things in America. “I don’t know whether the angry white people in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin are less angry if we get them 120,000 more manufacturing jobs,” a senior White House official told me, speaking anonymously in order to be candid. “But we are going to run that experiment.”


Ronald Brownstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic and a senior political analyst for CNN.


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