It’s become conventional wisdom that Donald Trump’s name on 2020′s $1,200 coronavirus stimulus check almost put the embattled 45th president over the top in the Electoral College, and that another $2,000 booster shot before November’s election might have given him a second term. So after President Biden won passage of the final $1,400 stimulus payment this spring, reluctant white working-class voters must have showered him with praise.
Not exactly. While some voters in rural areas that voted overwhelmingly for Trump concede they credit the new man in the White House — “begrudgingly,” a 76-year-old Ohio retiree told the Washington Post — others are already blaming the flow of government money for higher prices at the gas pump or other possible signs of inflation. And many are telling focus groups or nosy journalists that it’s NOT the economy, stupid. Recently unemployed Ohio truck driver Danny Long told the Post he was grateful for the cash but simply couldn’t applaud POTUS 46. “The only thing Biden should get credit for is hundreds of dead people voting for his [butt],” he said, fully embracing “the Big Lie” of the 2020 election.
The lack of any kind of stimulus-check bounce for Biden — at least among the white working class that’s been abandoning his Democratic Party for decades — is worth revisiting in one of the most consequential weeks for American domestic policy since the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933.
In rapid-fire succession, Team Biden has celebrated two wins. First came the Senate passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill that got 19 Republican votes — a moment that cynics, including myself, thought not possible in the Mitch McConnell era — for $550 billion in increased government spending for fixing roads and bridges and expanding rural broadband. But this bill, which still needs probable-but-not-guaranteed House passage, seems just the appetizer for a Democrat-only budget bill now set at $3.5 trillion in added dollars. That seems likely to shrink, by a little or maybe a lot. Still, it seems probable that any Democratic bill that only requires their 51 votes will continue the expanded Child Tax Credit and boost free child care and community college — building blocks for a new middle class.
A lot can happen along the way, but so far Team Biden and their allies on Capitol Hill have defied the skeptics on keeping the train on track toward the goal of a $6 trillion economic recovery plan. This is, as Biden said famously of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, “a big (bleeping) deal.” History books may well remember this past week as the beginning of the end of 40 years of trickle-down politics that produced epic inequality in America.
But when it comes to politics, the Biden program basically amounts to a big experiment — an idea that some eggheads in the faculty have been kicking around and are finally testing in the giant lab of the U.S. electorate. If the Democrats are truly rejecting the elite neo-liberalism of recent generations by embracing policies that will clearly help the working class, will white blue-collar voters even partially come back to the party of FDR and LBJ?
You don’t need a Magic 8 Ball to see that signs point to no. The 2020 election results showed Biden — a white man pitching his roots in industrial Scranton — barely improved over Hillary Clinton with a white working class increasingly ga-ga over an authoritarian bona fide cultural warrior in Trump. But surely the new president has seen an uptick after those same voters cashed their $1,400 check and, in many cases, started receiving monthly payments for raising their children, right?
So far, the experiment is showing that the white middle class is shrugging off economic aid, when it comes from the political tribe they so thoroughly distrust. The veteran political journalist Ronald Brownstein did a deep dive last week for CNN into Biden’s political support among the white working class and found in a series of polls it hovers between 38% and just 32%, which is roughly equivalent to the backing he received at the polls in 2020. In other words, his economic program hasn’t moved the needle. The Democratic president remains much more popular — about 20 percentage points higher — with white people with college degrees.
The evidence that these voters care more about waging a culture war than what’s in their wallet is both statistical and anecdotal. This week, Politico highlighted focus groups run by Sarah Longwell, a GOP strategist who backed Biden in 2020, to see if the new president is making an inroads with Trump voters. He is not. Politico wrote she learned “voters won’t mention infrastructure in her focus groups and are fixated on the idea that critical race theory — the academic concept that racism is embedded in American institutions — is poisoning their children’s views of the country. They also are deeply committed to the erroneous idea the election was stolen ...”
Nothing matters more in 2021 than loyalty to the tribe. We’re seeing this writ large with the high rate of vaccine refusal from Trump voters, who feel their resistance to a government jab and their “freedom” worldview makes a statement to their friends and family about the kind of person they are, even when they’re the kind of person who may be intubated in an ICU and die at a young age. But we also see it with voter resentment of what’s seen as the arrogant enlightenment of college-educated elites, who might patronize them with a stimulus check.
Does this mean Biden and Democrats in Congress are making a giant political goof in helping out the working class? Should the party only focus on the issues that matter to its diploma-carrying core voters, such as making public universities free and eliminating college debt? Of course not (although Biden really should do something about student loans). For one thing, good government is good politics. The president’s economic plan — as well as his ability to work with Republicans on a fraction of it — is exactly what he promised the electorate in November 2020 when he defeated Trump by 7 million popular votes and by 306-232 in the Electoral College.
Even more importantly, the Biden agenda reminds us of something that can’t be stressed enough in writing about middle-class issues — that America’s blue-collar workforce is increasingly a Black and brown one. The biggest real threat both to a Biden re-election in 2024 as well as Democratic prospects generally was never whether they could win back working-class whites, but whether they could stop a threatened exodus by some African Americans but especially from Latinos in the working class who see a party of educated elites as not fighting for them.
These essential workers — nurses and restaurant servers and subway operators and so many more — are the ones most excited by the prospect of new day-care slots, functioning mass-transit or tuition-free community college. And, for obvious reasons, they have a natural immunity to the new virus of critical-race-theory fever and the other preexisting diseases of white supremacy that have blinded those voting blocs to Economics 101. The new Census data will ratify what the political number crunchers are already seeing — that the white working class and their racial anxieties are a shrinking share of the U.S. electorate.
As a long, hot summer of political change nears its dramatic conclusion, Biden and his political strategy remain a high wire act. This is true as Bidenism wobbles over the Capitol and its cross-currents of the GOP’s modern obstructionism and a growing leftist bloc in the House, but its even more true in striding toward the 2024 ballot. In 2020, Trump would have been re-elected by the House if a swing of less than 60,000 votes in only 3 states had created a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College. In 2024, Biden can’t risk losing a single vote — but by giving the middle class an honest shot at the American Dream, he won’t.