Last Wednesday, after a relatively quiescent 2017 spent mainly out of the spotlight, former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr. gave what was billed as a major address in Chicago.
Speculation that Biden is assumed to be considering a third run for the presidency brought a level of interest where, in a world in which Hillary Clinton was president, there probably wouldn’t be all that much. Subsequent revelations by former DNC Chair Donna Brazile that she considered initiating a process to replace Hillary Clinton with Biden as the nominee after the former’s bout of ill health in September 2016 will likely do little to discourage Biden from another run.
But does Biden offer anything Clinton did not? After all, on issues ranging from free trade to foreign policy, Biden’s positions are reflective of those of the Democratic establishment of which Clinton was the embodiment. The grass roots of the party seem, from the vantage point of late 2017, to have moved on.
Nevertheless, in Chicago, Biden issued a blistering attack on Trump who, according to Biden, is “like most charlatans throughout time who seek to aggrandize themselves and consolidate their power, by always blaming the other.”
Turning directly to Trump, Biden said: “We’ve got to stop this tweeting.… it’s childish. It’s time to grow up. It’s time to grow up and act like a real leader.”
On foreign policy, the former vice president’s message was both unremarkable and expected; Biden repeated, almost mantra-like, the by-now sacred shibboleths of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, focusing mainly on what he sees as the current unraveling of the so-called “liberal world order.”
“If we don’t stand up,” said Biden, “the liberal world order we championed will quickly become an illiberal world order we suffer.”
For Biden, now is no time for America to “cede the field” to the “illiberal movement led by President Vladimir Putin.” Indeed, Biden, perhaps channeling his inner Churchill, declared that as concerns Russia—which he said poses “a different but no less real” threat to America than the USSR once did—“appeasement will not work.”
Biden further decried what he sees as Trump’s incoherent leadership, the hollowing out of the diplomatic corps under Secretary of State Tillerson, and the administration’s continuing efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear accord.
Yet it was the brief economic section of his address that should be cause for dismay on the part of progressives and anyone hoping the Democratic Party will break free from neoliberal orthodoxy.
Biden clearly recognizes that the American economy is not working for those on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. “There’s a lot of people out there scared to death with good reason,” said Biden, “They come from my old neighborhood. They’re not stupid. They have real fears.”
And yet, for Biden (and perhaps a dozen other Democrats considering a run in 2020), American-style finance capitalism is essentially benevolent, just in need of a bit of tinkering around the margins, offering a (Bill) Clinton-like laundry list of solutions, or what he called “common-sense solutions that would help raise the standard of living for working-class people” including “increasing access to education, job training…expanding access to capital.”
On economic issues, there is a kind of cognitive dissonance between Biden’s persona and his policy prescriptions. In Chicago, “Middle Class” Joe, as he repeatedly referred to himself, vigorously defended the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which has aptly been described by Senator Bernie Sanders as “part of a global race to the bottom to boost the profits of large corporations.” For Biden what is important is that the TPP would have allowed the United States to “have written the rules of the road [as to] what constituted fair trade,” never mind the effects the agreement would have had on American workers.
For Biden, the cure to what ails the American worker can be found in free-trade agreements and, apparently, in Palo Alto. Biden pointed out that nowadays “Silicon Valley, and not just because they care, is proposing an annual guaranteed income [also known as universal basic income, or UBI] for Americans.”
Yet, as the journalists Julianne Tveten and Paul Blest have observed, “The socialist UBI and the Silicon Valley UBI are not one and the same. One of them is an attempt to create a world of equality and prosperity for all. The other is an attempt to offer bare subsistence as a replacement for government programs, while leaving a fundamentally unequal economic and power structure fully in place.”
Which do you think Eric Schmidt has in mind?
In the end Biden, like many mainstream liberal Democrats, seems intent on not understanding some of the real lessons of the 2016 election.
By failing to formulate an alternative to the failed foreign and economic policies of the past, which he has done much (more than most politicians) to shape, Biden showed that he remains wedded to the tenets of liberal interventionism and free-trade orthodoxy that have served the citizens of this country so poorly over the past quarter-century.