As of August 31, in the swing state of Pennsylvania, 1.8 million people have filed for unemployment during the pandemic. The state’s jobless rate stands at 13.7 percent. But instead of traveling to Pennsylvania to talk about job creation, Joe Biden went to express his thoughts about looting and violence. He barely mentioned jobs. Tone-deaf is an understatement.
At the time of Biden’s speech, voters in Pennsylvania were just two weeks from when mail-in ballots would start to arrive. Although Biden leads in the polls in the state, his lead is a mere 4.8 points. At the same point in the election cycle four years ago, Hillary Clinton led in the same polls by 7.3 points. And although there might be fewer undecided voters up for grabs now, the margins are far too close for a speech that was chasing—not challenging—Trump’s core message.
It’s Trump, not Biden, who utters the word “jobs” over and over in major speeches. Of course, Trump lied in his presidential acceptance speech when he said, “We will create 10 million jobs in the next 10 months.” He didn’t just discuss creating 10 million new jobs; he used the word “jobs” a whopping 23 times in his convention speech, compared with six mentions in Biden’s nomination acceptance speech. Even accounting for Trump’s speaking twice as long as Biden did, Trump talked about jobs 17 times in the equivalent length of time. Worse, he created a seamless narrative about Biden as a job-killer and himself as the protector of all good jobs. Trump’s pie-in-the-sky jobs narrative links his white supremacist and nationalist frame: building his border wall and attacking Biden for shipping jobs to China and “other distant lands” to creating US jobs for “real Americans.” Yes, he’s a pathological liar and an even worse racist, but so far he’s doing far better campaigning on one of the key issues that Biden should own (aside from the coronavirus, which, incidentally, the two of them treated equally in their convention speeches, with just three mentions each).
It is supremely ironic that in a rare in-person Biden speech delivered to actual people and not to a computer screen—in a swing state Democrats lost in 2016—his own staff teased in tweets that he was going to Pennsylvania “to lay out a core question voters face in this election: Are you safe in Donald Trump’s America?” Given that Biden’s own communications staff led with the opponent’s name and favorite topic—fear—it’s no surprise the major newspaper had headlines such as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s: “Biden Comes to Pa. and asks: ‘Does anyone believe there will be less violence if Trump wins?’” With the working class flat on its back, Biden made looting the topic.
For Labor Day, let’s imagine it’s time to actually try winning key swing states, where, like the entire country and world, finding a good-paying job is the most urgent issue—unless you are Black, in which case not being shot by the police trumps employment. A winning strategy would include doing some political education, giving some reminders about the promises Trump made about creating millions of jobs four years ago and how he failed to deliver anything that wasn’t already happening on Obama and Biden’s watch, which was a steady rebuild of jobs lost during the Great Recession. A discussion about the lack of infrastructure jobs—as compared with what was promised by the current occupant of the White House—would be especially apropos.
One way for Biden to create a jobs narrative radically different from his opponent’s—one that could effectively position Biden as actually promoting policies that support Black people and all people of color moving into the middle class—would be to issue a full-throated and serious defense of the United States Postal Service. The USPS employs Black people at nearly twice the rate of other employers. And because the postal service jobs are unionized, Black (and all) postal workers have a pension, a real right to retire, and a decent salary. Watching Democrats merely promise to allay swamp creature Postmaster General Louis Dejoy’s destruction merely until January 1, 2021, versus forever or at least past the inauguration, is like realizing Trump and Biden mentioned the pandemic the same number of times in their convention speeches.
Campaigning for good jobs for all, and to reduce racist income and dignity inequality, Biden could also declare that on day one of his administration, he will fill the 49,000 vacancies at the Veterans Administration—rather than ending his convention and Pennsylvania speeches with the same line, “May God bless you, and may God protect our troops.” The VA has also long been a source of good, unionized jobs with real pensions—and has a record of hiring Blacks at roughly the same rate as the Postal Service (25 percent at the VA versus 27 percent at the PO). The troops Biden wants blessed by God would be well served by a fully staffed VA where a full 40 percent of the employees are themselves veterans. So too at the post office, where more than a fifth of all jobs are filled by veterans.
Instead of allowing a deliberate undermining of 21st century essential public services, Biden could stitch together race, gender, jobs, unions, and good government in one powerful speech. For example, he could explain that at union-busting FedEx, workers earn half what their counterparts do at the post office for service that is no better and often worse for higher charges—and that the difference is who gets the income: workers or shareholders? He could also discuss teachers, education being another vital public service that has proven definitely no better and usually worse when relegated to the private sector, judging from the outcomes of private charter schools. (Here, again, who pockets the taxpayer subsidies: already rich shareholders or the mostly women—and heavily women of color— workers?) Biden could explain that it is perfectly sound economics and public policy for the provision of great public services to be a legitimate jobs program, which also helps specifically address the Black jobs crisis. He could explain that undoing Trump’s 2017 tax giveback to himself and many of Trump’s donors would restore vitality to the federal public sector.
Finally, Biden could campaign aggressively about job creation as a climate change mitigation strategy. He could do so being filmed in front of raging fires in Northern California or in a flooded area in a Gulf state. Biden makes a huge error by running away from pointing out the need to tax the Jeff Bezos of the country at a far higher rate to pay for saving the planet and life on it. Taxing very rich people and corporations is bipartisan-popular. So is talking about jobs and job creation. With majority public support for the Black Lives Matter movement and majority public support for unions, Biden should get serious about raising—not lowering—people’s expectations for our future by explicitly linking taxing the über-rich to undoing racism and inequality and saving us from climate change. If he does, he just might win in November.