Joe Biden Is Following the Lead of West Coast Progressives

Joe Biden Is Following the Lead of West Coast Progressives

Joe Biden Is Following the Lead of West Coast Progressives

The president’s State of the Union address showed a willingness to implement a program of economic justice that has secured Democratic wins in Western states.


On Tuesday night, Joe Biden gave his second State of the Union address. It was a feisty, folksy speech, but beyond the Vintage Joe presentation was a big-picture reimagining of how an economy of America’s scale could function for all participants of the sort that hasn’t been embraced by presidents in a goodly while.

A flash poll conducted by CNN immediately after Biden finished his address found that nearly three-quarters of respondents had a favorable impression. So far, so normal.

Most presidents, from both political parties, end up with positive public reactions to their big February speeches. But buried in the polling was a far more interesting number: Among those who had told pollsters before the speech that they disapproved of the direction of Biden’s presidency, only 7 percent went into the speech thinking that the president’s specific policy proposals would move the country in the right direction; after the speech, that number increased to 45 percent. Among independents, the number rose from 40 percent pre-speech to 66 percent afterwards.

These are huge perception shifts, of a magnitude that could serve as a launch vehicle for the president’s reelection campaign, and that could reverse his currently underwater approval numbers. Biden has, consistently, been underestimated by pollsters and by pundits. He was written off in the 2020 primaries. He was declared dead on arrival in the run-up to the 2022 midterms. But it turns out he’s got a pretty good bead on where the American people are at and what policies they believe will improve their daily lives. He was right, back in the autumn, when he banged the “democracy is in danger” drum before the elections. And it looks like he was right on Tuesday night when he devoted most of his State of the Union address to fashioning an unapologetically progressive economic agenda: raise taxes on the rich, make prescription drugs more affordable, make it easier for workers to organize into unions, make it harder for corporate scofflaws to avoid both taxes and also economic competition, increase access to child care and preschool facilities, invest more in American manufacturing and in big infrastructure projects, and protect Social Security and Medicare.

These are popular ideas—even among the white working class that, in recent years, has fled the Democratic Party largely because of wedge “cultural issues.” More than three-quarters of Americans support limiting annual drug price increases. A majority of Americans support increasing taxes on the super-wealthy. Seven in 10 tell pollsters that they support trade unions. If the Democrats can really focus in on these themes over the coming years, using major infrastructure projects as a launch pad to reinvent the economy for those lower down the economic ladder, Biden’s bet is that he can win back many of those voters who shifted rightward over the last couple decades. His aim is to create a powerful political coalition with more than a passing nod to the alliances and movements that made up the New Deal support-base 90 years ago.

This has already been done, with much success, by progressive governors and state legislators in the racially diverse Pacific West, and increasingly in Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona, where non-white working-class movements provide critical levels of support for left-leaning leaders. In California, large majorities of the state’s non-white population are registered as Democrats, while far fewer than 20 percent are registered as Republicans. In 2021, when Governor Gavin Newsom faced a recall election, more than four of every five voters in densely populated Latino-majority neighborhoods of LA County cast ballots against recalling him. In Oregon, according to Pew Research data, 38 percent of Democratic voters have a family income of less than $30,000 per year, a far higher percentage than the number of low-income voters within the Republican fold. In Nevada, multiracial trade unions in Las Vegas have long been instrumental to Democrats’ victories; in 2022 Catherine Cortez Masto was reelected to the Senate with a 9,000 vote majority, a majority that would not have been possible without high levels of union organizing and turnout. Similarly, Katie Hobbs won the Arizona governor’s race in part because of ongoing organizing efforts by immigrants’ rights groups and trade unions that brought large numbers of working-class Latino voters to the polls. Meanwhile, in New Mexico, Governor Lujan Grisham won reelection with high levels of support from the state’s Hispanic population. For all the ink that has been spilled nationally in recent years exploring how and why the working class abandoned the Democratic Party—an angst-fest that is really only reacting to white working-class voting patterns—in the West that abandonment simply hasn’t occurred.

True, Washington State seems to buck this trend slightly, with working-class voters of all colors shifting somewhat toward the Republican Party during the 2022 midterms. But taken as a whole, the West and Southwest have, over the past decade or two, crafted a strong counternarrative to the idea that working-class voters are shying away from the Democrats, showing that the party thrives in states with large non-white working-class populations.

Biden’s instincts seem to be to take that Western model and expand it, to put forward a series of unapologetically progressive economic ideas and policies that have the capacity to bind more working-class voters, both white and non-white, to the Democratic Party in all regions of the country.

For too many years, the Democrats at a national level have tried to triangulate their way to power. Now, in the unlikely guise of an 80-year-old longtime centrist, those advocating a programmatic effort to reshape and rebalance the American economy in a social democratic direction may have finally found their White House messenger.

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