WASHINGTON (AP) -- Joe Biden is pledging to unveil a series of proposals in coming weeks aimed at reversing the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and addressing inequalities that have contributed to protests sweeping the country.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and his aides see some parallels to the last time his party wrested the White House from Republicans. The economic collapse during the final stages of the 2008 presidential campaign gave Barack Obama, with Biden as his running mate, an opportunity to present clear contrasts with GOP policies and make the case for sweeping overhauls.
The dynamics are far more complicated today. The current crisis was prompted not by poor bank lending practices but by a dramatic freeze in American life that began in March to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Joblessness is at levels not seen since the Great Depression. And as some states and cities reopen, the protests responding to the police killing of George Floyd have spurred calls to address inequalities rooted in systemic racism.
“To have true justice in America, we need economic justice,” Biden said this week in Philadelphia. “The moment has come for our nation to deal with systemic racism, to deal with the growing economic inequality in our nation and to deal with the denial of the promise of this nation.”
Unemployment numbers from May will be released Friday, providing an updated picture of just how challenging Biden's job may be if he wins the presidency.
The former vice president says the plans to be unveiled this month will focus on housing, education and access to capital. In the meantime, he’s held daily economic briefings, including from chief economists from the Obama administration, Jared Bernstein and Ben Harris, and Heather Boushey, a progressive economist who advised Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s senior policy adviser, said there’s been more of an emphasis on job creation and the issues holding back the labor market since the coronavirus outbreak began.
“We really accelerated our work in that area, both in terms of how the policy team reaches out to experts, and in terms of how the vice president spends his time and structures his economic briefings,” he said.
Biden’s campaign has hinted it would like to pursue an even more expansive set of reforms than those proposed by Obama in the wake of the financial crisis. That includes aid to middle-class families rather than corporations, bolstering workers’ rights and removing some of the barriers to expansion in the labor force, like boosting access and government support for child and elder care. It has also discussed returning the supply chain to the U.S. and investments in green infrastructure to create jobs.
“They are realities about the underlying structure of the American economy that have just been laid bare by this pandemic,” Bernstein said.
Biden, who ran a centrist campaign to win the primary, was moving to the left on some economic issues before the virus hit. That's part of an effort to woo progressives who've shunned him. He supported a minimum-wage increase, adopted some of Bernie Sanders’ free college tuition plan and embraced Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy reform plan.
His campaign is also working with Sanders' advisers to find more common ground on top issues.
But as Biden and other alumni of the Obama administration can attest, grand ambitions sometimes meet more challenging realities. A new administration generally has about one year to usher its biggest proposals through Congress before attention turns to the midterm elections and the president's own reelection.
Even in the best of times, that can be challenging. Initially benefiting from strong Democratic majorities in Congress, Obama muscled through an $800 billion economic stimulus and major health care and financial services reforms before Republicans took control of the House and blocked most of his agenda.
“When the tea party got there in 2010, it’s not that the Obama team didn’t go far enough, it’s that Congress blocked us,” Bernstein said.
While Democrats are increasingly bullish about their odds of taking control of the Senate, there's little chance that they would gain the filibuster-proof majorities they had at points during the Obama years, forcing a Biden administration to work with some Republicans.
That, along with the urgency of preventing additional waves of the virus, could make it hard for Biden to deliver on his biggest priorities.
Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s chief economic adviser during the 2008 campaign who later served on the Council of Economic Advisers, noted there was a similar concern during those years that simply reacting to the economic crisis could take the focus off progressive priorities. There's a risk of that happening now, he said.
The focus on the bleak economy “means climate change and criminal justice reform, and some of the other issues â?? not that they aren’t important, just they’re not going to be the first thing on people’s minds,” Goolsbee said.
Still, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants and a leader of the joint Biden-Sanders policy task force on the economy, said that making sweeping changes to the economy should be more urgent now â?? not less.
“The coronavirus is laying bare all of the holes in our economic platform,” Nelson said.
Of course, Biden must win the election before he can accomplish anything. And President Donald Trump argues that he presided over an economic boom and can do it again if voters give him another term in office.
“Americans know the economy reached unprecedented heights under President Trump’s leadership before it was artificially interrupted by the coronavirus and they know he will build it back up a second time,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Sarah Matthews.
Bernstein said even if there is a recovery, "we’re going to be pointing to devastating levels.”
“We’re not going to let him wiggle out of his horrifically irresponsible response to the crisis," he said. "The idea that Trump built a great economy and then the virus came along and now he’s rebuilding it again just simply doesn’t correspond to the facts.”