President Biden's Push to Make Things In America Again
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SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
And I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And today on the show, we're going to do something a little different. We're going to take a deep dive into a key part of President Biden's economic agenda, especially now that he's running for reelection, and that's his push to invest in America, make things in America and buy things made in America. It's something he talks about a lot.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We rebuild America - and I mean literally rebuild America - we're going to buy American.
We're going to invest in ourselves again, invest in America again.
Where is it written that America can't once again be the manufacturing capital of the world? Where is that written?
DAVIS: It's a strategy experts call industrial policy, and that's when the government uses rules, regulations, subsidies, tariffs and legislation - pretty much anything in its power - to shape the private sector and boost particular industries. Asma, this has been an issue of particular interest to you. So where do we start?
KHALID: So, Sue, I want to put this in a bit of context because why I was so curious about this economic vision is because of the political parallels it seemed to have to his predecessor, to the former president, Donald Trump. You know, Joe Biden ran on being vastly different than Trump, and I would say, in a lot of ways, he has been. But when you look at this economic vision, it is undeniable that there are echoes.
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DONALD TRUMP: The more we make things in America, the stronger America becomes. That's why we will always live by two crucial rules - buy American and hire American.
KHALID: And that was the former president, Donald Trump, speaking in the summer of 2018, I believe. Trump campaigned on bringing manufacturing jobs back to American shores, and now you listen to President Biden, and it sounds like such a similar message. I mean, the rhetoric is certainly similar. And when we talk about the former president, Trump, he slapped massive tariffs on products that were imported from China. I would say what he did really jolted Washington in a lot of ways. And Democrats took heed. It was very hard to ignore, I think, the way that Trump spoke about economic policy.
I was talking to Christine McDaniel about all of this. She's worked on trade policy in the U.S. government under both Republican and Democratic administrations. And she had this great line. You know, she said that somebody told her that what Biden is doing is essentially like Trump wine but in a Biden bottle.
CHRISTINE MCDANIEL: It is the same policy, but it's just under a different brand.
KHALID: But, you know, Sue, Democrats really bristle at this comparison. I mean, they told me that what Trump was doing was ad hoc. It was reflexive. It was not in any way orderly. And what Biden is doing, they say, is systematic. It's very well thought out, in their view, compared to what the former president was doing.
DAVIS: OK, so this is clearly a key part of the Biden agenda. But how exactly is he going about doing this?
KHALID: You know, the way I've been thinking about this, Sue, 'cause I think it is a very big idea of a topic, is to break it up into a couple of buckets. No. 1 is that there is legislation, right? Those are the things around semiconductors, electric vehicles, a lot of the big pieces of legislation that we've seen pass Congress.
DAVIS: That basically try to incentivize a market or fund a market to create new jobs, factories, prioritize what they're making.
KHALID: Exactly. And then the second bucket is trade policy, things like keeping the Trump-era tariffs on China in place, which so far they have remained in place.
KHALID: And then the last bucket are the sweeping export controls, and these are laws that limit the sale of critical national security tech to China. And, you know, if you put all of these policies together, I would say, I mean, it's an economic intervention that you have not seen the U.S. government have in many years.
DAVIS: And it's also an economic intervention agenda largely driven by the broader - I mean, saying threat in quotes - but the "threat" that the U.S. sees about China.
KHALID: There's no doubt that there's national security at play here, right? I mean, I was speaking to the commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, and I was struck by how much of our conversation actually focused on national security rather than kind of the economics of what was at play here.
GINA RAIMONDO: We buy 92% of advanced semiconductors from Taiwan - utterly vulnerable position for the United States to be in.
KHALID: You know, when I spoke to an expert about this, one of the comparisons I was given was the last time the U.S. really was this heavily involved in manufacturing domestically was probably the 1960s, again, when there was a common, quote, "foe," which was the former Soviet Union.
DAVIS: Yeah. And also, those were policies that were largely publicly popular at the time. And China policy is one of the rare areas that right now in Washington, President Biden does have more allies than he's used to having in Capitol Hill because of this aligned interest with the Republican Party.
KHALID: Yeah. And I would say there is no doubt that national security helps explain what's going on here, but I also think that you can't deny the influence of the rise of Donald Trump - right? - in domestic politics. This has just created space for policies like this to come about. But, you know, lastly, Sue, I would say I don't know if any of this would really be happening if it wasn't for the pandemic.
KHALID: I mean, it created this immediate impetus because it exposed the problems of relying on supplies coming in from China. And I mean, sure, everyone remembers this.
DAVIS: The shortages, yeah.
KHALID: It was, like, the spring of 2020.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: President Trump says he's invoking a provision of the Defense Production Act to address the shortage of medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic.
KHALID: Right? And people couldn't get masks. Hospitals couldn't get equipment.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: An ongoing global shortage of computer chips continues to affect automobile production.
KHALID: Supply chains were just falling apart.
DAVIS: Yeah. It's hard to imagine an event that could have made the challenges of a supply chain more clear than - in every single American household, than what happened during the pandemic. I myself struggled to find masks, struggled to find masks for my kids, struggled to find hand wipes. I mean, you remember in the early days of the pandemic, you would go to a grocery store, and there was just empty shelves and empty shelves. And that is not something that the average American consumer is used to seeing.
KHALID: And it's not something they were used to thinking about it, either.
KHALID: And I would say that the pandemic really influenced not only how politicians, I think, and workers, all of us, thought about supply chains - right? - we probably never really thought about before. But it also influenced how people do business.
DAVIS: You know, I also remember during the pandemic reading stories about what American-based manufacturing we had and how people were working 24 hours around the clock, seven days a week, just to meet demands, and they still weren't being met just based off American manufacturing at home. I mean, we do have some manufacturing here, of course. It just wasn't enough.
KHALID: So to that point, Sue, I wanted to understand how American manufacturers are interpreting what's happening in the country politically right now. So I drove up to Baltimore the other week to meet with Drew Greenblatt. He's the president of a company called Marlin Steel, and they make these racks, wire baskets. You know, they're used in everything from, I would say, food processing plants to pharmaceutical companies. And, you know, he told me the pandemic sent a very clear message about U.S. manufacturing priorities. He only buys American steel. He is very proud of that. He thinks it is a necessary and smart way to operate a business in America.
DREW GREENBLATT: Looking into the future, sooner or later, we're going to get cut off on silicon chips. Sooner or later, we're going to get a cut off on steel, just like we have been cut off recently with IV poles and pharmaceuticals ingredients.
KHALID: So you feel like American companies need to be prepared for that potential eventual reality.
GREENBLATT: It's an enormous risk. American companies should not be putting their eggs in the Chinese basket. It's just too dangerous. Sooner or later, they're going to change their policy with a flip of a switch, and those American entities headquartered or having factories in China are going to be in deep trouble.
KHALID: And to be clear, Sue, to our knowledge, China did not have an explicit ban on IV poles coming into the United States, but, you know, there were definitely supply chain kinks. And he told me, Drew, that he actually did see an uptick in business. He started making test tube racks. He started making all these IV poles because hospitals needed this equipment. And, you know, one thing about Drew is that he, I would say, is already on this made-in-America bandwagon. He has already embraced it.
DAVIS: You don't have to sell him.
KHALID: Right. He's got a giant American flags, multiple giant American flags looming over the workers in his facility up in Baltimore. And, you know, I asked him if he was comfortable talking about his own politics. I will say he did not want to go there and talk about who he had voted for. So instead, I asked him, you know, what does he think about Biden's economic vision and how he thinks the president is doing? And he was willing to engage on that front.
GREENBLATT: So I think President Trump started down a path of realizing and making policies that strengthen our approach to dealing with a trading adversary that's manipulating prices, destroying their environment, subsidizing steel, subsidizing labor, fouling - you know, huge smokestacks of coal. You know, President Trump initiated that process. President Biden has continued it. I think in light of all the more facts that have come to play, my take is President Biden should be even more aggressive and get us more capable of withstanding and understanding this is an adversary, and we have to look at this differently.
KHALID: And to be clear, he was talking about China there.
DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break, and when we get back, we'll talk more about the details of Biden's plan.
And we're back. And, Asma, I think we just need to take a step back and make clear that this is a conversation that couldn't be taking place in Washington even as recently as 10 years ago. I mean, the economic focus of Washington was about free markets, minimal intervention. And certainly, that was the presiding view of the Republican Party.
KHALID: That's right. I mean, there was no political appetite...
KHALID: ...To have this conversation - right? - in Congress. You know this better than I do. I just can't even imagine a world in which leaders on both sides of the aisle would agree to such large amounts of government funding for American manufacturing. It wasn't there. There was no appetite for that. I was speaking with Dani Rodrik about this all. He's an economist at Harvard University who's studied industrial policy. And, you know, he said to me that, frankly, for decades, mainstream policymakers thought the word even - industrial policy - was taboo.
DANI RODRIK: So you think industrial policy, for a number of decades now, has been a kind of a dirty word. It's the kind of thing that you wouldn't mention in polite company. And I think that sort of has completely changed now.
DAVIS: It's hard to imagine the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, ever embracing these kinds of strong government intervention. That was not the economic set point of the Republican Party at the time. But even Barack Obama's Democratic Party, you know, under former President Obama, they didn't ultimately succeed, but they were also trying to push forward something that was known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership...
KHALID: That's right.
DAVIS: ...TPP, which was a major free trade agreement that was ultimately derailed by politics. But, you know, the Democratic Party was of the same view, largely.
KHALID: That's right. And I would say Biden himself has evolved. This administration is very clear that it supports trade agreements, right? They do believe that trade certainly needs to exist, but they think it needs to happen in a way that takes into account more the concerns of American workers. And, you know, when we talk about Biden, you can look at his own legislative history. You'll see that he voted to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s.
DAVIS: Under a Democratic president.
KHALID: And then in 2000, like many Republicans and Democrats, he also voted to normalize trade relations with China. Even if you look at 2016 to where politics is today, analysts told me that even from that period, there was an evolution, that Biden in 2020 sounded different on the economy than Hillary Clinton in 2016.
DAVIS: But to be clear, there are absolutely forces in Washington that have been screaming this from the rooftops, since NAFTA, about TPP. Like, they might not have been mainstream, but they are not absent from the Washington debate.
KHALID: That's correct. And one voice that has been sounding this alarm for a very long time is Scott Paul. He's president of the lobby group called the Alliance for American Manufacturing. They have long pushed back against this free trade ethos, you know, but he used to be a staffer in Congress and told me that it was a rather kind of lonely debate they were having at that point.
SCOTT PAUL: There's been a transformation on the part of everybody. And I think the hard thing for a lot of Democrats to understand is how is Trump, this guy who's a billionaire, who makes his stuff in China and who talks a good game but actually doesn't do a whole lot, how the heck is he appealing to factory workers? And, you know, I think, again, national Democrats, if we're going to be successful, we need to lean in on this and not reflexively oppose it, and we need to do this in a way that's consistent with our progressive values. And so I think that partly explains why you could cut and paste some of Trump's trade policies, and they're now the Democratic platform.
DAVIS: Asma, you said that Democrats don't necessarily love anything that links them to the Trump administration, but the line's pretty clear. I mean, how does the Biden White House talk about that?
KHALID: You know, so there is, I think, no doubt when anybody is looking at this that there is a through line. But when I spoke to the White House, when I spoke to Biden allies about this, they don't like to acknowledge that what they're taking has an influence from Donald Trump on their policy thinking. You know, I posed this question directly to one of Biden's top economic advisers, Brian Deese. He was head of Biden's National Economic Council until February of this year. He helped lead this push on industrial policy.
BRIAN DEESE: There's no question it affected the political conversation. But what's striking is if you look at - there may be nobody who had a larger difference between their rhetoric and their actions on this particular set of issues. So you're right that the former president invoked some of these themes, but his central economic priority and his central economic accomplishment was a $2 trillion tax cut that principally flowed to companies and, in fact, exacerbated a system where companies sought to gain tax benefit by moving production and profits to low-tax jurisdictions overseas. So that was his principal economic accomplishment.
KHALID: But was there a sense, I guess, that Democrats needed to have a political response?
DEESE: So certainly, that political element is there - right? - and the idea that you have a viable answer to the question of how are we going to rebuild industrial capacity in the United States? Again, I think that in some ways, the dichotomy between rhetoric and action from the former president created an opportunity to actually explain what is right about these aspirations, but then what, in fact, is necessary to accomplish them.
KHALID: And, Sue, the big thing you hear from supporters of the president is that there was a disconnect in the Trump administration between the rhetoric and the action. And I will say that is true to some degree, but I think it is important to keep in mind that the tariffs on China that were put in place under President Trump still exist today. They were criticized at the time by some Democrats. They are still there.
DAVIS: One of my questions is, if there is this unusual alliance now between mainstream forces in the Republican and Democratic Party on this issue, are there critics out there? Are there people jumping up and down and saying, look; this isn't good? Like, there - the free market should decide. And who are they?
KHALID: There are some voices that reflect that sentiment. But I will say it is, I think, increasingly rare to hear people in Washington loudly rallying for free trade in the way that you might have heard those voices - right? - 20 years ago, where they were the loudest voices in the room. You know, one person, I will say, who is publicly opposing this bipartisan push around industrial policy is Christine McDaniel, who I mentioned at the very beginning. She worked in government during the era of free trade agreements.
MCDANIEL: Government is notorious - unfortunately, they just don't have a very good track record for picking winners and losers. Government is deciding what part should get those resources, and the track record just hasn't really been that great.
KHALID: That point is up for debate. You know, supporters of industrial policy say that, hey, look; government intervention led to innovation like the internet - right? - or the GPS. But McDaniel points to this famous consortium that was started in the 1980s to help the United States compete with Japan on building semiconductors. Lots of money poured into it. She was saying it did not turn out to be a huge success. And in fact, you've seen Congress now earmark an additional $52 billion for R&D and chip manufacturing to build more semiconductors in the United States.
DAVIS: And TBD if, ultimately, that will be a success or not. That's a really long runway there. But, I mean, obviously, this is a very policy-heavy debate, but it's really hard for me to deconflict it with the politics of it. President Biden announced he's running for reelection. This seems key to his reelection message about what his economic message is going to be to elect me again, and this is what I'm going to do, which, ironically, might ultimately be the Trump reelection message as well (laughter).
KHALID: I mean, Brian Deese, who used to work in the White House, he told me that the administration did not design this vision - right? - around economic policy to be a, quote, "sugar high" or a stimulus. But also, he told me, you know, they are well aware that there is an urgency in getting some of these projects underway. And I will say that you see that just in the very sense of the speeches that Biden himself has been giving recently. He's visited these chip manufacturing facilities. He has made it clear, explicitly or implicitly, that this is part of his reelection bid. And, you know, you talk to manufacturers like Drew Greenblatt, who I met up in Baltimore, and it's also very clear that this issue, politically, is not going away anytime in the near future.
GREENBLATT: This is a winning political proposition. You will get more votes if you support American manufacturing. I think people are realizing that blue-collar voters are inclined to voting for the political party that supports their growth, and whoever can get more factories growing faster in America is going to win a lot of votes. And it behooves the politicians to lean in on American factories.
DAVIS: I feel like we need to get Drew into the podcast for some political analysis. I mean, he has a very good point. And the working-class voting bloc has been in contention for a very long time, and they have been moving towards the Republican Party. But I think this and many other policies, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party is at least trying to not let them leave as fast as they've been leaving and also try to get some of them back.
All right. That is a wrap. Asma, thank you so much for this.
KHALID: My pleasure.
DAVIS: This was a really good conversation. I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.
KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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