By President Joe Biden’s own admission, defeating Donald Trump was the main motivating force of his campaign. As his administration clarifies its economic agenda, however, it’s becoming clear that Biden’s true legacy lies not in rolling back Trump’s policies but in refining them.
Of course there are many differences, in both style and substance, between Biden and Trump. Yet the underlying message of Biden’s Build Back Better program is not that far removed from Trump’s Make America Great Again mantra. Rhetoric aside, the policy rationale is even more similar.
Biden’s ambitions for clean energy, for example, are far greener than anything envisioned by Trump. Crucially, however, the underlying goal — U.S. "energy dominance," as Trump called it — remains the same. If anything, Biden’s agenda pushes the U.S. further into the frontiers of global energy production.
This "pivot and expand" maneuver has a precedent in American politics. The last big paradigmatic change in economic policy, which is attributed to former President Ronald Reagan, actually began under former President Jimmy Carter. In his first official State of the Union address, Carter promised to simplify the tax code, reduce government regulation and bring down inflation.
By the end of that year he had signed into law a bill that cut the number of tax brackets from 25 to 15 and eased taxes on capital gains. He had also signed the landmark Airline Deregulation Act. Before his term was up, Carter would further deregulate the railroad and trucking industries and appoint Paul Volcker as chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve.
Viewed in this context, Reagan’s tax reform, deregulation and inflation control initiatives were simply a continuation of Carter’s policies. On inflation in particular, Reagan’s major contribution was simply to enthusiastically support Carter’s Fed chairman.
History doesn’t remember it that way — with good reason. Carter’s economic policies didn’t fit neatly into his party. Reagan, on the other hand, reshaped the Republican Party in his image.
Biden might not reshape his party, but Trump’s economic policies certainly didn’t fit well into his. Trump rose to prominence in the GOP by pushing a vision that was more pugilistic and populist than those of his predecessors. Historians can debate which horn of Trumpism was most decisive in his rise, but populism was his most fundamental break with past Republican orthodoxy.
Trump was against free trade in the party of free trade. He vehemently opposed the kind of integration with Latin America that both presidents Bush had made a centerpiece of their domestic agenda. As president, Trump signed the two largest relief bills in history, both of which featured large checks sent to American citizens. This was a government handout, pure and simple, supported by a Republican president.
Now consider Biden’s first major initiative: a re-upping of the COVID relief and stimulus package that brings direct checks up to the level advocated by Trump. Then there is Biden’s approach to trade with China, where he is taking a similarly aggressive approach as his predecessor. (The difference is that Biden has allies in Congress.) On immigration, Biden is backing away from Trump’s most draconian restrictions on refugees, but he is not keen on completely reversing the previous administration’s border policies.
Most important, Biden can embrace something that Trump could only hint at: a national industrial policy. That’s essentially what Trump was advocating with his bold promises to bring jobs back to America. Industrial policy is so antithetical to the Republican worldview, however, that Trump could do little more than tweet about it.
Biden’s "green energy" blueprint, by contrast, has crucial support (environmental and labor leaders) from within his party. He is better positioned to create strong public-private partnerships designed to accelerate U.S. manufacturing and promote technological superiority over rivals in China and Europe.
All told, America could be on the cusp of a new era of economic nationalism. The bipartisan roots of this idea — championed but unfulfilled by Trump, recast and promoted by Biden — show that the seeds of the change lie not within either party but come from shifts in economic realities. Collapsing interest rates, stagnant demand for unskilled labor and the rise of China all make such a policy possible.
It’s in some ways unsurprising that the first economic nationalist candidate would be a Republican, because the party’s traditional policies were most undermined by the emerging paradigm. The GOP’s existing leaders were discredited in the eyes of its own voters, paving the way for an outsider.
Those same forces, however, make it difficult for economic nationalism to truly take root in the Republican Party. Instead, economically nationalist policies will likely come to fruition in a Democratic Party that, like Reagan’s GOP, will see surging support from across the aisle. If Biden is successful, then so-called Reagan Democrats — blue-collar Republicans in the Midwest and the Northeast — might even return to the party, further strengthening the party’s commitment to economic nationalism.
That will leave the current Republican Party, like Democrats after Carter, confused and splintered. In a way, what’s happening to the party now is an inevitable result not of Trump’s defeat in 2020 but of his victory in 2016. As soon as Trump locked up the nomination five years ago, the Republican Party was headed for reckoning. Now that a Democrat is in the White House, it will only accelerate.
Karl W. Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was formerly vice president for federal policy at the Tax Foundation and assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina. He is also co-founder of the economics blog Modeled Behavior.