'We're not going to make any significant progress until we have economic growth, economic justice, economic opportunity.'
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.
"I come at this from a civil rights standpoint," Biden said Thursday during an online fundraiser with climate activists. "We're not going to make any significant progress until we have economic growth, economic justice, economic opportunity."
That echoed sentiments Biden offered earlier this week in Philadelphia, where he said the nation must "deal with systemic racism" and "the growing economic inequality in our nation."
Unemployment numbers from May were 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.
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.
In his Thursday fundraiser, Biden touted his proposals for addressing the climate crisis as a key to economic growth. "Building back what we had before this crisis is not enough," he said. "We've got to build back better, invest in jobs and the technology of the future. The clean energy infrastructure is at the top of that list."
Biden's campaign has hinted it would like to pursue a more expansive set of reforms than those proposed by Obama after the financial crisis. That includes aid to middle-class families rather than corporations, bolstering workers' rights, and removing some barriers to expansion in the labor force, like boosting access to and government support for child and elder care. It has discussed returning the supply chain to the U.S.
"They are realities about the underlying structure of the American economy that have just been laid bare by this pandemic," Bernstein said.
Biden 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 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 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 — 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 making sweeping changes to the economy should be more urgent now — not less.
"The coronavirus is laying bare all of the holes in our economic platform," Nelson said.
Of course, Biden must win before he can accomplish anything. And 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."
"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," he said.