President Joe Biden speaks next to Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers, as he joins striking UAW members on the picket line (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters).

Soul-searching within the Democratic Party has reached levels not seen since the wilderness years of the mid-1980s. The remarkable amount of legislation passed during President Biden’s first two years in office—by most measures the most significant period of policymaking since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society—is overshadowed by pervasive economic anxiety. The tight labor market and high growth metrics have not translated into broad consumer confidence or a reprieve from the burdens that have crept up on prime-age working Americans and younger entrants to the workforce. 

Given the fast recovery from the pandemic and positive macroeconomic indicators, some pundits have questioned whether voter perceptions of the economy are “accurate.” But onerous rents continue to eat into income gains that have only recently edged above inflation, while mortgage rates are prohibitive for most first-time homebuyers. Cooling inflation, though vindicating to analysts who argued it was largely a “transitory” expression of pandemic-era supply-chain shocks, is of small comfort to households on tight budgets. Simply put, essential goods such as health care and housing, as well as small luxuries, cost more than they did a few years ago, corroding Americans’ hopes for the future.

The widespread discontent is symptomatic of the underlying structural problems that long predate the pandemic and that “Bidenomics” is meant to resolve. After decades in which import-fueled consumerism, cheap gas, discount food, and on-demand services became crude measures of American prosperity, most Americans cannot conceive of a different economic model, whatever the indignities and inequalities wrought by neoliberalism. Despite large segments of the liberal Left and—to some extent—the heterodox Right hungering for an overhaul of the Washington Consensus, many Americans are wary of what comes next.

The question of how to respond politically is, therefore, vexing. Against the backdrop of divided government, a restless Federal Reserve, and geopolitical conflict, it would appear there is not much the Biden administration can do except ensure that the various funding mechanisms and regulations that make up its domestic agenda reach their intended targets. That, and hope the combination of business investment, green manufacturing, and demand are robust enough to withstand any sector-specific or global trends that might otherwise lead to recession. Given these real constraints, making an impressive economic recovery more appealing to voters before the 2024 election is easier said than done.

Defenders of Bidenomics, for their part, reason that there are only so many plausible paths to a post-neoliberal order. Certain disruptions are intrinsic to changing the way we go about producing and consuming things, they argue, especially given the complex intersection of policies around climate, foreign relations, trade, and domestic industry. Barring a wealth tax that is piped back into economic development, health care, or a basic income—infeasible in the near-term—Bidenomics has set the benchmark for economic statecraft in the twenty-first century. Moreover, policies that are likely to raise labor’s share of national wealth, reduce regional disparities, and put us on the path to sustainable energy independence need time to yield results. Yet patience is a hard thing to ask of the public, even in relatively prosperous times—and these times are notably more anxious than most. Adding to the toll of the pandemic are quickly multiplying domestic and international crises.

In a different, less polarized era, economic patriotism, labor-friendly policies, and competently regulated, fair competition would be winning themes among American voters. And these policies may yet ameliorate some of our ideological and regional divides. But a national industrial strategy and revamped antitrust enforcement, the two main pillars of Bidenomics, have not been enough to alter day-to-day perceptions of economic well-being. Though new fixed investments and rules shaping market decisions are already spurring wage growth in some sectors and regions, the ripple effect is easily eclipsed by other conditions that sap workers’ purchasing power.

The basic fact remains: policies that are primarily geared toward long-term resilience are not going to soothe workers whose already meager disposable income has been vaporized by inflation, rising credit-card interest rates, and the housing crisis. However one parses the expansive legislation underpinning it, Bidenomics suffers from an overriding sense of incompleteness—to the detriment of workers’ security, our democracy, and Biden’s chances of putting together a winning coalition in November’s election.


Much of the public’s exasperation stems from the difficulties of acclimating to a post-pandemic economy. The recovery has been complicated both by the lingering effects of the pandemic’s various shocks and the variegated experiences of American households, including their use of pandemic-based welfare measures. While some aspects of the “return to normalcy” were staggered—school closures and work-from-home arrangements, for example, were quite protracted in some counties and states—other policy changes were more abrupt.

In particular, the loss of several emergency benefits has burdened millions of Americans President Biden pledged to help. According to a recent analysis by the Lever, twelve safety-net programs that either expanded welfare coverage or were introduced to prevent indigence and housing insecurity during the pandemic ended between fall 2021 and fall 2023. Although some expanded benefits, such as a larger permanent allowance for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and a new “summer EBT” for families with children, have partly offset these cuts, too many Americans feel as if they are treading water. If they are low-income, they have been reminded that a rise in earnings threatens their means-tested assistance; and if they are scrambling to make ends meet in the lower middle class, they harbor the jaundiced view that the American dream is a thing of the past.

The spate of commentary by mainstream economists pondering Americans’ frustration has rightly emphasized inflation, but generally missed other sources of blowback. Before congressional Democrats tabled permanent extensions of key programs following the collapse of the Build Back Better bill in late 2021, the party had insisted that plans to stimulate inclusive growth would be accompanied by a more generous and care-centered welfare state. For working-class households who temporarily received programs like Medicaid, the 2021 Child Tax Credit, or free school meals, not only has their cost of living gone up because of core inflation and pronounced price spikes for cars and energy. They also have to pay more monthly bills at the expense of long-term savings for a new home, college, or other major quality-of-life improvement.

In letting emergency provisions expire, Democrats overlooked one of the most basic laws of democratic capitalism: there is no advantage to being known as the party that gave and then rescinded benefits and social protections. Pro-Democratic commentators ignore the problems around household expectations this course of action generates, preferring to underscore the menace of Republican spending cuts. Yet disputing the average worker’s take on the economy’s direction, as some commentators are wont to do, is a futile exercise. Particularly given the national concern over inflation and the spike in child poverty last year, the Democrats’ awkward policy trajectory risks strengthening the revisionist view that economic conditions were unambiguously better just prior to the pandemic. Moreover, it provides grist for the argument, eagerly put forth by libertarian think tanks and fiscal hawks, that government stimulus and “handouts” were what drove inflation, not the supply-chain constraints that greedy corporations subsequently capitalized on.

Of course, the Democrats’ main impediments on welfare policy during the 117th Congress were Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (although other moderates, such as Virginia senator Mark Warner, also played a role). In the wake of Trump’s 2016 election, many other Democrats reclaimed key tenets of New Deal liberalism—proof that a major faction of the party understands the political costs of carrying on with zombie neoliberalism. House Democrats and liberal senators have, for example, promised to restore the expanded Child Tax Credits, address the growing child-care crisis, and advance other family- and education-based priorities reflected in the original Build Back Better bill. If they can overcome serious—and, in some respects, willfully neglected—regional obstacles and regain a majoritarian coalition in Congress, we have reason to hope Democrats will continue to pursue a more economically populist agenda.

But, despite these rhetorical shifts, it is evident that the Democrats have punted, for the time being, on the welfare-state question. Galvanized by Bernie Sanders, Millennial and Gen Z progressives have pressed in recent years for more universal benefits, but means testing continues to make our welfare programs less generous than those found in Western European states. Working Americans are stuck navigating a stratified and byzantine welfare state at the very moment their faith in upward mobility is cratering.

In short, Democrats have again muddled their reputation for compassion and fairness, which has historically been their key to electoral success, along with union-led coalitions or the absorption of a rival political movement (see late nineteenth-century Populism or early twentieth-century Progressivism). It should be of little surprise, then, that Biden’s promise to build the economy “from the middle out and the bottom up” has been met with impatience, if not heavy skepticism. In an age where millions of debt-laden Americans are accustomed to making do with precarious employment, a tight labor market provides a boost, but not a real renewal of worker power. Relatedly, policies primarily designed to effect manufacturing-based macroeconomic changes are not going to immediately lift spirits or alter hardened perceptions of where economic power lies. A lot more must be done to institutionalize collective bargaining and shore up the welfare state if we are to achieve a broader social-democratic consensus.


The administration might be having better luck with skeptical workers if it had a robust partner in labor supporting the large-scale policy reversals it’s attempting to engineer. But forty years of neoliberalism has seen the rollback of important regulations and laws, leaving most working Americans at a remove from the institutions that once supported a basic level of worker agency. As much as Bernie Sanders provided younger Americans with a concept of an economic alternative, the average worker lacks either a historical reference or familial connection to a bygone era of relative empowerment. That makes it difficult for workers to believe that administration policies might eventually improve employment contracts and workplace conditions, let alone imagine that, down the line, government could introduce more muscular consumer protections like rent control and much harder limits on financial fees. The dramatic decline of trade unions and the attendant erasure of trade-union culture mean there is no mediating layer between working Americans and the administration helping to make the case that Biden is genuinely committed to shifting the balance of power.

The administration might be having better luck with skeptical workers if it had a robust partner in labor supporting the large-scale policy reversals it’s attempting to engineer.

To be sure, some provisions embedded in Biden’s national industrial strategy are having a direct impact on workers’ lives. Pro-worker actions at the National Labor Relations Board and executive orders are raising the bargaining power and wages of hundreds of thousands of workers. For example, the administration has required labor agreements with unions for federally contracted infrastructure projects and strengthened “Buy American” requirements. In lower-income counties, particularly those in the Midwest, Appalachia, and the South, new federal rules and investment subsidies have considerable potential to generate knock-on effects for household wealth and municipal revenue.

But like the uphill effort to bring diversified manufacturing back to the United States and spur green innovation, these changes will take a while to reverberate throughout the broader economy. Their benefits are likewise contingent on the federal government, the Federal Reserve, major employment sectors, and green startups aligning to promote investment and insulate the domestic economy as much as possible from further global economic shocks. Absent an explicit mandate for economic planning, that kind of cross-institutional trust in pursuit of extended, inclusive growth is very hard to hold together. It also requires that business players participating in Biden’s developmental agenda cooperate more with pro-labor factions—or at the very least, that they not actively seek a reversion to the neoliberal way of doing things.

Although critical to the development of renewable energy, industrial policy—the cornerstone of Bidenomics—is not enough on its own to capture hearts and minds. Effusive praise for it tends to elide complexities. For workers to fully benefit, production incentives must be accompanied by policies that promote complementary shifts in the labor market, especially among non–degree holders in the bottom 60 percent of household income. Considering the skilled trades shortage, it is unclear whether the administration has truly considered how much of the workforce can be mobilized to accelerate this industrial strategy and deepen its egalitarian effects.

These uncertainties reflect the social consequences of a winner-take-all economy. The worker and skills shortages exist because Washington has had little use for the unwashed and “underachieving” masses. Denied a meaningful role in the national economy, workers who didn’t fit the professional mold of the tech and “knowledge” industries became replaceable Amazon and Walmart stockers, casualties of the opioid crisis, or rageful loners.

Now, the legion of the disaffected has clearly spread beyond the postindustrial hinterlands. Beneath the narrative of ultra-polarization between liberals and conservatives, increasing numbers of blue-collar families, downwardly mobile degree-holders, and more recent immigrants are plagued by the sense that the political class and economic elite are less interested in improving workers’ prospects than in managing their decline. A lot must change, rapidly, to sway a public long disillusioned with false promises of hope and change. Unfortunately, this is not something to which industrial policy in a mature economy is well suited, given the many veto points and long gestation periods involved.

Biden and the Democrats must contend with the afterlife of cumulative betrayals and disappointments, small and large. The apparent triumph of a national industrial strategy for the 2020s, rather than summoning the can-do spirit of FDR’s New Deal, is trailed by the gloom of abandoned dreams and collapsed expectations. Regardless of the potent obstacles posed over the years by hardline Republicans from Newt Gingrich to Mike Johnson, the ultraconservative Speaker of the House, Democrats cannot pretend they have been out of national power for long stretches since the end of the Cold War (and even during the Reagan years they retained firm control of the House of Representatives). From financialization to trade liberalization, prominent Democrats have done nearly as much as Republicans to tilt the scales in favor of the wealthy and, prior to Biden’s term, propagate the illusions that free markets can adequately meet social needs and that the pinnacle of liberty is consumers’ freedom of choice.

The depth of today’s pessimism, moreover, suggests that macroeconomic signs no longer have much bearing on how Americans perceive their life chances. Perpetually buffeted from one crisis to the next, working Americans could be forgiven for lacking the exuberance that characterized high-growth eras over the past century. And unfortunately for the Democrats, a few of the metrics that are most visibly in Biden’s favor are not, in fact, especially new. Low unemployment, improved GDP, and wage growth for the poorest Americans were features of the pre-pandemic economy under Donald Trump. Although those conditions had little to do with Republican policies that have perennially favored Wall Street, many voters nevertheless appear to associate (relative) predictability with that most unstable, venal, and repellent of modern presidential administrations. On the other side of a pandemic and a period of inflation, premature declarations by some progressives that a “roaring twenties” is upon us are belied by a day-to-day economy that feels at once unchanging and steadily degraded.


Such fatigue and pessimism—the sense that after all the chaos of the past few years, things seem essentially the same but worse—point to the fundamental problem of Bidenomics. The root of the matter is that, for all its seeming deliberateness, Biden’s developmentalist agenda lacks key elements that would forge a strong developmentalist coalition. Unlike in past developmentalist eras, the buy-in points for most middle- and working-class constituencies are not obvious. For all its ambitions, Bidenomics lacks a new across-the-board benefit, comprehensive labor law, plan to catalyze low-cost homeownership, or infrastructure program like high-speed rail to transform domestic commerce. Granted, red states are receiving a disproportionate share of industrial policy subsidies, but this is a modeset selling point when compared to what past political leaders have done to expand their coalitions. (In fact, the primary political beneficiaries could very well end up being Republicans like Georgia governor Brian Kemp.)

Another inopportune fact is that, broadly speaking, Democratic-leaning groups and organizations are in a downward cycle. Notwithstanding recent victories under leaders like United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain, the labor movement has not reclaimed the pride of place it wielded in the New Deal coalition. Climate activists, for their part, are divided between anti-technology catastrophists and big-tent seekers. And the identitarian Left is reviving the New Left repertoire of the 1970s, refracting every aspect of electoral politics through the lens of anti-colonialism. On top of these problems, funding for the nonprofits and foundations now commonly assumed to serve as the connective tissue between progressive activists and the Democratic establishment has declined sharply since the George Floyd protests of 2020. The demoralized atmosphere within progressive ranks bodes ill for a president whose domestic record far surpasses that of his predecessors.

Perhaps an even greater hurdle facing the Biden administration is the overall failure of governance in red and blue states alike. Ills such as rising homelessness, failing infrastructure, wage theft, underfunded schools, corruption, rampant drug abuse, and child labor are virtually universal. Many of these problems may be chalked up to deeply ingrained neoliberal practices at the state level—at the end of the day, too many local officials are captured in one way or another by oligarchic interests, regardless of their party and personal ideology.

Biden’s developmentalist agenda lacks key elements that would forge a strong developmentalist coalition.

The ossification of deeply partisan geographical divides also presents problems. One-party rule within major regional economies has reached levels not seen since before the fall of Jim Crow. In a strange parallel with the Progressive Era, Democrats dominate the core areas of the national economy to a degree not seen since the Republicans of the early twentieth century. This division of political control allows political elites to ignore material issues and make elections referenda on “values,” “states’ rights,” and the “other America”—including in blue bastions. One-party rule is also an underrecognized factor driving negative partisanship, which has done nothing to mitigate vast disparities in wealth and income. With fewer competitive, high-stakes elections throughout the country, working Americans are more likely to be hemmed into “aligning” with the economic preferences of their regional elites. The effect in major blue cities and states is especially pernicious; consider the amount of celebratory press devoted by liberal commentators to minor reforms that hardly shrink the staggering gulf between rich and poor.

To be fair, Bidenomics wasn’t crafted to resolve these entrenched crises of governance and democratic representation. Nor could it have been, even though the introduction of a major social benefit may have helped elevate popular perceptions of the economy. Nonetheless, atomized workers understandably doubt the administration’s efforts to invest in left-behind regions and challenge the unproductive dynamics of party politics. Regional polarization and hyper-partisanship magnify the challenge for an establishmentarian president trying to project unifying statesmanship but also channel the Democrats’ populist legacy. Simply put, too much needs rebuilding for a much larger portion of the overall electorate to be persuaded that Bidenomics will deliver better jobs and opportunities.

The success of Biden’s industrial strategy thus hinges on the grueling task of persuading individual blocs of voters captive to sectionalist attitudes. This requires a kind of salesmanship that neither Biden nor any other prominent Democrat has shown much aptitude for. The administration must convince the overwhelmingly coastal Democratic base that the green economy it wants must be built foremost through stimulative and trade-insulated concessions to the country’s former industrial heartlands. In turn, the utopian ideal of dramatic, multilateral emissions reductions must be set aside to facilitate the build-out of technologies required for the energy transition.

The urgency of this build-out illuminates one of the great ironies of the postindustrial knowledge economy. Despite being stripped of thousands of manufacturers following permanent normalized trade relations between the United States and China, the midwestern and southern industrial base remains as critical as ever to the nation’s prosperity and security. At least for the near-term, densely populated blue counties are playing a less productive role in the energy transition; though indisputable hubs for tech innovation and advanced light manufacturing, they are more often regarded as leaders in the service, education, media, and health-care sectors. Accordingly, they are expected to serve mainly as important regional markets for domestic electric vehicles and other energy-efficient goods for firms and households.

In light of this relative division of labor and consumption—and with an eye toward the regional polarization that has followed the restructuring of American industry in recent decades—it makes perfect sense that the Biden administration has directed its efforts to rebuild manufacturing in areas where the political rewards would be greatest. Even if in the end it amounts to just tens of thousands of votes in a few swing states, that would probably be enough to lock in the administration’s climate policies. The problem, however, is that these investments provide loyal Democrats and progressives with symbolic and moral victories without easing the sources of economic insecurity in blue counties. For now, struggling workers in major cities have reason to wonder what, exactly, Bidenomics is doing for them—and whether the administration blithely determined that mayors and blue-state legislatures were already doing enough.

The administration must likewise convince enough ex-Democrats, independents, irregular voters, and first-time voters in red-leaning counties that these policies are an earnest effort to redistribute the nation’s wealth through development. Put another way, the administration’s policies must clearly demonstrate that the energy transition will not punish hard-bitten Rust Belt and non-metropolitan communities further but reintegrate them into the national economy. The task is made harder by severely low levels of trust in government, as well as by the fact that most Democrats outside the administration have been slow to rediscover that “predistributive” policies, which address the root causes of inequality, are as important as redistributive measures. Indeed, such policies might actually be preferred by average voters—particularly workers who, prizing a sense of independence, are nominally opposed to traditional welfarism.


The piecemeal impact of industrial policy leaves the question of how much antitrust, Bidenomics’ sometimes overlooked second pillar, might also improve Americans’ everyday lives. While the “neo-Brandeisians” behind the modern anti-monopoly movement have intermittently grabbed the attention of the press—and have generated extremely hostile coverage in publications like the Wall Street Journal—their ambitions are probably even less understood by workers and consumers than those of industrial policy advocates. Before the pandemic, Americans had been conditioned to expect price stability for their basic wants and needs. Inflation was to be so modest as to be imperceptible. And multinational corporations—by dint of neoliberal trade agreements, containerized shipping, and new economies of scale—were expected to ensure that basic commodities like food, clothes, toys, school supplies, household appliances, and electronics were affordable in an economy increasingly fueled by consumer spending. As newer luxury goods like smartphones and tablets increasingly became necessities—including for gig and food-service workers—credit cards with inflated credit lines further supplemented this growth regime.

That soft consensus about what markets were supposed to deliver—largely at the price of domestic manufacturing investment and strong wages—was constantly undercut by rent-seeking business practices that ate into household income. But these behaviors vary in scope and aren’t always obvious to households keeping up with monthly bills or small businesses trying to expand their revenue. It is difficult to see the structural problems behind various monopolistic practices, such as high overdraft charges and swipe fees, exorbitantly priced prescription drugs, Uber’s deceptive exploitation of drivers, airline price gouging, opaque hospital billing, and Amazon’s monopsony power over labor and other sellers on its platform. These predatory practices were enabled by political decisions, made mostly out of public view, that radically changed the nature of American capitalism after the collapse of the New Deal order.

It is uncertain whether the country’s storied anti-monopoly tradition can find a new impetus through Bidenomics. Both the pandemic and inflation may have alerted more Americans to the ways corporate America dominates the economy. But antitrust doctrine, like trade and industrial policy, has become a vague abstraction for most consumers. Concepts like “convenience” and “all-access” as well as the gamified gratification of e-commerce have nudged Americans to rationalize or ignore the ways corporations routinely skim off their income. Though eye-watering in the aggregate, widespread service fees have simply become an accepted part of life for many Americans.

That said, new rules, guidelines, and lawsuits initiated by the Federal Trade Commission under Chairwoman Lina Khan may yet catalyze stronger public opposition to corporations that exploit their workers, hold them hostage through punitive non-compete agreements, and extract rents from working families. To amplify Khan’s moves, rank-and-file Democrats need to articulate to voters how antitrust will redefine consumer welfare for the better. A compelling surrogate for Biden is also needed to explain how antitrust fits with the administration’s larger industrial strategy. In theory, antitrust, labor, and industrial policies can be harmonized, as they were, between FDR’s “second” New Deal and the country’s mobilization during the Second World War. Regulations that promote competition, as well as more aggressive interventions including lawsuits against monopolies, can encourage innovation, fairer prices, and even aid collective bargaining. Components of industrial policy, like strategic tariffs, meanwhile, can create a “wall” around domestic competition, discouraging “trade dumping”—where foreign competitors radically underprice imports in order to drive up their global market share of a given industry—while maximizing incentives for domestic investment. One of the generally unspoken tenets of Biden’s climate policy, for instance, is that tariffs on goods like Chinese solar panels and electric vehicles will, in fact, boost domestic production and competition in the renewables sector.

It is uncertain whether the country’s storied anti-monopoly tradition can find a new impetus through Bidenomics.

An irate business press and lobby could nevertheless dampen the administration’s appetite for forceful antitrust action. In an election year, we can hardly expect Biden himself to pick fights with either northeastern financiers or Silicon Valley. And it remains questionable whether Biden and other senior Democrats have truly converted to the neo-Brandeisian cause or are content to gently jab at sectors like tech and finance, which are, in the end, integral to Democratic campaigns and Biden’s industrial policy. In place of a regionally diverse developmental coalition, Team Biden is counting on a fusion of green and industrial capital—as reflected, for example, in its good-cop-bad-cop treatment of the Big Three automakers—to help meet its climate objectives. Another troubling predicament is that the full realization of the Inflation Reduction Act, the administration’s landmark climate bill, requires the growth, at Wall Street’s profit, of unregulated markets for tax credits that smaller firms don’t directly qualify for.

This hands-off approach illustrates another primary weakness of Bidenomics. As much as Biden seems, at times, eager to forge new constituencies, the reach of his policies depends on the market behavior of establishment actors—known more for their penchant for stock buybacks, liquidity, and tax shelters than place-based development and virtuous competition. Needless to say, this bargain conflicts with his attempts to act like a credible, Trumanesque adversary of Wall Street. In the same moment the GOP has cynically positioned itself as a foe of “woke” capital and champion of traditional industries, Biden is caught between playing the populist and partnering with the very forces responsible for the “fissured economy.”


Between now and November, Biden will have very limited opportunities to rally undecided voters to his side. Recent history suggests that the odds are against a compelling executive order on social or labor policy, much less a legislative compromise that Biden can convincingly play to his advantage. This leaves the administration with the arduous task of persuading a weary public of the strengths of Biden’s understated leadership. Above all, Biden must somehow reconcile two imperatives: first, to meet the broad desire for predictability—which for some voters means the comfort of the pre-pandemic status quo, no matter how unsustainable and unjust it really was—and second, to consolidate a new economic consensus. The first imperative means the administration must sell itself as a stabilizing force vis-à-vis the “anti-system” currents within the GOP. This has become a fraught position for the liberal establishment. At a moment when younger voters’ disenchantment is escalating, Biden must persuade a host of disparate voting blocs that his agenda is part and parcel of conserving what is good and principled in American society.

A painful irony is that Biden has assumed the mandate of restructuring American capitalism just as the public has turned inward and become suspicious of more change. While this observation may seem counterintuitive given the waves of populist discontent that have coursed through our politics over the past fifteen years, a conservative mood, reflected at both ends of the ideological spectrum, has descended as global instability mounts. Indeed, critics of Bidenomics from the Left and Right have taken up the same refrain, insisting that living standards are in free fall and that the federal government’s fiscal hose has enriched only the Democrats’ favored capitalists.

This complaint misses the significance of the interventionist traditions Biden has drawn upon, yet it captures one inescapable vulnerability. Biden has staked his legacy on resurrecting the “project state” for the twenty-first century without mobilizing a strong coalition behind it. Even with a polarized electorate, a younger, more vigorous president with better lieutenants in the White House and Congress might succeed in this gambit, creating new constituencies and breaking up exhausted coalitions, as presidents as different as Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, and Reagan have done. But in 2024, Biden does not have these advantages. Overburdened by the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, Biden must figure out a way to rally Americans who still have few absolute gains to speak of.

Ultimately, the dilemmas plaguing Biden will outlast his tenure, even if he wins reelection. Our most pressing problems—poverty, extreme inequality, a deeply unhealthy populace, declining life expectancy, and climate change, to name a few—demand a level of statecraft, coalition building, and political authority that few of our leaders have been able to muster. Those who seek to forge ahead on the path Biden has charted will need all of these things. 

Justin H. Vassallo is a writer specializing in American political development, political economy, party systems, and ideology, and a columnist at Compact magazine.

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Published in the May 2024 issue: View Contents
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