In 1948, Truman political advisor Clark Clifford noted that the glue holding the unruly Democratic Party coalition together was a populist fear of big finance. “Today,” he wrote, “the South can agree on no issue with the West—except ‘Wall Street.’” Clifford encouraged Truman to use the same political template that had helped his predecessor Franklin Delano Roosevelt win the presidency four times. It worked. Truman won the 1948 election, and then called for laws against monopolies in his 1949 State of the Union address, which new Democratic congressional majorities enacted. More broadly, populism helped Democrats control American politics for four decades, from the 1930s until the 1970s.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Joe Biden reestablished economic populism as the core of Democratic politics. He hammered “Big Pharma,” “Big Tech,” “Big Oil,” and billionaires as the source of the problems his Administration seeks to tackle. He bragged about capping pharmaceutical prices, reshoring semiconductor production, and ending junk fees imposed by credit companies and airlines. He promised to ban noncompete agreements in employment contracts and said the word “antitrust,” the first time it had appeared in a State of the Union since 1979. In both language and policy substance, Biden made clear that corporate and financial power must be brought to heel.
This was an astonishing break from 30 years of neoliberalism that promoted the accumulation of private power and then deferred to it as the rightful and natural steward of most economic policy choices. In 1996, for instance, President Clinton framed his agenda with the declaration “the era of big government is over.” Just seven years ago, in his last State of the Union, President Obama characterized the neoliberal economic order as the result of inevitable globalization, and centered helping more Americans access affordable education and job training as the primary policy response to it.
Despite this more recent history, Biden’s shift to “full populism,” as CNN reported it, mostly elicited jubilation from Democrats. Senators echoed the President’s criticism of upcharges on things like concert tickets. Senator Chris Murphy went on MSNBC and said “Ticketmaster sucks,” eliciting chuckles, but also connecting with an irritation millions of Americans feel about corporate power. The Beltway chattering class praised Biden’s pivot to populism as playing a winning political hand that smartly put Americans’ wallet-draining encounters with unaccountable corporate actors front and center.
Now, the President’s challenge is to prove that the populist policy agenda he doubled down on can generate two things: real results for American families rightfully distrustful government can deliver, and votes that bring some chunk of the working-class and small business people who grew disenchanted with the Democrats under neoliberalism back to their rightful political home.
First, results. To keep his promises and build political momentum, the President must deliver. The Federal Trade Commission, Department of Justice, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Securities and Exchange Commission, and National Labor Relations Board do not shy away from using their authority to tangle with powerful corporations to prevent abuse and redistribute economic power. They’ve filed suits to block mergers and break up Goliaths like Google, levied historic fines against abusive corporations like Wells Fargo, sought to impede private equity’s plunder of businesses and communities, and supported striking workers at Amazon and Starbucks, to name just a few examples.
But at the two-year mark, other members of the President’s Cabinet are far too meek. President Biden had very little to offer a traditional anti-monopoly constituency—farmers—in the State of the Union, because Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has so far done almost nothing to confront concentrated power in the industry he oversees. (Last year, a Department of Agriculture official even testified against the Biden DOJ’s Antitrust Division in a major food company merger trial, which the division went on to lose.) Similarly, the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency tend to approve bank mergers, while the Department of Health and Human Services has done virtually nothing to arrest the combination of hospitals, providers, doctor’s practices, insurers, and pharmaceutical middlemen into behemoth conglomerates like UnitedHealth Group or CVS-Aetna-Caremark.
On trade, while the Administration has importantly maintained tariffs against China, strengthened the use of Buy American provisions, moved to invest in American production, and refused to allow the World Trade Organization to impede our sovereignty, it is still engaged in traditional secretive negotiating tactics around initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Economic Partnership, a quasi-trade arrangement that could fortify the monopoly power of Big Tech. And in January, the Treasury Department quietly issued little-noticed guidance that created a loophole in domestic manufacturing requirements for electric vehicles that the President himself could drive an electric Hummer through.
This inconsistency undermines the Administration’s ability to promote competition, domestic production and resilience, and broad-based economic growth. But—particularly now with Biden doubling down on populism—it also creates political risk. With factions of the Republican Party embracing some of Trump’s brand of economic populism on galvanizing issues like trade and fighting monopolies, Biden has set himself up with a potential political liability if others in his Administration undermine core promises. And with some of the architects of Biden’s populist policies—Brian Deese at the National Economic Council, chief of staff Ron Klain, and competition policy lead Tim Wu—departing the Administration, it is unclear if their successors will take up the President’s mantle with as much vigor.
But despite this implementation challenge, the confused and weak reaction from Republicans to the President’s remarks should only encourage more Democrats to embrace the style of economic populism Biden espoused. House Republicans and bank lobbyists defended credit card late fees, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page railed against capping insulin prices, and in the official GOP response, Sarah Huckabee Sanders resorted to stoking online culture wars. Other Republicans condemned the FTC’s proposed ban on noncompete agreements only on weak process grounds, implicitly acknowledging that engaging in a critique on the merits would be political malpractice.
The most notable reaction to the State of the Union, however, wasn’t from any politician, but from Jim Cramer on CNBC. “They hate us,” the former hedge fund manager declared the morning after the President’s speech. And in his own way, President Biden had echoed FDR’s famous populist line from the eve of the 1936 election: “I welcome their hatred.” In that embrace, Biden’s State of the Union marked the end of the era that produced a spectacular rise in corporate and financial power and a dead end for millions of American families—and, ultimately, for the Democratic Party itself. In the battle to restore the soul of the Democratic Party, Joe Biden left no doubt that the populists are ascendent. And if Biden can fully deliver on populism, then the Democrats can become the majority party again for a generation.