6 min read

Biden debuts a populist message for 2024

Biden’s populist rhetoric in his campaign launch rally shows how he will try to win over working-class voters in 2024.
Biden debuts a populist message for 2024
President Biden at his first rally of the 2024 campaign on Saturday. (Biden campaign)
Good morning! It’s Monday, June 19, 2023. Today is Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Formally known as “Juneteenth National Independence Day,” it is the newest of the 11 federal holidays in the U.S., having been signed into law by President Biden in 2021.

One of the great oddities of the 2024 campaign is that it appears poised to deliver a rematch no one wants between two candidates who, at least so far, have barely campaigned for the job they are putatively seeking.

Donald Trump, now twice-indicted, has sucked all the oxygen out of the Republican primary contest, and yet he has largely been a no-show on the campaign trail, ditching many of the cattle calls in Iowa and New Hampshire that his low-polling rivals are dutifully attending.

Despite his own polling problems and widespread doubts about his age, Joe Biden has successfully managed to muscle out any prominent challengers for the Democratic nomination. But nearly two months after his campaign launched via video, the Biden-for-president operation remains fairly skeletal, having hired only a handful of staffers and yet to even open a campaign headquarters.

Biden’s campaign began creeping out of the shadows this weekend, as the president headlined the first rally of his re-election bid on Saturday. The rally, in many ways, took place in Biden’s sweet spot: in his birth state of Pennsylvania (the must-win battleground he has visited more times as president than any state outside of Delaware), surrounded by union members (who have been a core part of his political identity going back decades).

“Folks, it feels good to be home,” he told the crowd of labor activists in Philadelphia, flashing a grin.

The rally was a reminder of one of Biden’s most pressing vulnerabilities as he kicks off his 2024 campaign: the low marks he receives for his handling of the economy. Recent polls have consistently showed that only about 35% of Americans approve of Biden’s economic leadership.

These dismal ratings come amid positive — but shaky — signs from several economic indicators recently, including an unemployment rate that is historically low but ticked up last month and inflation levels that are dipping but remain stubbornly high.

Biden appears to have settled on the salve that he hopes will turn around American opinions on his economic stewardship: an unmistakably populist message.

Saturday’s rally was hosted by the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest union, which endorsed Biden’s re-election bid last week along with other labor groups including the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Accordingly, Biden spent much of his 30-minute remarks extolling his labor record (“I’m proud to be the most pro-union president in American history”) and the importance of union workers.

“Think about it,” Biden told the crowd. “This is not a criticism of them, but if the investment bankers in this country went on strike tomorrow, no one would much notice in this room. No, think about this in a literal sense. But if this room didn’t show up for work tomorrow or Monday, the whole country would come to a grinding halt.”

“So, tell me — tell me: Who matters more in America?”

Continuing the populist theme, Biden went on to declare that the time had arrived to “end the trickle-down economics theory” and for “millionaires and billionaires and big corporations to pay their fair share.”

Ticking through the infrastructure, stimulus, and manufacturing bills he had signed into law, Biden noted the press has taken to labeling his economic model “Bidenomics.”

“I don’t know what the hell that is,” he joked. “But it’s working.”

In keeping with his broader 2024 strategy, Biden barely mentioned Trump on Saturday.

He certainly stayed far away from his Justice Department’s recent indictment of the former president, which the president’s aides have ordered Democratic campaigns to avoid talking about. (That decision has caused a split in Democratic circles, with some Biden allies arguing that Biden needs to “go on offense” and start marshaling a case against Trump.)

But Biden’s sole invocation of Trump came, once again, in a discussion of their economic records. “Under my predecessor, ‘Infrastructure Week’ became a punchline,” Biden said. “On my watch, we’re making ‘Infrastructure Decade’ a headline.”

Biden’s success in 2024 will be partially dependent on his ability to convince voters of that contrast: Trump may have help bring populism to the forefront of American politics, Democrats will argue, but Biden is the one who passed legislation to make it a reality.

Both parties will be chasing the working-class voters — many of them union members — who were once the heart of the Democratic base, but have defected in large numbers to Republicans during the Trump era.

In 2012, Barack Obama (who also occasionally tried out a populist message against his wealthy rival, Mitt Romney) won 58% of the vote from union households. By 2016, as white working-class voters thronged to Trump, Hillary Clinton won just 51% of union households. In 2020, Biden was able to bring his union support up almost to Obama levels, at 56%, a feat he will likely need to replicate to once again win the White House.

However, even as he is fond of bragging about his union bona fides, Biden still faces doubts from some labor leaders that he will have to extinguish during the campaign. Some rail workers remain angry with Biden for pushing through a contract agreement that gave them zero paid sick days; the United Auto Workers (UAW) notably declined to endorse him alongside other groups last week, over concerns about Biden’s promotion of electric vehicles.  

As Biden finally kicks off his 2024 campaign, watch for his populist message and his worker outreach to continue. The focus can be seen not just in overt campaign events like the one on Saturday, but in official events Biden has been holding with an obvious political valence.    

Last week, for example, Biden hosted the CEOs of Live Nation and SeatGeek at the White House to announce new efforts by the companies to limit hidden “junk fees,” another populist crusade the president has adopted.

“This is real transparency,” Biden said at the event, “which leads to more competition, brings down costs for working Americans, keeps growing our economy from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down.”

  • Under Obama, the Democratic National Committee was largely ignored. But Biden, ever the institutionalist and party man, has chosen effectively to house his campaign within the DNC, NPR reports.
  • Biden has few primary challengers, but not none. The New York Times reports on why Robert Kennedy Jr.’s long-shot bid is still causing headaches for Biden.
  • Biden may not be holding many campaign rallies, but he is holding camapign fundraisers, hoping to avoid a disappointing fundraising report when the current campaign finance quarter ends on June 30. To that end, the president is planning four fundraisers in the San Francisco area this month, the Associated Press reports.

More news you should know

THE BEST PEOPLE: Some of former President Trump’s top appointees have become his fiercest critics, including after his recent federal indictment. Former Attorney General Bill Barr and now former Defense Secretary Mark Esper have criticized Trump for his hoarding of classified documents. “It’s just irresponsible action that places our service members at risk, places our nation’s security at risk,” Esper said.

THE OTHER PROBE: Special Counsel Jack Smith is still continuing his other investigation into Trump, over the former president’s actions after the 2020 election. However, per the Wall Street Journal, some witnesses in the probe have come away from grand jury questioning believing “Smith’s team was more interested in gathering details for a report rather than for any specific indictment.”

CLASH OF THE SUPERPOWERS: In a rare trip to Beijing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping this morning. In remarks before the meeting, Xi said that the U.S. and China have “made progress and reached agreement on some specific issues,” without offering any further details.

NOTABLE TREND: The share of Americans who believe same-sex relations are morally acceptable has dropped from 71% last year to 64% now, according to Gallup. The decline was driven largely by Republicans: 56% of the party said gay and lesbian relations are morally acceptable in 2022, a view held by just 41% of Republicans now.

INTERESTING PROFILE: Tracing the power of Casey DeSantis (Washington Post)

SOMEONE TO WATCH: J.D. Vance, the Senate’s MAGA dealmaker (Semafor)

Today’s political planner

President Biden will travel to Palo Alto, California, where he will deliver remarks at 1:15 p.m. on his administration’s efforts to combat climate change. He will also participate in two campaign fundraisers tonight.

Vice President Harris is also in California, where she will deliver remarks at a Juneteenth event hosted by CNN in Los Angeles tonight.

The House, Senate, and Supreme Court are off for Juneteenth.

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