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Who said it, Ron DeSantis or Joe Biden?
1. “We need a future that’s made in America. That means using products, parts, and materials built right here in the United States of America. It means bringing manufacturing back, jobs back, building the supply chains here at home, not outsourcing abroad.”
2. “We need to incentivize the repatriation of American capital and investment here in the United States so we can recapture our supply chains and build a strong durable industrial base.”
The first quote is President Biden, from a speech on his economic vision in January 2022. The second is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s running for the Republican nomination for president, outlining his own economic agenda on July 31, 2023. DeSantis isn't plagiarizing Biden, exactly, but it sure sounds like he's borrowing ideas he's heard before.
DeSantis, badly lagging Donald Trump in Republican polling for the 2024 race, is trying to establish himself as a conservative populist akin to Trump, but with a better reputation for competence and governing. To further the cause, he outlined a “Declaration of Economic Independence" during a July 31 campaign stop in New Hampshire, his first major effort to present an economic vision.
It’s surprisingly similar to Biden’s. Both men favor protectionism and a heavier government role than usual to steer the US economy toward future prosperity. Both vilify China and say the United States needs to end its reliance on the huge trade partner for key products. And they both bash big corporations for building massive amounts of wealth at the expense of ordinary workers.
The biggest difference between the two agendas, in fact, may be that Biden is already pursuing efforts to achieve many of those goals, while DeSantis is only talking about them as a candidate. There are other differences between the two, some largely rhetorical, others more substantive. But the unusual similarities between a center-left president and a far-right challenger indicate how much traditional political views have shifted as foreign threats have changed during the last decade and the global economy has transformed.
Like most challengers facing an incumbent, DeSantis argues that the current leadership has sent the nation into “decline.” Corporate fat cats and Beltway opportunists are lining their pockets while everybody else falls behind. This is a reprise of Bernie Sanders in 2020, Donald Trump in 2016, and even Barack Obama in 2008.
One big change between then and now is an increasingly aggressive China that seems bent on confrontation with the United States and the democratic West, rather than the trade symbiosis of 10 or 15 years ago. “We have to stop selling out this country’s future to China,” DeSantis demanded in his July 31 speech.
Well, Biden beat him to it. And Trump beat him to it before Biden.
Trump started by decrying the US trade deficit with China and slapping tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese imports each year to fix it. The tariffs raised the cost of US imports to the United States but did almost nothing to alter the trade balance. Then COVID hit in 2020, exposing extreme American dependence on China for medical supplies, electronics, minerals, and other crucial products.
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After Biden took office in 2021, he left the Trump tariffs in place and went further. Biden began encouraging allies to join the United States in containing China’s expansionist policies, instead of going it alone the way Trump did. In 2022, Biden lobbied for and signed the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, a huge package of subsidies meant to boost US manufacturing of semiconductors, green energy components, and many other things — much as China subsidizes its own domestic manufacturing. A boom in US factory construction suggests those incentives are working.
Then last fall, Biden rolled out extensive restrictions on the exports of advanced US semiconductors and other high-end technology to China. In June, Biden told a private audience Xi Jinping was “a dictator,” which irked the Chinese president, even if it might be true. China called Biden’s quip needlessly provocative and said US-China relations were at the lowest point in more than 40 years.
So what might DeSantis do on top of all this? He called for an end to normal trade relations with China and said he would ban the import of Chinese products built with stolen technology. That’s not a big expansion of Biden policies and it might be little more than symbolic. China’s “normal” trade relationship with the United States is already undermined by the Trump tariffs and Biden sanctions, and who knows how the US government would assess which of the thousands of Chinese products coming to the United States include pirated technology.
Like Biden, DeSantis also wants to exert a government hand to boost certain parts of the manufacturing sector. He’d seek to repeal Biden’s green energy subsidies, however, and focus more on the domestic fossil fuel industry. If he were president, DeSantis could do a bit of that on his own through regulatory and executive action, but it would require Congress to undo hundreds of billions in green energy subsidies Congress passed last year, and replace them with subsidies directed elsewhere — no easy lift.
DeSantis distinguishes himself from Biden more clearly on cultural issues that have economic implications, such as diversity and inclusion policies and investing focused on environmental factors. DeSantis says he will “end the politicization of the economy” by discouraging or forbidding these kinds of policies in businesses, schools, and other organizations, but critics argue that DeSantis is the one politicizing the economy by focusing on these issues in the first place. Whatever the case, voters haven’t responded very enthusiastically to DeSantis's “anti-woke” crusade, and DeSantis didn’t use his go-to word—"woke"— a single time in his July 31 speech. The dogs have not responded to this dog whistle. Maybe DeSantis decided to stop blowing it.
Here's a fresh and interesting DeSantis idea: Hold universities accountable if students take on gobs of debt to get a degree and don’t earn enough once they graduate to pay it off. That does differ from Biden’s approach, which is to forgive a certain amount of debt, which would benefit the borrower but require nothing of the university. Mostly everybody agrees the cost of college in the United States is out of control and the current system of financing badly broken.
Finally, DeSantis finds a familiar bogeyman responsible for America’s economic woes in the Federal Reserve. He says the Fed should worry about inflation alone and stay out of extraneous matters such as saving the US economy during a financial crash or a pandemic. Except guess what: If DeSantis were president during such a crisis, he’d beg the Fed to ride to the rescue, because it’d be foolish to let a depression ruin lives if you had an alternative, and because President DeSantis’s own political survival would depend on a Fed bailout. Tough talk often ends the moment the election takes place.
Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman.
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