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Joe Biden turns populist as election approaches

Democrats are losing their demographic edge. Credit: Getty

May 3, 2024 - 11:50am

With the US election just six months away, Joe Biden is pushing through numerous agenda items aimed at winning over ambivalent voters. From federal loan forgiveness to isolationist economic measures to a loosening of regulations on cigarettes and marijuana, the President is seeking to shore up support on both sides of the political aisle.

News broke this week that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is reclassifying marijuana as less dangerous, and will now be considered alongside drugs such as ketamine rather than heroin. This is a sign that the administration is falling in line with popular opinion — the vast majority of Americans support legalising marijuana. The move is the latest in a string of recent policy changes that could help the President improve his wavering lead with traditionally Democratic voters.

For example, in 2022 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced plans under Biden to ban menthol cigarettes, explicitly citing their popularity among African Americans and the number of black people whose lives might be saved by such as ban. But the President’s anti-racist efforts received pushback from civil rights groups, and in the past week he delayed the ban indefinitely.

Donald Trump has been making inroads with black voters in recent years, hitting polling highs of around 20% with the demographic, higher than any Republican presidential candidate in 50 years. In this context, the delayed menthol ban looks like an olive branch from the President to black voters.

In a nod to Millennial and Generation Z voters, the Biden administration has forgiven billions of dollars in student loan debt, with the latest round of loan forgiveness announced this week. Sympathy for the people of Gaza and concern about the ongoing war are strongest with younger demographics: as these voters sour on Biden over his support for Israel, loan forgiveness might help the President pull them back into the fold.

Biden is also attempting to make inroads with working-class voters in the Rust Belt, a group that historically has supported Democrats but helped tip the scales in favour of Trump in 2016. In a recent campaign stop in Pittsburgh, Biden appealed to industrial workers’ economic concerns and proposed populist policies echoing those of Trump, including tripling the import tariff on Chinese steel. He has also come out against the Japanese acquisition of U.S. Steel.

“All I knew about people like Trump is that they looked down on us,” the Pennsylvania native told a crowd at a related stop the same week. “They wouldn’t let us into their homes and their country clubs. When I look at the economy, I look at it through the eyes of Scranton, not through the eyes of Mar-a-Lago.”

Since the early 2000s, demographic changes worked reliably in Democrats’ favour as the proportion of racial minorities and college-educated voters increased. But the party is losing its edge with these demographics, prompting Biden and his colleagues to embrace some of the populist talking points that Trump used to win them over. Come November, it’ll be clear whether America’s populist realignment could be reversed by the Democrats.


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.

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Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
17 days ago

Here’s guessing Joe Biden will turn ‘not populist’ after the election is over …..

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
17 days ago

Don’t be ridiculous. Biden is in a drug-induced semi-coma 21 hours a day. The people running this horror show and massively f*cking up every attempt to “connect” with voters are Gen X and millennial DEIs who don’t have a clue.

Terry M
Terry M
17 days ago

Disagree. Biden is throwing out candy to the uninformed, clueless people who want to be considered ‘liberal’ but have no idea what that means. These are exactly the people he must have to win in November. Note that Biden very rarely discusses real issues in a meaningful way. He is a cross between Charlie McCarthy and Joe McCarthy.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
17 days ago
Reply to  Terry M

He doesn’t do so because he’s simply incapable of doing what you refer to.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
17 days ago

Biden did manage to unite some Americans the other day.Pro-Palestinian and Pro-Israel Protesters were both chanting ‘F*** Joe Biden’.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
17 days ago

The Panderer in Chief will do anything to try and buy votes. It’s who he is. It’s who he has always been.

Hans Daoghn
Hans Daoghn
17 days ago

Do Black Lives Matter to Joe Biden?  Nope: Black Votes Matter.  Lung cancer kills black people disproportionately.  Menthol cigarettes are their gateway to smoked nicotine addiction.  But, riffing off the famous 1967 Tareyton cigarette commercial, it seems black smokers would rather fight Biden than switch. 

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
16 days ago

Slow Joe’s turn to populism — or rather that of the people who do the thinking and decision making for the old feller — is too little and late. Look to the Tory fate for his future. He will be spending full time napping in the sun at his beach estate rather than merely half time as is now the case.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
16 days ago

To answer the author’s final question. It can’t and it won’t be. That’s why Biden is turning populist. He’s a politician trying to win an election and reading the tea leaves tells him he’d better not sound like a stooge doing Wall Street’s bidding. This is what Biden has been his entire career. He’s perhaps the best living example of a classical American finger in the wind politician. Whatever he says is basically a reflection of the political mood designed to capture a majority of the vote and win the election. Biden ran a minimalist campaign in 2020, partly because of age, partly because of COVID, but he mainly relied on Trump’s unpopularity and appealed for a ‘return to normalcy’. He barely changed Trump’s economic policy at all. He kept all the China tariffs, added even greater sanctions, and then passed the CHIPS Act and the poorly named Inflation Reduction Act which had nothing at all to do with inflation. It could be argued that this administration has quietly passed more protectionist, economically nationalist policies than Trump did.
It’s odd. The election drama is really more about which of the candidates’ horrible personal characteristics is least bad. Is Trump’s over the top vitriol and tendency to say whatever pops into his head better or worse than Biden’s obviously declining mental faculties and constant gaffes. They’re both embarrassing for different reasons, so Biden can’t really play the ‘normalcy’ card this time around. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. Most of the changes Trump brought about were brought about simply by him winning in 2016. That event alone moved the political window more than anything has in over a generation. Biden’s rhetoric and populist leaning in an election year reflects a changed political reality that both parties exist within. Like the Russian army occupying much of eastern Ukraine, populism may or may not advance much farther, but they’re probably not going to lose the ground they’ve already taken either.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
16 days ago

The menthol cigarette issue is a difficult one, isn’t it? Smoking kills and disproportionately affects cigarette-addicted black people therefore cigarettes are racist. On the other hand black people like menthol cigarettes so banning them is also racist. Poor liberal Democrats…so much to worry about.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
16 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

It does torture the thinking brain, doesn’t it?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
16 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Ah the old Scylla and Charibdis situation. Unfortunately the way that one was resolved involved sacrificing a bunch of the crew. Worked well enough for the captain. Odysseus got to continue his journey and ultimately got back to his home and wife. Probably not helpful to someone whose goal is not to lose any of their voters.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
16 days ago

A significant majority of the people who had their loans forgiven were teachers, social workers, doctors and other public workers.. They promised to work in disadvantaged communities for ten years and the government would forgive their loans . My niece was one of those people. She taught kids who were violent and uncontrollable. She was assaulted several times. She put up with it for ten years, and then the government would not honor the agreement. Same with social workers, doctors and others. Just a month ago, thanks to Biden, she and millions more finally had their loans forgiven. It’s irresponsible to leave this fact out.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
16 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Yeah I remember my brother got a scholarship that was something like that. It was supposed to basically pay back all his tuition money for teaching in the Chicago school system for ten years or something like that. Never got to find out whether they’d have honored the agreement because my brother is neither a fool nor an idealist. After a couple years experience, he deemed the payoff wasn’t worth the cost, and sensibly moved on to just paying back the loans. Helps coming from a decent enough background. The family isn’t exactly rich but we’re not exactly poor either. I pity the fools who planned their whole careers from college onward around schemes like this and didn’t have the resources or gumption to back out once it was clear they’d been sold up the river.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
15 days ago

Joe Biden has turned populist.
I wondered why Democrats are now silent about Reparations.

T Bone
T Bone
15 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Its no longer a useful topic.