March 12, 2024 - 7:00pm

As the US draws closer to this year’s general election, Joe Biden risks being tempted into following Hillary Clinton’s abortive 2016 strategy against Donald Trump.

In a recent CNN panel, progressive journalist Kara Swisher proposed a reelection message for Biden: that he should point at and declare “rapist, racist, fascist over and over and over again”. Swisher’s suggestion is not an outlier within Democratic politics. Speaking to the New Yorker, Mike Donilon (perhaps one of Biden’s closest advisors and now a top strategist for his reelection effort) said that the campaign’s “focus will become overwhelming on democracy. I think the biggest images in people’s minds are going to be of January 6th.” In his feisty State of the Union speech last week, Biden leant into that message.

This strategy could be a risky gamble. Denouncing Trump as a racist threat to “Our Democracy” seems designed to appeal to the multi-degreed and wealthy voters who now constitute a core element of the Democratic base. These voters lap up anti-Trump programming and have helped tip the scales in recent elections.

However, the “deplorable” gambit ended in disappointment for Clinton in 2016. True, that election was a close-run thing, and a shift of 80,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan would have put her in the White House. However, there is growing evidence that working-class voters of all ethnic backgrounds have increasingly moved into the Republican coalition since 2016.

Even as it has grown more educationally polarised, the American electorate may be becoming less ethnically polarised. Despite the annus horribilis that was 2020, Trump did better in many diverse, working-class areas (such as the Rio Grande Valley) than expected. Continued working-class defections could inflict further political pain on Democrats.

Early in his presidential term, Biden tried to speak to the interests of both lunch-pail workers and Instacart wine mums. His administration leant hard to the Left on questions of identity but also primed the pump with a sweeping stimulus bill and ambitious new programmes on infrastructure and semiconductors. Three years into his presidency, though, the breakdown at the border (perhaps his most obvious concession to identity-politics activists) has dented his standing in working-class communities across the country.

What’s more, the imperatives of identity politics might also undercut his signature hard-hat efforts. For instance, the “equity”-centred demands of the CHIPS semiconductor bill might interfere with the manufacturing and basic research promised by the measure’s supporters. Adding to these political pressures, inflation during the Biden years has made many working families more nostalgic for the economy of the Trump presidency.

Biden’s calculated decision to elevate January 6 did indeed help him shore up support among Trump-sceptical suburbanites and gave him a surprisingly strong performance in the 2022 midterms. But (lower-turnout) midterms favour the upper-income, high-propensity voters who Biden targeted with this message.

The presidential electorate is broader, with more working-class and lower-intensity voters. Especially in an age of mass mail-in balloting and early voting, being able to turn out highly engaged voters is a strategic advantage, yet Biden still needs to go beyond his bobo base. Doing that will require a message that speaks to blue-collar economic concerns.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.