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"Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.”
In President Joe Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress, he said it 46 times. Jobs to upgrade roads and bridges. Jobs to modernize homes and buildings. Jobs to replace lead pipes, build ports and airports. Jobs to care for our elderly. Jobs to care for our children. “Millions of jobs,” he said. “Good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced,” he said.
But Biden only went for the trifecta of "Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.” one time, in the context of the climate crisis. And he was determined to underscore his point, just in case people didn’t get it:
“For too long we’ve failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. For me, when I think climate change, I think jobs.”
This caused me to pause, because I know how tough it can be to convince people that we need to take the climate crisis seriously, urgently—that we have to be willing to rethink and reset our economy and change our behavior if we are serious about reducing carbon emissions, addressing over-consumption, confronting environmental degradation, avoiding social and economic disaster.
Based on my own writing and research, I’m convinced that these ideas need to connect with people on a human level to increase empathy and motivate change. (Should we care about wildfires in Australia, for example? I think we should because even if you live in America, thousands of miles away, we share an interconnected set of planetary systems.) I also believe that the increasing necessity of driving change requires showing people that the path forward can be rich with opportunity rather than a downward spiral of sacrifice.
But there’s also a simpler reality at play here. Joe Biden is devoted to America pivoting on the climate crisis, but he’s really all about jobs. After all, he called his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan the American Jobs Plan.
In last night’s speech, he noted that “the economy created more than 1,300,000 new jobs in 100 days…more jobs in the first 100 days than any president on record.” That accelerated pace is thanks to the vaccination of over 220 million Americans in that same time period. That growth is also due to the fact that the economy shed some 22 million jobs during the pandemic, setting the base painfully low.
So after 100 days, it’s easy to see how Joe Biden is positioning himself to be the Jobs President. It’s a moniker and a mindset that fits working-class Joe from Scranton remarkably well. And even while the Republicans are pushing back on his “radical agenda” and the trillions of dollars proposed to make his plans come true, this post-Trump, later-pandemic, big government spending feels more like human decency and common sense than socialist radicalism.
Note particularly how Biden targeted his comments to a sector of the electorate that sounds an awful lot like Trump voters:
“Now, I know some of you at home are wondering whether these jobs are for you. So many of you, so many of the folks I grew up with, feel left behind, forgotten, in an economy that’s so rapidly changing—it’s frightening. I want to speak directly to you, because if you think about it, that’s what people are most worried about. Can I fit in?
“Independent experts estimate the American Jobs Plan will add millions of jobs and trillions of dollars to economic growth in the years to come. It is an eight-year program. These are good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced. Nearly 90 percent of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree. Seventy-five percent don’t require an associate’s degree. The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America. That’s what it is.”
Biden practically delivered this message in a whisper. The tone of this and much of the speech was so gentle, so soothing, I suspect it defused at least some of the vitriol typically spewed by the GOP opposition. We will see for how many days.
But it’s worth rewinding to 2016 to realize how sharp the contrast is with the previous White House occupant, and particularly in the extremity of his bluster and how painfully wrong he was. “We’re going to have job growth like you’ve never seen. I’m very good for jobs,” he said in September 2016. “In fact, I will be the greatest president for jobs that God ever created. That I can tell you.”
In fact, Donald Trump was the worst jobs president since 1933 since when Herbert Hoover left office during the Great Depression—the first president to see employment drop over his four years since World War II. He came in with employment of 145.6 million and left with 142.6 million employed Americans.
And lest the truth of Trump policies begin to fade, do remember that his aggressive rejection of renewable energy to appease the fossil fuel industry ignored the reality of which sectors were actually creating employment. As noted in 2019, referencing the time when Trump took office, “nearly ten times more people were employed in the green economy and its supply chains (9.5m) than employed directly in the fossil fuel industry (roughly 1m).”
Trump’s devotees will quickly blame the coronavirus for this downfall, which is true. But they also typically ignore his refusal to tackle the virus and limit the damage, both in lives and jobs lost. If he really was going to be the “greatest jobs president that God ever created,” if he was ever serious about doing his job, then he would have taken the steps necessary to limit the spread of the virus.
Never forget how many expert voices laid out the clear and obvious logic: To reopen the economy and get people back to work, you need to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the virus. As public health and economics experts pleaded more than a year ago on March 30, 2020, it was not an either/or, pick-one-or-the-other situation.
Tragically, it was logic that Trump and too many of his cultists refused to hear. Quite the contrary—to continuing deadly effect.
But let’s return to these first 100 days. As I noted in mid-March, Biden had made a decision early on to reimagine and reframe the meaning of bipartisanship and unity:
“Forget compromise with an intransigent, often-sociopathic minority. Forget trying to negotiate with the terrorist wing undeterred by political violence (or, worse, supporting it).
“Rather, pursue the larger idea of unity that comprises a wide swath of the American electorate. And don’t let elected Republicans who’ve abandoned the responsibility of representative government call the shots, as if they are genuine stand-ins for the will of the people.”
I think we are seeing a comparable reimagining and reframing on the jobs front now. By guiding the public toward the notion that trillions of dollars in investment will yield millions of new jobs and make life better in America—and that that’s not radical but rather reasonable—all the talk of jobs, jobs, jobs may really come to represent a path forward, not simply the soothing but empty promise of another politician.