‘It’s ceding a lot of terrain to us’: Biden goes populist with little pushback

The right’s muted response to Biden’s orders underscores the remarkable ideological shift that’s occurring in Washington, D.C. A Republican Party once closely allied with corporate America finds itself increasingly less so in the Donald Trump era. Indeed, in the aftermath of Biden’s orders, even officials in Trump’s orbit were saying the politics were smart.

“Both [Biden and Trump] have elements in their constituencies that want this, and, by the way, they’re on solid ground with the rest of America,” said a Trump adviser. “America has a love-hate relationship with these companies.”

But, so far, much of the GOP’s newfound economic populism has been delivered in words rather than action. And that’s given Democrats space to pursue an agenda that, even just five years ago, likely would have sparked massive blowback.

“People will understand who’s on their side and who’s not,” said Cedric Richmond, a senior White House adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement. “There will be Democrats who are on the side of working families, and not Republicans. For them, I think it’s a terrible mistake.”

The executive order Biden issued earlier this month included 72 initiatives in all. Among the most consequential were his moves calling for greater scrutiny of tech acquisitions, bolstering competition for generic drug makers and importers from Canada, allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter, standardizing plans for health care shoppers trying to compare insurance options, and protecting certain meat-packing workers from what are seen as artificially low wages.

It was another prong in what economic observers view as an increasingly populist White House agenda. Earlier, Biden had stated his commitment to waiving intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and nominated Amazon critic and anti-monopoly advocate Lina Khan to chair the Federal Trade Commission.

Some of Biden’s actions came on issues that already had Republican support, including the effort to bring down the price of hearing aids, discouraging agricultural consolidation and limiting so-called noncompete agreements that harm U.S. workers, among others. Twenty-one Republicans backed Khan’s nomination.

The cross-partisan appeal around anti-monopoly policies traces back even further. During the 2016 election, Trump ran on promises to combat big mergers and take on massive corporations that he said posed a “huge antitrust problem.” Following Trump’s loss, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) have called for sweeping antitrust reform in Congress that at times echoes Democratic efforts. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, one of the most influential voices to the right, cheered the choice of Khan to lead the FTC.

“There’s an increased recognition that concentration across all corporate sectors is really stifling the economy and hurting people,” said David Segal, executive director of digital rights group Demand Progress and co-chair of the Freedom from Facebook and Google coalition. “In some cases it’s an actual recognition of that and in others there’s a recognition at least of the political salience of the issue.”

Instead of going after Biden for targeting big businesses, Republicans have focused on Covid-related policies and spending, immigration and fears of inflation. Meanwhile, party activists and much of the conservative media ecosystem are prioritizing cultural war issues, from conspiracies about Dr. Seuss works being prohibited to the teaching of critical race theory in schools.

Celinda Lake, one of Biden’s lead campaign pollsters, called it a departure from Trump, who engaged repeatedly in cultural warfare but also weaved in economic populist threads. “They seem to be only doing one right now. And that’s surprising and it’s ceding a lot of terrain to us,” Lake said.

The White House has been pleased with the open field they’ve been given to chart a more populist path. In strategy calls with allied groups, administration officials have pointed to polling showing strong support for taxing the wealthy, while Lake said survey data she’s reviewed found high popularity across the ideological spectrum for breaking up Big Tech and making companies like Amazon pay more in taxes.

“I think [Republicans] are worried about getting on the wrong side of some of that,” she said of the GOP elected officials who largely didn’t cheer Biden’s actions, but didn’t criticize them either.

Segal, a former state lawmaker from Rhode Island, said the Biden administration reflects a more modern Democratic Party — one animated by liberal figures like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and more willing to embrace antitrust issues. Biden at several points has called out Amazon and Facebook, telling a TV reporter Friday that the social media giant is “killing people” by failing to police its users trafficking in vaccine disinformation.

“Biden himself has moved. He’s brought in some people who are progressive and very concerned and willing to use public power to regulate industries for the betterment of society,” Segal said. “And there are certain other people who might have been more corporatist in their leanings, a couple of decades ago, who seem to have shifted in their thinking about these issues, at least in some cases.”

James Sherk, director of the Center for American Freedom at the America First Policy Institute, a policy nonprofit led by Trump White House officials, said there is agreement among the right and left on antitrust issues. But he argued that the agreement was limited.

“I think there is a growing recognition on the right that some of these concentrated corporate powers can be a problem and it’s been used to drive a political agenda that folks on the right disagree firmly with,” he said. “I think that tech platforms de-platforming Trump was a watershed moment for people on the right.”

“Democrats though,” he added, “are quite happy with tech platforms playing ideological censor and policing discourse and taking down what they term misinformation.”

Sherk predicted that instead of trying to work with the Biden administration, conservatives, including his group, would focus on changes at the state level instead. One recent example was legislation by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that would fine social media companies if they censored political candidates and other users. A federal judge in Florida issued a preliminary injunction against the law, which would have gone into effect at the beginning of July, citing the First Amendment and Section 230 laws.

Others in Trump’s orbit concede that there is symmetry between the last administration and the current one on anti-monopoly issues. And they fear that the overlap may actually create a coalition for federal policy to be put in place.

“It’s really amazing, we have something Biden and Trump agree on, they want to go after big tech companies,” said Stephen Moore, who was an economic adviser to Trump. “It’s a dangerous time because we have the Josh Hawleys of the world linking forces with the Elizabeth Warrens of the world, and it’s really troubling to me as a free market guy.”

While elected Republicans have been relatively quiet about Biden’s orders taking aim at corporate power, business groups have not. Neil Bradley, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, contended that the action “smacks of a ‘government knows best’ approach to managing the economy,” while the Business Roundtable’s Josh Bolten added it “could undermine rather than enhance U.S. competitiveness.”

But the Chamber carries far less weight with Republicans than it has in the past, owing to its decision during the past election to back several Democratic candidates and its repeated breaks with Trump on issues like tariffs and immigration. And unlike during the Obama years — when the Chamber’s opposition to legislative initiatives caused deep alarm inside the administration — the Biden White House has shown no hesitancy around its anti-monopoly platform.

Instead, White House officials have proactively argued that new business formation has slowed considerably over the last four-plus decades because of corporate concentration of power. And in interviews, Biden’s economic advisers and liaisons to corporate America framed the effort as needed to increase competition.

“The pandemic has demonstrated how important it is to have a competent government that is looking out for people’s best interest,” Ramamurti said. “And I think as a result, has opened the door to other types of competent targeted actions that are intended to improve people’s lives.”

Richmond said he wasn’t surprised by the relatively staid pushback from the right. The administration is in frequent touch with major CEOs, business leaders and industry associations, and Biden himself telegraphed the trajectory of where he was headed during the campaign and in the White House.

“Kitchen table issues are issues you win elections on,” Richmond said. “We have a robust economy coming back. I think those are the things that people will sit around the table and recognize.”