Opinion | ‘Bidenomics’ is fixated on manufacturing. That’s a political mistake.


DEARBORN, Mich. — “Bidenomics” still isn’t resonating with the American people. Despite ultralow unemployment, moderating inflation and (so far) no signs of a much-anticipated recession, Americans are down on the economy and President Biden’s stewardship of it.

Left-wing pundits blame partisanship for warping consumers’ perceptions or the media’s bad-news bias. Those explanations have some merit, but there’s another potential reason Democrats’ economic agenda hasn’t caught on: their myopic focus on manufacturing.

That is, maybe Americans don’t feel like Bidenomics is working for them because it seems to be fixated on a sector that almost no Americans work in anymore, that doesn’t feel relevant to their daily lives and that isn’t actually doing so great right now.

Biden and his surrogates love to talk about his investments in heavy industry. Manufacturing was the only sector that Biden mentioned when he touted Sept. 1’s jobs numbers, even though other industries such as health care and construction have grown much more relative to pre-pandemic levels. The “re-industrialization” of America is the cornerstone of Biden’s economic agenda, with government-subsidized factory investment serving as Biden’s go-to example for his pledge to “build the economy from the bottom up and the middle out.”

This might sound like a safe political strategy. Americans seem generally nostalgic about manufacturing, at least in its mid-20th-century incarnation. Back then, U.S. manufacturers dominated global markets (largely because our main competitors’ capital stock was destroyed in World War II). And hard-working Americans could go straight from high school to a solid middle-class wage on the shop floor, no postsecondary schooling necessary.

Democratic strategists also seem to believe the way to win back White non-college-educated voters here in Michigan and across the Rust Belt is to promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. But there are a few problems with this logic, which reflects assumptions about the economy and its workforce that are, oh, several decades out of date.

For one, the United States is — has long been — an overwhelmingly services-based economy.

Manufacturing represents about one-tenth of overall gross domestic product; its share of total employment is even smaller, around 8 percent. That’s because the industry has become increasingly automated and needs fewer workers for any given amount of production. The United States actually manufactures nearly as much stuff today as it ever did, by inflation-adjusted value; it just does so with fewer people and more robots.

The upshot is that the vast majority of American workers are in a services job. That’s true for men, women and workers with and without college degrees. It’s true even for workers here in Michigan.

The small subset of people who do work in manufacturing also look quite different today than in days of yore. The workforce is increasingly educated. Today, most manufacturing workers have at least some postsecondary schooling; in fact, a plurality have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Even if all those chips and battery plants got up and running ASAP, they still wouldn’t employ many of the non-college-educated White voters Dems are chasing.

What’s more, the manufacturing industry is not exactly thriving right now. The sector has been contracting for the past 10 months, according to an index maintained by the Institute for Supply Management. That’s the longest stretch since the Great Recession. Employment in manufacturing is still growing but at a slower pace than the rest of the economy.

Meanwhile, a historic auto strike could begin as soon as this week, taking 146,000 United Auto Workers members offline. This would be costly and disruptive not only for U.S. carmakers but also other companies (and employees) throughout the supply chain. The UAW president has said if a strike happens, he expects Biden to “pick a side.”

In that scenario, Biden’s focus on manufacturing would no longer seem like a harmless misfire; it could be a serious liability.

Biden’s defenders could argue that the manufacturing sector might be doing even worse without his economic agenda. Or that it’s too soon to judge because it will take a few years to see whether his policies massively ramp up manufacturing jobs. (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected last week that overall manufacturing employment will shrink over the next decade, even after accounting for investment in subsectors such as batteries.)

But that doesn’t seem to be Biden’s message. He’s urged Americans to judge the success of Bidenomics by how well manufacturing is doing today.

Even more puzzling about this framing is the fact that Biden has undertaken some policies to help service workers. For example, he’s added apprenticeships, expanded overtime eligibility and increased funding for child care (at least temporarily). He sometimes namechecks these things, but his economic sales pitch usually prioritizes his manufacturing achievements.

If the president hopes to convince Americans that “Bidenomics” has improved their lives, it might be helpful to emphasize the policies that address the typical American’s working conditions — in the sectors where they actually work.

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