With his call for a “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America,” President Biden on Tuesday night acknowledged rhetorically what Democrats have been preparing for two years: a fierce campaign to win back white working-class voters through the creation of hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs that do not require a college degree.
Mr. Biden’s economically focused State of the Union address may have avoided the cultural appeals to the white working class that former President Donald J. Trump harnessed so effectively, the grievances encapsulated by fears of immigration, racial and gender diversity, and the sloganeering of the intellectual left. But at the speech’s heart was an appeal to Congress to “finish the job” and a simple challenge. “Let’s offer every American the path to a good career whether they go to college or not,” he said.
In truth, much of that path was already laid by the last Congress with the signing of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, a $280 billion measure to rekindle a domestic semiconductor industry and the Inflation Reduction Act, which included $370 billion for low-emission energy to combat climate change.
Whether or not Mr. Biden can persuade a divided Congress to act on his remaining plans, the money from those laws has just begun to flow, and a surge of hiring is coming. Many of those jobs will be in the industrial battlegrounds that Democrats either took back from Mr. Trump in 2020 or will need in 2024, when endangered senators like Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin face re-election.
But Democrats will have to match those jobs against Republican appeals aimed at white grievances.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, ordered state agencies and universities this week to stop considering racial and ethnic diversity in hiring. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is waging a campaign against diversity, equity and inclusion efforts while funding the shipping of migrants from the Mexican border to Democratic cities. The Republican-led House is holding hearings blaming illegal immigrants for the smuggling of fentanyl that is ravaging blue-collar cities and towns, though most of the arrests in the fentanyl trade have involved American smugglers.
Republicans openly mocked Mr. Biden’s “Finish the Job” slogan, and among working-class voters, they have public opinion on their side. In a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, just 36 percent of Americans without a college degree approved of Mr. Biden’s job performance, compared with 53 percent of college graduates. His approval on economic issues was even worse, with just 31 percent of voters without a degree approving of his handling of the economy.
“Finish the job? On what? Fueling inflation? Opening the border? Lowering wages? Emptying our energy reserves?” asked Tommy Pigott, the rapid response coordinator at the Republican National Committee.
Without doubt, Democrats have their work cut out for them. About two-thirds of eligible voters do not have four-year college degrees, and over the last decade, Democrats have lost ground with them, especially with less educated white voters. In 2020, Mr. Biden won 61 percent of college graduates, but only 45 percent of voters without a four-year college degree — and just 33 percent of white voters without a four-year degree.
In a New York Times/Siena College poll in September, 59 percent of white working-class voters said Republicans were the party of the working class, compared with 28 percent who chose Democrats. Sixty-eight percent of these voters said they agreed more with Republicans than Democrats on the economy, while just 25 percent picked Democrats. Beyond economics, white working-class voters sided overwhelmingly with Republicans on building a border wall, opposing gun control, stopping illegal immigration and seeing gender as immutable and determined at birth.
Democrats, caught between those sentiments on social policy and the party’s core constituencies of people of color, women and the college-educated, are hoping that tangible improvements in well-being can persuade white voters without a college education to focus on their economic interests.
“Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back, because of the choices we made in the last two years,” Mr. Biden said on Tuesday. “This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives.”
Democratic problems with the working class are not limited to white voters. Some blue-collar Black, Latino and Asian American voters have drifted toward Republicans, and Mr. Biden rolled out a range of economic appeals aimed broadly at people who are more sensitive to high prices.
He highlighted his efforts to lower insulin costs and cited pocketbook issues recognizable to almost any consumer — what he called “junk fees.” He identified “exorbitant” bank overdraft charges; credit card late fees; “resort fees” charged by hotels; change-of-service fees by cable and internet providers; and airline “surcharges.”
“Junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most folks in homes like the one I grew up in,” Mr. Biden said. “They add up to hundreds of dollars a month.”
Other Democrats are taking a similar approach. On his first full day in office, Pennsylvania’s new Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, signed an executive order declaring that thousands of state jobs would no longer require a four-year college degree.
And it might work. The Pew Research Center found recently that 71 percent of voters with no degree beyond a high school diploma said the economy should be a top priority for the president and Congress this year, higher than any other issue.
To that end, Mr. Biden spoke of “a literal field of dreams” outside Columbus, Ohio, where a huge new Intel semiconductor plant is being built that will, he said, “create 10,000 jobs,” including “7,000 construction jobs” and “3,000 jobs once the factories are finished.” Already, unions in Ohio are ramping up training and apprenticeship programs that are explicitly favored by the federal semiconductor legislation, the CHIPS and Science Act, and reaching out to women, teenagers, veterans and other workers who have traditionally been outside the organized labor movement to prepare for the semiconductor work.
“To the extent that manufacturing is characteristic of a lot of places that will become competitors for CHIPS investment, there’s implicit orientation toward significant union history,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There are going to be significant numbers of noncollege jobs and a real opportunity for the economic inclusion of noncollege workers.”
For Ohio, that Intel plant is only the beginning. Spurred by large tax incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, Honda has announced a reworking of its Ohio plants to build electric vehicles and batteries. General Motors is retooling its plant in Toledo for electric vehicle production, and Arizona-based First Solar is dumping money into northern Ohio. In December, workers at a new E.V. battery plant outside Youngstown voted overwhelmingly to join the United Auto Workers, giving the unions a toehold in the rapidly growing battery industry.
The rebuilding of the Brent Spence Bridge connecting Kentucky to Ohio with money from the infrastructure law will employ construction workers in Cincinnati for six to 10 years. And explicit language in the federal laws mandates the payment of union-scale wages, the employment of union-trained apprentices and the purchase of American-made materials.
“We just can go on and on, but it’s real, what the president has done,” said Mike Knisley, executive secretary and treasurer of the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Council, who was at the White House for the signing of the semiconductor bill. “Everybody’s talked about it, Democrats and Republicans alike, but Biden delivered.”
Beyond the Midwest, the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 81 in Syracuse, N.Y., is scrambling to bring in thousands of new members to work at Micron’s chip plant under construction in upstate New York. Last week, Mr. Biden promoted major infrastructure projects in Baltimore, New York and New Jersey that will create tens of thousands of jobs, “every freaking one, union labor.”
None of this guarantees that rank-and-file union workers — or the 90 percent of privately employed workers who are not in a union — will shift back to the Democrats. Mr. Biden’s approval rating remains mired in the low 40s, and confidence in the economy is abysmal.
Even union workers seem to maintain skepticism. Josh Abernathy, the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Eight in Toledo, complained bitterly that while his members had been used to build a First Solar panel fabrication plant outside the city, the contractor on the project had brought in workers from Croatia and other Eastern European countries to install and maintain the fabrication equipment, work that ultimately outpaced construction jobs.
Mr. Abernathy filed a formal protest with the Biden administration’s Department of Labor, saying that imported workers — the kind of nonlocal hires the administration had vowed to stop — were making $500 every two weeks and room and board.
“We had 150 electricians out there; don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But then we were equally matched with the installation of conveyor work when we were long gone.”
Rusty Brown, who was an official with the Trump administration’s Labor Department and is now with the anti-union Freedom Foundation, said the explicit requirement that federally funded infrastructure, semiconductor and clean energy projects pay union-scale wages would mean the wasting of taxpayer money.
“This is not at all the way a normal person would run a business,” he said. “If somebody was mowing your lawn for $50 and someone else said he’d do it for $40, you’d do it. You just would.”
But he acknowledged the power of provisions in federal legislation to mandate the employment of workers trained through “registered” apprenticeship programs — more than half of which are run through the unions.
The Trump administration tried to encourage private industry to develop its own apprenticeship programs for workers without college degrees through regulation and exhortation but got nowhere, Mr. Brown said.
“It’s something I wish companies would have taken more seriously,” he sighed.
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