In the early days of his administration, U.S. President Joe Biden has continued his campaign rhetoric on championing the needs of the middle class and working people. This policy focus unsurprisingly has animated his domestic agenda, particularly his successful passage of a pandemic economic recovery package and his newly unveiled infrastructure investment plan. But a focus on the middle class has also informed his outlook on foreign policy.
Yet drawing—and explaining—linkages between foreign policy decisions and the interests of working Americans is no straightforward task. How should the Biden administration set such an agenda and how should outside observers gauge the effectiveness of its work?
A Shift Within a Shift
Biden’s boyhood home of Scranton, Pennsylvania, is an indispensable setting to his political narrative. It anchors his identity as a child of a working-class town, as a son who remembers his father’s job loss forcing the family to move, and as a political figure who has, for half a century, kept his eye on working people and the middle class. Those who have worked closely with the president report that this is more than a schtick. In the middle of briefings on a healthcare plan, tax reform proposal, or support package for early childhood education, he will stop meetings and ask his aides to cut the mumbo jumbo and explain what the proposal means for, say, a single mom with two kids working two jobs in Canton, Ohio.
The passage of the American Rescue Plan is a start. Biden’s $1.9 trillion legislative package aims to end the coronavirus pandemic and spur the economic recovery from a pandemic-induced recession—it is the most significant piece of domestic legislation since the Affordable Care Act. In addition to short-term boosts to funding for vaccines and reopening schools, the legislation includes items that could become permanent, such as an expanded and fully refundable child tax credit projected to halve child poverty in the United States.
But Biden has vowed not only to realign domestic priorities to reduce economic inequality and support high quality jobs but also to reassess, in parallel, U.S. foreign policy to support a kind of economic nationalism focused on the middle class. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, working with Salman Ahmed, now director of policy planning at the State Department, spent two years researching a groundbreaking Carnegie report on how a variety of stakeholders in three noncoastal states understood the impact of U.S. foreign policy on their lives and livelihoods. The nomination of Katherine Tai, a longtime Capitol Hill staffer with a solid reputation among organized labor, as the U.S. Trade Representative has been seen as a signal about how the Biden administration’s domestic priorities will be reflected in its trade agenda.
There are early signs that U.S. diplomacy is shifting to support Biden’s commitment. On March 3, Antony Blinken gave his first major speech as secretary of state. The address was unusual because the nation’s chief diplomat directed his words not at foreign leaders or the people of the world, but instead at the American people. He claimed that “we’ve set the foreign policy priorities for the Biden administration by asking a few simple questions: What will our foreign policy mean for American workers and their families? What do we need to do around the world to make us stronger here at home? And what do we need to do at home to make us stronger in the world?” Each of these questions underscores a common strategic premise about the domestic foundations for U.S. strength. None of them explicitly addresses the traditional grist of foreign policy: the projection of U.S. power, confrontation with adversaries, and the U.S. role in international institutions or alliances.
Blinken’s speech articulated changes in substance and in communication. He pledged a focus on “good jobs, good incomes, and lower household costs for American workers and their families”—not entirely typical fare for a secretary of state. He explained how the State Department and the federal government have historically done a poor job of telling the American people how U.S. foreign policy connects to their sense of security and prosperity at home, and he committed to do better. What’s more, he invited evaluation on the agenda and commitments he elaborated: “If we do our jobs right, you’ll be able to check our work – to see the links between what we’re doing around the world and the goals and values [I’ve laid out].”
This declared shift in foreign policy—toward a focus on working people and the U.S. middle class—is part of a broader transformation in American politics, one that the Biden administration is both driving and surfing atop. In general, this change—driven by rising dissatisfaction with corporate capture of political institutions, growing economic inequality, persistent racial injustice, and diverse anxieties connected to globalization and technological change—involves support for a more active government role in shaping and mitigating the forces that affect people’s everyday lives. The promises of Reaganism—that American security and prosperity could be delivered by larger defense budgets, smaller domestic budgets, tax cuts, and free trade—have not been fulfilled. And there are other signs that the political agenda of the man who liked to joke that the “nine scariest words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’” is no longer the dominant backdrop of U.S. politics.
Political scientist Stephen Skowronek has characterized the eras of U.S. presidential politics as “regimes.” He shows, for example, how the Republican regime that began with Abraham Lincoln drew to an end with Herbert Hoover and was replaced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s social welfare and civil rights regime, which itself came to an end with Jimmy Carter and was replaced by Reaganism. In this rubric, former president Donald Trump, who abandoned Reagan’s commitment to lead the free world and to cheerlead free trade, was a potential harbinger of the end of another era. Now the question is whether Biden can establish a new framework that will define the next era of American politics. Pundits are beginning to suggest that he is doing just that.
In part because the shift in foreign policy is an element of this broader political tectonic shift, the task of checking the Biden administration’s work is methodologically and analytically difficult. Both background and foreground are morphing at once. Nonetheless, Blinken’s invitation to hold the administration accountable on its stated agenda raises the question: how would one assess whether or not the administration is succeeding in designing and implementing a foreign policy for American workers and the middle class?
The Assessment Challenge
To assess the administration’s success at delivering a foreign policy for the middle class, one needs to know where to look, what to look for, and how to measure it. Each of these tasks presents its own challenges.
The first piece of the puzzle is knowing where to look. If an administration promises to elevate U.S. relationships with NATO allies or to devote more diplomatic resources to the fight against climate change—as Biden has—it is easy to develop at least an initial idea of who within the government might be responsible for leading on these portfolios and what policy areas would have an impact. One of the challenges with the idea of a foreign policy for the middle class is that there is no obvious point person in the assorted foreign policy bureaucracies for such a portfolio—no analogue to the assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, for instance, or the special presidential envoy on climate.
But it is even more challenging to think of how there ever could be such a position. After all, so many aspects of foreign policy have an impact, directly or indirectly, on working people and the middle class. American workers and their families are affected not just by trade policy but also by immigration, military deployments, alliances, climate, global public health, and so on. In the hundreds of interviews that Sullivan, Ahmed, and their collaborators conducted over two years in three states, one of the common threads they found was that skepticism about foreign policy was not tied to a specific area of foreign policy as such—trade, foreign assistance, military engagement, and so on. Rather, skepticism was tied to a perceived failure to draw the lines between various foreign policy decisions and investments and the effects of these policies on good jobs and strong communities in the United States. And even the category of foreign policy, as conventionally used, may not be expansive enough: as the Carnegie report’s authors found, “Many of those interviewed across Colorado, Nebraska, and Ohio perceived issues such as trade adjustment assistance, foreign direct investment, and immigration as ‘foreign policy’ issues, even though they tend to be dealt with in the domestic policy arena.” With this in mind, what the Biden administration has committed to is not a specific objective or policy area but rather a lens for virtually every foreign policy discussion. So where should observers look? If almost everything is plausibly relevant to the middle class, then that lens is not helpfully discriminating. Moreover, analysis of one subarea of foreign policy cannot prove or disprove that the administration’s foreign policy writ large is for the middle class.
And while the idea of a foreign policy for the middle class represents a distinct motivation or lodestar for policymakers, it does not follow that one should expect a wholesale transformation or reversal of all policies. Whether or not previous administrations were putting the welfare of the middle class on the agenda for National Security Council (NSC) meetings, many of the day-to-day foreign policy positions of the U.S. government have been relatively consistent over recent decades and have arguably aligned—intentionally or not—with the interests of the middle class reasonably well. So it would not make sense to expect a simple binary or across-the-board revisions to existing foreign policy even if one accepts that the current administration intends a fairly fundamental rethink of how policies will be developed, prioritized, and evaluated.
So there is no single point person in the government, no singularly prioritized subarea of foreign policy on which to focus, and no reasonable expectation that prioritizing the middle class would require a dramatic or detectable shift in most areas of policy. None of this is to say that it is impossible to find areas on which to focus such analysis, only that the scope is unavoidably wide.
Aware of these caveats, what would one look for to assess the degree to which the administration is living up to its commitment to pursue a foreign policy for the middle class? Policymaking is a human-executed process, and several key inputs may warrant evaluation: public statements; organization and personnel; policy and process; and outcomes.
Statements of Strategic Objectives or Guiding Principles
Okay, this first point is kind of an easy one. But it is important. The administration’s promise to prioritize the interests of the middle class ought to be reflected in the administration’s formal statements of priorities. The interim national security strategic guidance issued by the White House in March 2021 revives priorities outlined by previous administrations—broadly speaking, the big three are security, prosperity, and values. But the Biden administration makes additional claims that link each of these to working people and the middle class. With respect to security, the guidance declares:
As we make good on our promise to place the American people—and especially working families—at the center of our national security strategy, our policies must reflect a basic truth: in today’s world, economic security is national security. And the strength of the American middle class—the backbone of this nation—is a longstanding American advantage.
In addition to this reframing of security, the guidance argues for changes to the way that Americans understand prosperity—which too often has been measured only in terms of overall GDP growth. “We have an enduring interest in expanding economic prosperity and opportunity, but we must redefine America’s economic interests in terms of working families’ livelihoods, rather than corporate profits or aggregate national wealth,” the document avers.
And finally, in terms of values, the strategic guidance focuses on challenges to democracy. The president’s foreword states, “We must now demonstrate—with a clarity that dispels any doubt—that democracy can still deliver for our people and for people around the world.” And the task of showing that democracy can deliver is linked to making life better for working people and “building back better our economic foundations.”
Thus, this early statement defines security, prosperity, and democracy as rooted—at least in part—in the welfare of working people and the middle class. In addition, the interim guidance includes a general principle focused on working people: “In everything we do, we will aim to make life better, safer, and easier for working families in America.”
The interim strategic guidance—and a similar document on trade policy—deserve strong marks for formalizing Biden’s and his team’s campaign commitments and public statements. But one must look beyond statements of intent.
Organization and Personnel
If something is a presidential priority, or is expected to be a standing area of policy, the bureaucracy of the U.S. government usually reflects this—or evolves to do so. Carter’s creation of what became the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the State Department, former president George W. Bush’s consolidation of several functions into the Department of Homeland Security, and former president Barack Obama’s creation of a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan—these are all different examples, some temporary, some permanent, of such bureaucratic evolution.
As discussed above, there is no single point person for a foreign policy for the middle class in the bureaucracy that Biden has inherited. And because foreign policy issues that affect working people could encompass so many different things, it probably does not make much sense to create one. Nonetheless, one might look for a focus on economic statecraft and on the connections between foreign policy and domestic policy, particularly in places where the White House and Cabinet officials have latitude to elevate certain areas of focus.
Unlike State Department bureaus and other similar offices, the substantive organization of the NSC is left to each president’s discretion. Biden’s NSC, headed by Sullivan, has a senior director for international economics and competitiveness, for example, whose portfolio includes a focus on industrial policy and jobs in the United States. And Sullivan and his counterpart at the Domestic Policy Council, Susan Rice, have both spoken about breaking down the barriers between foreign and domestic policy to better align policy initiatives with the interests of the American people.
It will be interesting, for example, to see how Blinken uses the undersecretary job at the State Department, a position that has historically focused on economic statecraft, and whether he might reframe the mandate of that position with a domestic focus. Jose Fernandez—a Cuban American immigrant and former assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, who is a mergers and acquisitions attorney and a partner in the law firm Gibson Dunn—was announced as Biden’s pick for the post in mid-March. In the Obama administration, the position was held by a Goldman Sachs executive and then an Apple executive.
The old adage that personnel is policy applies to the question of foreign policy for the middle class. This is especially true given that past policies have been critiqued for skewing things in favor of the rich and corporations at the expense of middle- and working-class wages and jobs. This critique has resonated, in part, because the personnel responsible for developing and implementing policies have often been drawn from the ranks of the super wealthy and from corporate executive suites. The Trump administration’s cabinet—with a treasury secretary from Goldman Sachs, a billionaire secretary of commerce with multiple alleged conflicts of interest, and a secretary of state who had been CEO of ExxonMobil (not to mention others)—raised questions about whose interests the federal government was prioritizing.
And it is not just the past institutional affiliations of senior officials that matter—their personal experiences do too. Put simply, it is hard to imagine a foreign policy for the middle class that is crafted only or mainly by people who themselves have no experience of middle class life. In this respect, an ancillary benefit of the Biden administration’s focus on building a foreign policy team (and an administration) that “looks like America” may be that there are more people from working- and middle-class families serving in policymaking positions. Of course, anyone serving as a cabinet secretary or senior White House official is likely to have been at the top of his or her field. But there is a difference in life experience between people with inherited wealth who have gone from private high schools to private colleges to large financial firms and those who have gone from public high schools to top colleges and then have become distinguished academics or public interest attorneys.
Policy and Process
Another point of evaluation are the policies themselves. Do the policy changes and initiatives advanced by the administration reflect a foreign policy agenda for the middle class? There is no authoritative preordained list of policies that are pro– or anti–middle class. So what is really being evaluated here is the good faith efforts of the administration. Two components of policy development that might be evaluated are process and rationale.
The process of policy development in the U.S. government can be top down (through a directive from the president or a cabinet member) or bottom up (something that starts with field work or research somewhere in the bureaucracy and rises up). Either way, such proposals generally involve some amount of bureaucratic review and iteration. At the White House, the foreign policy process is coordinated across executive branch agencies by several layers of NSC meetings. This process entails iterative meetings at various levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy, with the core interagency policy committee (IPC) meetings at the assistant secretary level delegating topics for workshopping to sub-IPC meetings at the deputy assistant secretary level before kicking them up to deputies meetings (of relevant deputies to cabinet members) for review. Some combination of these meetings usually precede any formal decisions by the president along with the Principals Committee (made up of cabinet officials). The White House interagency process works in addition to internal processes, both formal and ad hoc, at various agencies engaged in foreign policy and national security matters.
One simple question, then, is where in the policy development process will the interests of the middle class be considered? Will Sullivan or Jon Finer, his principal deputy, direct that the impact of a given policy on the middle class become a standing agenda item in interagency meetings? One of the overall findings of last year’s Carnegie report was that “the prime directive of everyone in the foreign policy community—not just those responsible for international economics and trade—should include developing and advancing a wide range of policies abroad that contribute to economic and societal renewal at home.” Will there be some way of systematically assessing policies for their impact on working Americans?
When policies are announced, it is reasonable to expect that this administration, like others, will assert that its foreign policy choices are good and necessary for Americans. So the mere assertion that a particular policy is consistent with a foreign policy for the middle class is not a high enough bar. Moreover, reasonable people can disagree about whether a policy is actually well-suited to its objectives. To take an example outside the current discussion: even those who agree on the objective of a negotiated two-state solution in the Middle East might disagree on the specific policies that might advance that objective. That means the mere fact that a credible voice critiques a particular policy as insufficiently effective in advancing the interests of working people is not enough to disqualify it. Instead, what one should look for is a good faith rationale—an explanation of why certain relevant policies are consistent with the stated commitment to deliver for working people. Such a rationale includes a theory of action that summarizes the likely causal mechanisms that will deliver the desired outcomes.
Of course, the most important feature of a foreign policy for the middle class is whether that policy delivers. Does such an agenda secure desirable, and ideally optimal, outcomes for working people in America? But making such an assessment is complicated by multiple challenges.
First, determining the impacts particular foreign policies have on working people in America is likely to be extraordinarily difficult. For one thing, there are significant time lags—the impact of foreign policy on the middle class is likely to be felt in years, or even decades, not in weeks or months. Second, even after time has passed, it will be difficult to draw specific causal linkages. Many impacts, whether positive or negative, will be the results of a combination of multiple policy decisions, exogenous events, demographic shifts, and other factors. Certain outcomes will therefore appear overdetermined or impossible to link decisively to a particular policy decision. This is not to say that one can never draw such causal connections: it only means that it is difficult and arguably more difficult than with many examples of domestic policy decisions.
Moreover, even if causal impacts can be traced, the idea of a foreign policy for the middle class assumes that there is some common understanding of what ends such a policy entails for purposes of evaluation. In short, to say that a policy is pro–middle class, one must implicitly or explicitly assert an answer to the normative question of what is good for the middle class and working people.
Most commentators assume that, when someone says a policy is good for working people in America, they mean it is good for them economically—in terms of some measure of rising incomes (relative to the prices of core expenses associated with a desirable middle class life). But, even if such economic considerations are a core element of what pro–middle class policies look like, is economic welfare the only relevant consideration? Isn’t climate action pro–middle class if it is essential to the long-term security of working Americans and their children? What about the health of American democracy and the strength of the institutions intended to protect the rights of individuals to craft and express free lives of their own choosing? (Indeed, isn’t a focus on democratic values an integral part of the rejection of the Chinese government’s focus on economic progress to the exclusion of political rights?)
The Biden administration’s interim strategy—and the way it links working people to security, prosperity, and values—suggests a more nuanced view of what might qualify a policy as pro–working family. That said, for the most part the administration seems to be portraying economic progress of working people as a functional contribution to advancing the security and values components of U.S. national security strategy, rather than suggesting that working people may care about security and values as such and see those ends reflected in their interests.
Perhaps one way to assess the merits of a particular policy for the middle class would be simply to ask middle-class and working people. Underlying every effort of politicians and public officials to build public support for a policy agenda is a set of assumptions about what people want. One of the best ways to discover what people actually want is to ask them. For this reason, polling, focus groups, and more anthropological-style field work interviews like those that Ahmed, Sullivan, and their collaborators used for their Carnegie report could be essential components of evaluating the Biden administration’s progress. Conventional wisdom holds that American voters do not care about foreign policy—or at least do not care enough about foreign policy to let it influence their voting choices—making it (presumed to be) politically insignificant. Perhaps a foreign policy for the middle class can challenge that assumption by showing working people in America what is in foreign policy for them.
A Rubric for Checking the Biden Administration’s Work
Notwithstanding the many challenges of doing so, in the spirit of answering Blinken’s call to “check our work,” here is an attempt at a report card for the Biden administration’s pursuit of a foreign policy for the middle class, one that could be periodically updated (see figure 1).
The report card invites an appraisal of the administration’s progress on the four areas highlighted above. Understandably, there are some areas where the Biden administration has already made progress and others where it is too soon to evaluate.
Making a Strong Case for Middle Class–Centered Diplomacy
A foreign policy agenda for working Americans can sound like a rationale for pulling back from the world or eschewing international engagement in favor of domestic priorities. It can even seem like a gentler, more sophisticated version of Trump’s so-called America First agenda. But what Biden has promised is not a form of neo-isolationism; it is, rather, an evolved form of internationalism.
This is the view that Biden’s interim national security guidance presents. The document depicts a world in which the geopolitical challenge to democracy and a democratic way of life is very real and cannot be addressed effectively without getting America’s own house in order. It grapples with a world in which global threats like pandemics and climate change pose local threats in small towns and big cities across America, threats that cannot be addressed without U.S. global leadership and international cooperation. And it responds to a world in which economic competition and technology-driven change threaten the jobs of millions of Americans—a world where U.S. engagement on setting standards, enforcing rules of the road, and leveling playing fields can position U.S. workers to actively adapt to inevitable changes rather than have those changes happen to them.
To win support for the policies that follow from this worldview, the Biden team will have to consistently do what Blinken promised and demonstrated in his speech: show the American people how foreign policy matters in their lives and what U.S. foreign policy makers and diplomats are doing to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms for working Americans.