Tapping populist shift, GOP labels Biden elitist
WASHINGTON - President-elect Joe Biden, a state-college graduate who was once the poorest man in the U.S. Senate, is facing accusations of elitism from Republicans after defeating a billionaire incumbent with an Ivy League degree - a sign of how the politics of populism have been upended and redefined by President Donald Trump.
In recent days, Republican lawmakers have sought to describe Biden's early Cabinet selections as well-heeled and well-pedigreed but out of touch with the kinds of problems facing everyday Americans.
After Biden won the presidency in part by claiming a larger share of college-educated suburban voters, some of his GOP foes see his early moves as an opportunity to brand him as an elitist president catering to the nation's coastal professionals at the expense of its heartland laborers. The burgeoning dynamic underscores how the battle over populism is likely to animate the nation's politics even after Trump leaves the White House and is replaced by a man who has called himself "Middle Class Joe."
While Trump's populism often manifested in style rather than substance, he was able to appeal to a unique coalition of voters that politicians from both parties are now aiming to capture in a post-Trump era, said Amy Walter, national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
"It's this us-versus-them mentality - a belief system that there's a real America, and we're the only party fighting for it," Walter said. "I think that's where Trump was the most successful, and I don't know how well anyone else is going to be able to do that."
Biden's initial Cabinet selections are giving some Republicans with national ambitions a first shot at trying.
His decision to nominate Harvard-educated Antony Blinken for secretary of state, Yale-educated Jake Sullivan for national security adviser and Yale-educated former secretary of state John Kerry as the special presidential envoy for climate sparked immediate backlash among Republicans aiming to take up the populist mantle.
"Biden's cabinet picks went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumes, attend all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America's decline," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote on Twitter. "I support American greatness. And I have no interest in returning to the 'normal' that left us dependent on China."
Rubio's missive was echoed by a handful of other GOP senators, including some who also have been floated as potential presidential candidates in 2024. Each tried to make an anti-elitist case against Biden's team of educated, experienced officials with backgrounds in government and international diplomacy.
The attacks highlight the delicate balance Biden may have to strike to stand up a government capable of carrying out his policies without ceding ground to GOP contenders hoping to re-create Trump's success with White working-class voters in 2016 and his modest improvements with working-class minorities in 2020.
Biden made direct appeals to those voters during his campaign, often using populist language of his own to describe his policies and approach to governing.
Branding himself a son of middle-class Scranton, Pa., Biden campaigned against Trump's tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and tried to cast the presidential race as "Scranton versus Park Avenue."
He repeatedly highlighted his University of Delaware education, noting that it would differentiate him from previous presidents who attended Ivy League schools.
"We're used to guys who look down their nose at us, or people who look at us and think that we're suckers, look at us and they think that we don't, that we're not equivalent to that," Biden said during a CNN town hall in September.
He attacked "guys like Trump" for thinking "you must be stupid, if in fact you didn't get to go to an Ivy school."
In contrast, Trump has boasted about his Ivy League degree from the University of Pennsylvania while mocking Biden for his educational credentials.
"Don't ever use the word smart with me," Trump told Biden during the first presidential debate. "Don't ever use that word. Because you know what? There's nothing smart about you, Joe."
Trump's Cabinet was the wealthiest in modern history, filled with well-educated secretaries with resumes bearing such names as Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil and OneWest Bank Group. While the president touted their pedigrees, calling some of them "killers," he also embraced a nationalist governing philosophy that resonated with working-class voters who welcomed his brash attacks on Washington's elites and the ills of globalism.
Republican officials are hoping to build on that playbook by attacking Biden and his incoming team with a similar theme.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., took to Twitter to attack Biden's preferred Cabinet as "a group of corporatists and war enthusiasts."
"Take Tony Blinken. He's backed every endless war since the Iraq invasion," Hawley, who attended Yale Law School, wrote earlier this week. "Now he works for #BigTech and helps companies break into #China. He has no sense of what working Americans want or need."
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted that Biden was "surrounding himself with panda huggers who will only reinforce his instincts to go soft on China." Cotton, a Harvard Law graduate, accused another Biden nominee of "selling Green Cards to Chinese nationals on behalf of rich, democratic donors."
The decision by Rubio, Hawley and Cotton to focus on China indicate one way Republicans may attempt to constrict Biden after he takes office in January. Their strategy has been to draw a sharp line between global forces and American workers, then accuse Biden and his team of being too globally minded to make the right decision about where to stand.
"President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris just won an historic, landslide victory running on 'Scranton versus Park Avenue,' with a platform shaped by many of the very same advisers that puts the American middle class at the heart of this administration's agenda," Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. "These are nominees who have lived the American Dream and earned their credentials through hard work and determination, including a Black woman who was educated in segregated schools and a Cuban American who came to this country as a refugee."
Bates added, "The Biden-Harris ticket was also the first elected in decades on which neither candidate ever attended an Ivy League school. At the same time, as Senators Cotton and Hawley can attest, there's nothing wrong with having an Ivy League degree. We look forward to working with these members in good faith."
Biden has said he would take a tough stance against China, and he has attacked Trump for praising Chinese President Xi Jinping during the early weeks of the pandemic when Beijing was not cooperating with American scientists to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The president-elect has also sought to cast himself as a champion of populist policies while rejecting some of the more liberal ideas within his party that Republicans have branded as socialism.
Still, the coordinated attacks on Biden's incoming administration threaten to complicate the early days of his presidency.
Biden has already faced calls to forgive billions of dollars in student loan debt through executive action. Republicans have lashed out against such a move, pointing out that its benefits skew toward those wealthy enough to attend college and graduate school.
Democratic leaders have also sought to use pandemic-response legislation to eliminate a cap on state and local tax deductions put in place by Trump's 2017 tax bill. But the benefits of such a move would largely help wealthy homeowners in high-tax states, opening Democrats to charges of prioritizing the rich over the middle class.
The pandemic, which Biden has said would be his first priority when he takes office, also presents class-based challenges on both a public health and economic front. Poor Americans have been disproportionately harmed by the deadly virus, and the country is experiencing a K-shaped recovery in which wealthy people are prospering while jobless claims, layoffs and food lines grow.
In the middle of a pandemic in which Democrats have been more willing to push stay-at-home orders and other mitigation measures, Republicans have accused them of seeing the world through the eyes of a privileged class of workers able to conduct their work from home. Some Democrats including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom have come under attack for not following their own virus guidelines.
After Trump campaigned by saying Biden wanted to shut down the nation's economy - something that would disproportionately harm low-income workers - Biden has repeatedly had to declare that he would not favor such a move.
"I am not going to shut down the economy, period," Biden told reporters last week at a news conference. "I'm going to shut down the virus."
For emphasis, he repeated: "No national shutdown."
For his part, Trump has never worried about being seen as too elitist - instead leaning into his businessman background and taste for the high life. He spent much of the Thanksgiving holiday playing golf at his private club in Virginia, which he has frequented throughout his presidency.
While flouting his wealth, Trump has often tried to bring his supporters along for the ride - casting himself as their champion against those traditionally seen as society's elite.
During rallies, Trump has boasted about how he has "nicer houses," "nicer apartments" and "nicer everything" than his foes.
"You know the way they talk about the elite?" Trump told a crowd of supporters at a September rally in Michigan. "I see them, they're not elite, you're the elite. . . . You're the super-elite."