Biden's Populist Re-Elect Starts with Junk Fees
The President's focus on a small bore issue is part of larger strategy
In the middle of Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, I received a text from a smart Democrat who wrote, “This speech feels very V-Chip/school uniforms.”
Now that reference only makes sense to political nerds of a certain generation. “V-Chip” and “school uniforms” are pejorative shorthand for the poll-tested, small bore centrist policies of President Bill Clinton specifically designed to appeal to everyone and offend no one. For the less old, non-nerds, a “V-Chip” was a piece of technology that was supposed to give parents the power to prevent their children from accessing adult-oriented TV programming.
The text was in response to this extended section of the speech:
Junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most folks in homes like the one I grew up in. They add up to hundreds of dollars a month. They make it harder for you to pay the bills or afford that family trip. I know how unfair it feels when a company overcharges you and gets away with it.
We’ve written a bill to stop all that. It’s called the Junk Fee Prevention Act. We’ll ban surprise “resort fees” that hotels tack on to your bill. These fees can cost you up to $90 a night at hotels that aren’t even resorts.We’ll make cable, internet, and cellphone companies stop charging you up to $200 or more when you decide to switch to another provider. We’ll cap service fees on tickets to concerts and sporting events and make companies disclose all fees upfront. And we’ll prohibit airlines from charging up to $50 roundtrip for families just to sit together.
Baggage fees are bad enough – they can’t just treat your child like a piece of luggage.
This passage stood out for several reasons. It’s unusual to hear a President delineate the picayune pet peeves of frequent travels. And this everyday specificity stood in stark contrast to the very big themes in the rest of the speech — economic fairness and the battle against autocracy at home and abroad.
For a lot of Democrats “V Chips/school uniforms” is an insult. It represents risk aversion and prioritizing winning elections over helping people. Bill Clinton’s presidency was about a lot more than these sorts of cynical proposals. He did enormous, important things and, in fairness, he was operating in a difficult political environment with a right-of-center electorate. But this narrative stuck and became a lesson in what not to do. In fact, in the retellings of his presidency, V-chip politics were billed as the secret to his success.
In some sense, Barack Obama’s entire 2008 campaign for President was in opposition to the politics of school uniforms. Here’s a key section from the speech that fueled Obama’s victory in the Iowa Caucus:
And that is why the same old Washington textbook campaigns just won’t do in this election. That’s why not answering questions ‘cause we are afraid our answers won’t be popular just won’t do. That’s why telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won’t do. Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we’re worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won’t do. If we are really serious about winning this election, Democrats, we can’t live in fear of losing it.
Hillary Clinton, herself, organized her 2016 presidential campaign in opposition to this version of her husband’s tenure.
President Biden’s first two years focused on enacting transformational legislation on par with FDR’s New Deal. Is he shifting his position as he undertakes a very tough reelection campaign?
Not so fast.
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