At first presidential debate Biden's dilemma on the economy is Trump's opportunity

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As Joe Biden walks into the first presidential debate Tuesday night in Cleveland, Ohio, he is also walking into a dilemma of his own making. To win the backing of his party, he has signed onto the most far-left economic agenda in a generation or more. To win centrist voters, he is claiming to be nothing more than a pro-worker moderate.

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Enabled by friendly media, his strategy so far has been to dodge the dilemma by ducking the details. And you can be sure he’ll try that again Tuesday night. But for the sake of workers who deserve to know the economic stakes in this election, President Trump should make Biden come clean on where he really stands.

A big reason Biden is on Tuesday night’s debate stage is because he was willing to follow his party to the left on the economy.

In a primary dominated by progressive voices calling for free health care, free college, higher taxes, and tens of trillions of new spending on a Green New Deal, Biden moved left to move up.

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With the help of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., supporters, Biden has put his stamp of approval on nearly $4 trillion in new taxes, at least twice that much in new spending, and a program of regulation that would upend America’s energy sector and raise energy cost for tens of millions of Americans.

All of this has helped him win the backing of former rivals like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., but it’s put him in a precarious situation with swing-state voters.

Biden says he’s committed to growing employment in manufacturing hubs throughout key battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. But workers in these industries know that his promise to regulate, restrict, and move away from America’s increasingly cheap and abundant energy sources would hammer manufacturers.

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In the aftermath of the Great Recession, they watched as ineffectual government spending and new regulations hamstrung the jobs recovery and suppressed wage growth. They’re not looking for a repeat.

In the meantime, under a Trump administration that prioritized making America’s tax and regulatory policies more competitive, those workers felt the lift that comes from a growing economy.

Last year, median income hit record highs, poverty rates hit generational lows, and wage growth grew fastest for those on the bottom end of the pay scale.

Even in the wake of the devastation of the coronavirus shutdowns, the faster-than-expected comeback in jobs, consumer spending, big-ticket purchases, and housing suggests the pre-pandemic economy retains much of its strength.

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Biden knows he’s in a vulnerable position on the economy and the polls show it. His track record is flimsy, his policy proposals are radical, and his rhetoric can’t cover up either.

On the campaign trail, he’s simply avoided the issue, preferring instead to talk vaguely about the president’s failed leadership rather than his own plans to offer something better.  Expect nothing different on the debate stage.

But voters deserve to know Biden’s real economic identity, and they deserve to hear it from him. President Trump should take the debate as an opportunity to make that happen. He should press Biden on the harm higher taxes would do to a recovering economy, on how he intends to pay for trillions in new spending, and on what his regulatory agenda for the energy sector would cost businesses and families.

An honest answer from Biden would be refreshing, but a non-answer is more likely, and would be just as revealing. It would confirm that, for all his moderate posturing, Biden is beholden to the extreme left of his party. And if he’s elected come November, America’s workers will be, too.

Brian Brenberg is a professor of Business and Economics at The King’s College in Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianBrenberg.

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