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'NYT' Reporter Discusses Economic Influence In 2020 Election

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to shift our attention to the economy now. It's a central message from each candidate ahead of the election. That's because the economy is still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to control it. With double-digit unemployment and a slow economic recovery, it's clear this will be one of the major lines on which this election will be fought. And that got us thinking about how each party is making their case for how to fix it.

Jim Tankersley has thought a lot about this. He's the economics reporter for The New York Times and author of the new book "The Riches Of This Land: The Untold, True Story Of America's Middle Class." And he's with us now to share some perspective.

Jim Tankersley, welcome.

JIM TANKERSLEY: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Well, in a recent piece in The New York Times, you compare how the two presidential candidates are framing the economy. And you write that President Trump has, quote, "built an enduring brand with conservative voters. Many of those voters praise his economic stewardship before the pandemic hit, and they do not blame him for the damage it has caused." So just what is President Trump's message in a nutshell?

TANKERSLEY: The message that the president is really trying to get across to voters is the idea that he supercharged the economy, made the economy better than it had ever been as president and that events outside his control came into play during the start of the pandemic and that now he alone knows how to rebuild the economy again because he had done so much successful work in the first place that, gee, he's the guy you want to trust to do it again now.

MARTIN: And you suggest that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has a way to go on convincing voters on his plans. You write that Biden is, quote, "far from commanding on the issue. Voters were split almost evenly into thirds on the question of whether the economy would be better, worse or about the same now if he were president." So, in a nutshell, what is his plan as he defined it? And why are voters so skeptical about it, especially given the results that the Obama-Biden team did, in fact, deliver?

TANKERSLEY: I think part of it is if you look at Joe Biden's record that he did help President Obama architect a long expansion. But that expansion took a long time to start working for the middle class. You had - I interviewed Joe Biden when I was at the Post in 2016, and he conceded that he - they had not done the work they wanted to do fast enough to help middle-class Americans recover.

And so he can't look back at the expansion under Obama and say, everything was great from the get-go when I was, you know, hoping to be in charge. It's a more nuanced story. And what we know in politics is nuanced stories are more difficult to tell.

MARTIN: One of the things I found fascinating about your new book, "The Riches Of This Land" - you make the case that President Trump could have produced the stellar figures he pretends to have achieved. He could have done so, but he didn't. So how could he have done so, and why didn't he?

TANKERSLEY: In the times in the past, after World War II in particular, when America succeeded and grew the economy and pulled millions of people into the middle class, it did so on the backs of greater empowerment of workers in the economy who had been denied opportunity. What that really means is women and - of all races and men of color and immigrants. When we tore down barriers to advancement for those workers, the entire economy thrived.

And the president could have tried to engineer another sort of productivity boom like that by once again attacking the things that are holding back women and workers of color and immigrants, particularly high-skilled immigrants. But instead, he focused on tax cuts and on immigration restrictions and very focused on trying to bring back the jobs that white men in particular had held in the middle class, manufacturing jobs. He didn't really succeed in doing that. There's no evidence of a big reshoring boom under President Trump.

And his focus on trying to revive an economy of the past, I think, is one of the reasons why we haven't seen this productivity boom that will lead to the jobs of the future.

MARTIN: Are there policies that people of both sides could embrace that would, in fact, yield to better outcomes?

TANKERSLEY: No matter where you are in the ideological spectrum, there is a way you can attack the problem of clearing down barriers for opportunity, and I think child care is a great example. We could do a lot of things on the - sort of the conservative market supply side, ways to increase the number of child care providers in the country and remove the barriers to setting up good-quality child care. But on the demand side, we could do more to subsidize child care to make sure that people have access to it.

But there are other policies, too. I mean, we've seen - again, on the conservative side - there's a lot of government regulations like occupational licensing that really do hold back workers of color and on, you know, on more interventionist government side.

And the government could be doing a lot more to enforce anti-discrimination laws, which I argue sort of is fundamental to the economy's health, is the idea that we need to eradicate discrimination - not just say we're going to eradicate it, but actually, companies need to actually go at every level through their hiring and retention and promotion processes and ask, are we doing right by people who are not white men? And if companies and government and individuals can make those commitments, I really think there's just a huge amount of potential to unlock here.

MARTIN: That's Jim Tankersley, economics reporter for The New York Times. His new book, "The Riches Of This Land: The Untold, True Story Of America's Middle Class," is out now.

Jim Tankersley, thank you so much for talking with us.

TANKERSLEY: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAXIM VENGEROV'S "WIENAWSKI: LEGENDE OP.17") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.