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Biden wants to reshape the economy by investing in America, not unlike Trump

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

As President Biden gears up for his reelection bid, there's a central theme he keeps repeating. Invest in America. It's a vision of how Biden wants the government to help reshape the economy. It's something experts call industrial policy. NPR's White House correspondent Asma Khalid has more.

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ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: It's a busy morning at Marlin Steel in Baltimore.

DREW GREENBLATT: This laser is using light to cut steel.

KHALID: Drew Greenblatt owns this manufacturing plant, where workers cut, bend and weld steel into specialty wire baskets. They'll end up everywhere from labs to factories. In 2020, when COVID hit and supply chains got snarled, his business got a boost.

GREENBLATT: And we started making IV poles. We also started making things like the sanitizer stands where you put your hand underneath the little soap dispenser. That stopped coming in from overseas. Test tube racks stopped coming in from overseas.

KHALID: The pandemic sent a message.

GREENBLATT: American companies should not be putting their eggs in the Chinese basket. It's just too dangerous.

KHALID: But Greenblatt was already on this mission. He has half a dozen American flags around his factory floor. He's pleased Biden is, in his words, following Donald Trump's vision to make more things in America.

GREENBLATT: But right now it's wildly unfair to build in America compared to China because we have so many things stacked against us.

KHALID: Greenblatt wants Biden to go further. He wants less regulation and a tax break for R&D. In the end, he says, supporting American manufacturing is smart policy and smart politics.

GREENBLATT: Whoever can get more factories growing faster in America is going to win a lot of votes.

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KHALID: Biden is touting his economic agenda a lot lately on the road, touring factories like this semiconductor facility in Durham last month.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is the largest investment in manufacturing in the history of North Carolina.

KHALID: Experts say if you look at the whole package of economic policies this White House has rolled out, it's rather unprecedented in recent times. Biden's team is systematically crafting industrial policy to try to shape markets and the private sector. Brian Deese was a top economic adviser to Biden and helped lead this push.

BRIAN DEESE: We are, for the first time since really the 1960s and in many cases earlier than that, using targeted public investment over multiple years to try to crowd in private capital.

KHALID: They're doing this in a few ways. They're giving out subsidies for semiconductor plants and electric vehicles. They're also keeping Chinese products out by maintaining the Trump-era tariffs and imposing sweeping export controls to limit China's access to technology. And they're doing this all out in the open, which is even more unusual, according to Dani Rodrik. He's an economist at Harvard.

DANI RODRIK: Among economists and mainstream policymakers, they think industrial policy, for a number of decades now, has been kind of a dirty word. And I think that sort of has completely changed now.

KHALID: It's changed because politics on the right and the left have changed, and politicians have decided China is a common foe. Rodrik says the environment now is sort of akin to the fears the U.S. had of the Soviet Union in the 1950s. That sparked government programs that eventually led to technological inventions like GPS and the internet.

RODRIK: But there's also a huge difference - that the United States was never as economically integrated with the Soviet Union as it is now with China.

KHALID: The U.S. and China depend on each other so much for trade. But the Biden team says China doesn't play fair. Here's Brian Deese again.

DEESE: A purely laissez-faire, trickle-down view that ignores the role of China in the global economy, I think, is - doesn't work.

KHALID: The White House says the Chinese government provides enormous subsidies and steals technology, so the U.S. has to intervene to help American companies and American workers. It's clear when I spoke to the Commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, that this mission is also about national security.

GINA RAIMONDO: We buy 92% of advanced semiconductors from Taiwan - utterly vulnerable position for the United States to be in.

KHALID: She says there are certain industries, like chips, that are just too important to be largely outsourced. And so the government is offering funding to companies to build factories in America. During the '80s and '90s, when so many manufacturing plants shut down, she says there were devastating economic consequences. She knows firsthand.

RAIMONDO: My dad - he and all of his friends were put out of work when all of the jobs at his watch factory went to China.

KHALID: But for decades, many politicians on both sides of the aisle proudly supported free trade, even as America's manufacturing power declined.

RAIMONDO: We were just, I guess, a little bit slow to wake up for it. COVID was the great eye-opener. Nobody was talking about supply chains four years ago.

KHALID: The pandemic accelerated the conversation. But Donald Trump's election and specifically his appeal to blue-collar workers also sparked some soul-searching.

SCOTT PAUL: There's been a transformation on the part of everybody.

KHALID: Scott Paul is president of a lobby group called the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

PAUL: You could cut and paste some of Trump's trade policies, and they're now the Democratic platform.

KHALID: In the year 2000, Biden, like many Republicans and Democrats, voted to normalize trade relations with China. But some 20 years later, the political debate has shifted. Christine McDaniel with George Mason University is one of the rare voices in Washington openly skeptical of this shift.

CHRISTINE MCDANIEL: Industrial policy means that through government taxes, subsidies, incentives, rules, regulations, you are taking resources from one part of the economy and reallocating them to another part, OK? The government is notorious - unfortunately, they just don't have a very good track record for picking winners and losers.

KHALID: But supporters of industrial policy say the U.S. has always helped out companies in one way or another. And so the debate ought to be about how to do this most effectively. And Biden supporters bristle at the idea that the president is copying his predecessor. Even if the mission is the same, they say Biden has better plans and is following through.

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KHALID: Back at the wire factory in Baltimore, Drew Greenblatt says it doesn't matter what Republicans or Democrats are saying in Washington.

GREENBLATT: I don't care about messaging. I only care about policies that impact my factories.

KHALID: So whether or not people are saying, make things in America...

GREENBLATT: That's all - it's all word salad.

KHALID: But he insists supporting American manufacturing is a winning political proposition. And as he told me, whoever can get more factories up and running in America is going to win a lot of votes. Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.