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Podcast

A Conversation With Biden’s Former Top Economic Advisor, Part 1

Inside episode six of Shift Key.

President Biden giving the State of the Union address.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Few people have shaped Bidenomics more than Brian Deese.

From 2021 to 2023, Deese led the National Economic Council at the White House, serving as President Joe Biden’s top economic aide during such events as the post-pandemic recovery, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Before that, Deese was global head of sustainable investing for Blackrock and a senior political advisor to President Barack Obama. He’s now the Institute Innovation Fellow at MIT, where he helps lead the Clean Investment Monitor, a project that tracks investment in climate technology and infrastructure across the U.S. economy.

On this episode, Deese joins Shift Key for a two-part conversation. Part 1 focuses on the future of Bidenomics, Biden’s State of the Union speech, what the 2024 campaign might mean for the politics and policy of climate change.

Subscribe to “Shift Key” and find this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

Robinson Meyer: I want to start by talking about the State of the Union. Jesse, I feel like you had a stronger response to the State of the Union than I did. Where I saw it and I was like, yes, the president is talking about the IRA, he's talking about big climate legislation, primarily in a jobs context. I feel like you were maybe more surprised.

Jesse Jenkins: What I was kind of expecting was Biden to lean in a bit more on the manufacturing Renaissance story. And he referenced it a couple times as sort of the high level numbers, which we can come back to, which probably came from your Clean Investment Monitor project, if I'm not mistaken. And he told the story of the Belvedere plant that was saved from bankruptcy through the UAW negotiations and is now being rebuilt as a EV manufacturing facility. But I was expecting him to say something more broadly about how we have been talking about bringing manufacturing jobs back to America for my entire lifetime, right, for decades.

And the previous president, of course, also made lots of promises about trying to support US manufacturing. And then of course, did basically nothing to do that. And Biden has an incredible track record on that front, an enormous amount of investment happening across multiple sectors, and in particular in the clean energy domain.
And maybe this is just the limits of a State of the Union address where you got to touch a lot of different issues. But I kind of expected him to lean into that a little bit more and to make it clear that it wasn't just this one plant, that there are dozens of stories like Belvedere out there across the economy that are being fueled specifically by the Inflation Reduction Act, which by the way, he did never really mention by name.

So I was curious how you saw it and if you thought he had the right balance or maybe could have leaned in more or could do so in the future.

Brian Deese: Well, I think one of the things about State of the Unions is that its quality and moments are often more important than quantity. And so I think that may be a little bit of what's going on.

But let me step back. Look, I think it was an excellent speech and I think it was delivered in an even more excellent way. And at the top line, the speech was designed to drive pace and clear contrast.

It's interesting that some of the reaction has been partisan. But if you actually go through the speech, it's really clear-eyed contrast. And a lot of the things where the contrast exists are between, as the president said multiple times, his predecessor and the vast majority of the American people. And that's smart.

And the pace was evident from the get-go and positioned President Biden to do exactly what he wanted to do, was to get in the chamber at the podium and go at this thing and demonstrate his capability, but also his enthusiasm. I think for people who actually watched it on TV, you saw not only a president who was in command, but who was having a lot of fun. And a lot of fun because I think he believed in what he was doing.

So that's the most important. And when you're structuring a speech like this, you want to say, if that's your goal is to try to have clear contrast and pace, how do you keep that going? I think in some ways the most important line which goes, Jesse, to the point you are making is he said something to the effect of, it doesn't make the news, it doesn't make the headlines, but in thousands of cities across America, people are writing the greatest comeback story never told.

And I would anticipate that in that idea, in thousands of cities and towns across America, greatest comeback story never told will be a consistent refrain and a throughline to try to get at exactly your point, which is there's an element of that, which reflects a little bit of immediate criticism, right? The greatest comeback story never told, which is why do we never hear about these things going on again?

But it also reflects the kind of great American story that these comeback stories are in fact happening. And for the people and the communities themselves, it matters.

And look, I think that that's where Belvedere fit in, which is oftentimes the best way to try to bring to life that idea is not by trying to describe or animate all of the ways in which it's happening across the country and people like the three of us get very gripped by the overarching statistics.

But the story and the story of Belvedere was one that if you look across the speech, there aren't that many moments where you can actually tell a story like that. And so there was a clear decision to say, this is a story and we are going to tell the story about clean energy manufacturing through the lens of a place and a community, which is really about jobs and grit and resilience. And for those who weren't paying line by line attention to the story of Belvedere, is Belvedere, Illinois, home of a storied Chrysler plant that was initiated in 1965 I'll continue to refer to Stellantis as Chrysler because I still can't get over the idea that we're not still referring it to as that name, but was basically for a whole bunch of reasons an auto plant that was on its back and then was closed and for a variety of reasons, including the strength of UAW's negotiating posture, but also the prospect of bringing battery manufacturing here to the U.S., Belvedere has gone from, you know, is really a Phoenix rising story in a pretty concrete way.

So my takeaway from Jesse, your surprise, is that in fact, what the president did was provide a frame for going out and telling that great comeback story and going and telling it. And in fact, the way to tell it will actually be in individual stories in most cases.

Jenkins: Yeah, I think that makes sense. I guess what I was thinking was there'd be an opportunity to draw a sharper contrast, which would be pretty consistent with the rest of the speech between President Biden and his quote unquote predecessor. In the sense that really, I mean, we, we've been literally politicians have been promising to bring manufacturing back since the 70s and 80s, right.

And now we are seeing that investment really thanks to a whole suite of policies, some of them bipartisan, like CHIPS and Science, and some of them, you know, I think with broad support in the American public, like you're saying, Brian, even if the partisan nature of the congressional debate right now, you know, makes it seem more partisan than it is, it's, you know, these are broadly popular policies. So it was kind of expecting a little bit more contrast there.


This episode of Shift Key is sponsored by…

Advanced Energy United educates, engages, and advocates for policies that allow our member companies to compete to power our economy with 100% clean energy, working with decision makers and energy market regulators to achieve this goal. Together, we are united in our mission to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy in America. Learn more at advancedenergyunited.org/heatmap

KORE Power provides the commercial, industrial, and utility markets with functional solutions that advance the clean energy transition worldwide. KORE Power's technology and manufacturing capabilities provide direct access to next generation battery cells, energy storage systems that scale to grid+, EV power & infrastructure, and intuitive asset management to unlock energy strategies across a myriad of applications. Explore more at korepower.com.

Music for Shift Key is by Adam Kromelow.

Green

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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