Ruben Navarrette: Biden's push to "buy American" has a Trumpian ring to it

Summary: Welcome to "America First, The Sequel." This version is brought to us by the Biden White House — which is, take it from the Biden-friendly media, totally different from the Trump White House. Except when it's the same.

Ruben Navarrette column
Ruben Navarrette commentary
Tribune graphic

SAN DIEGO — What's next? Will President Joe Biden make hats emblazoned with the words: "Make America Great Again — Again"? And the hats wouldn't be red — but blue? Of course, the hot little items would be made in America.

That line — "made in America" — speaks loudly in the Rust Belt. Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania help pick presidents. In November, Biden beat Donald Trump by winning three out of four (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania), while Trump only won Ohio.

That means Biden owes a debt to voters in that region. This week, he started to pay it off. In what is likely just the first accommodation for U.S. manufacturers and blue-collar workers by the new administration, Biden signed an executive order to push the federal government to buy goods produced in the United States. The order increases the amount of U.S. content that a product must have to be considered "made in America" under government requirements to " buy American ." It also creates a website where U.S. business owners can track what contracts are awarded to foreign vendors. The order includes a new position at the White House Office of Management and Budget, and whoever fills it will take the lead in implementing the Biden policy.

"We're going to make sure that they buy American and are made in America," Biden said in signing the executive order.

Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the New Deal. John F. Kennedy chartered the New Frontier. By contrast, what Biden came up to take care of the folks in the Rust Belt who took care of him isn't really new.


In April 2017, then-President Trump likewise kicked off his new administration by — stop me if this sounds familiar — signing an executive order that directed federal agencies to "buy American, hire American" and act in ways that "aggressively promote and use American-made goods and to ensure that American labor is hired to do the job."

The ceremony was held in front of a gathering of employees at the Wisconsin-based headquarters of the Snap-On tool manufacturer, where Trump pitched himself as a guardian angel for American companies and U.S. workers.

"The buy and hire American order I'm about to sign will protect workers and students like you," he said. "It's America first, you better believe it. It's time. It's time, right?"

Trump praised American "grit" and "craftsmanship," but he missed the irony. If U.S. manufacturing really lived up to that billing, it wouldn't need protection. It could compete in the global marketplace and win.

At the time, I wrote a column blasting Trump's executive order as "affirmative action for working-class Whites in the industrial Midwest."

The fact that Biden has now morphed into Trump is a good story. I hope it doesn't get past my colleagues in the media, many of whom may be having trouble walking because of — to borrow a line that former MSNBC host Chris Matthews used about his admiration of Barack Obama — the collective thrill running up their legs at the thought of a Democrat in the White House.

Of course, the pledge to bring back manufacturing and re-open factories that have been abandoned for 30 years is pure snake oil, and shame on the charlatans who peddle it. While these con men can be found across the political spectrum, they have an ideological home in the Democratic Party . That's where organized labor — which represents a lot of former factory workers who think they're too old to learn new tricks - likes to flash its cash and buy up politicians.

Trump, who was a Manhattan liberal most of his life, pilfered protectionism from Democrats and rebranded it: "America First."


Now Biden is stealing back protectionism, and repackaging it yet again as a Democratic policy. Not because it's a good idea. It's not. It's cheap pandering to working-class Whites in a part of the country that is politically valuable. This "America First" nonsense — no matter who is pushing it — eliminates competition, breeds complacency and kills innovation.

Biden's defenders will dismiss this story as no big deal. But if that's true, then the idea of a president using an executive order to push products that are "made in America" was never a big deal — even when the president in question was named Trump. Was I too hard on the poor guy? I think not.

Welcome to "America First, The Sequel." This version is brought to us by the Biden White House — which is, take it from the Biden-friendly media, totally different from the Trump White House. Except when it's the same.

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at
© 2021, The Washington Post Writers Group

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