Biden’s Traveling Economic Hype Man Has a Message. Will Voters Listen?

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Long before the White House’s recent pivot back to the economy, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh was traveling the country hyping the Biden administration’s message on a growing economy and the abundance of good paying jobs.

The problem for Walsh is the public doesn’t seem to be listening.

On paper, the labor secretary’s job should be easy. The May jobs report released last week showed yet another month of growth—390,000 jobs added, unemployment at 3.6 percent, wages up 5.2 percent from last year.

But supply chain slowdowns, inflation, and rising gas prices have Americans in a pessimistic mood. Many families just aren’t experiencing benefits from the economic gains.

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Walsh said one of his roles has been to try to give context to the current economic situation.

“Obviously, I’m not just blaming the pandemic, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are still living in a pandemic time,” Walsh told The Daily Beast during a pair of recent interviews. “There’s been a lot of havoc and concern and uncertainty that’s been thrown on families all across this country because of the pandemic.”

“You know, you have businesses that their business model was going along in a great way, and then the pandemic hit,” he continued. “The whole business model changed. And I think that we have to just continue to support businesses and support workers getting back to work as we move forward.”

Walsh insists, however, these problems are ultimately solvable—and it all goes back to being a mayor.

“It” being everything. Talk to Walsh for any amount of time and it quickly becomes clear the lessons he learned serving as the mayor of Boston from 2014 to March 2021 inform every aspect of his current job.

“I mean, I kind of do my job, in some ways, as a mayor of the Department of Labor,” he said. “Where we can have real good input into, you know, whether it’s the grant programs that we have within our own jurisdiction, workforce development, job training in my jurisdiction, you know, apprenticeships within the jurisdiction.”

After more than a year at the Department of Labor, Walsh said he’s hoping to incorporate some of the programs he started in Boston by building on initiatives President Joe Biden has proposed regarding the re-entry of formerly incarcerated individuals into the workforce.

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As mayor, Walsh started “Operation Exit,“ a program that placed individuals with a criminal record—or who were considered “at-risk”—in a trade union with an apprenticeship to get them on the road away from the court system.

“I’ve seen great success when you scale somebody up and you allow them to get into a good paying job,” Walsh said. “I’m not talking about a re-entry job. I’m talking about good paying jobs, middle class salary, you can train, change the trajectory, and the recidivism rate goes way down.”

Walsh discussed the program, as well as other initiatives he used to fight crime in Boston during his tenure, when he met with New York City Mayor Eric Adams after the murder of two young police officers who were shot while responding to a domestic violence call earlier this year.

“When you think about crime, it’s poverty too. And a lot of people are causing or doing criminal acts because they’re poor, or they don’t have anything else in their life,” Walsh said in a March interview with The Daily Beast. “So I was talking about some of the programs we created in Boston, to the building trades, long building pathways, always operation exit and really creating pathways of how to do that with the White House.”

Walsh said, with his background as a former mayor of “a city that actually had a very low homicide rate, and a very good success rate of getting people into reentry programs,” the meeting made sense.

“I think that you offer what you have,” he said. “I mean, I think the problem is, we can’t be just siloed as if we have expertise or understandings in other areas.”

Like previous Labor secretaries, he’s also been deployed abroad. While some of his international travel has mirrored those of his predecessors—like attending the Group of Seven meeting. He attended the inauguration of Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol— but has also had more unusual assignments. In November 2021, he led a delegation to the Republic of Cabo Verde for the swearing-in of President José Maria Neves. (Boston is home to tens of thousands of Cabo Verdeans.)

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Walsh gained a reputation as mayor as someone willing to work with both labor and business to get things done in Boston.

Erin O’Brien, an associate professor of political science at UMass Boston, said Walsh “benefits from low expectations” but noted she meant that as a “political compliment.”

“Marty could work with just about any constituency because people underestimate him,” she said, noting he was able to get business and labor interests around the table as mayor of Boston and was able to not only exceed expectations but both sides viewed him as “if not an ally, reasonable and trustworthy.”

“He’s not viewed as an ideologue,” she said. “His policy is solidly progressive, but he’s not perceived that way.”

It was that reputation which helped him sail through the confirmation process, where even some Republicans had effusive praise.

“Despite the fact that, as mayor, you out-recruited my state of North Carolina for many of the jobs that should have come our way and they ended up in Boston, I expect by the end of this hearing, I’ll be able to support your nomination,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) said as the hearing kicked off early last year. “And I will encourage my colleagues on this side of the aisle to support you as well.”

In a political environment marked by stark partisan divisions and fights over basically everything, Walsh seems to have found a way to mostly stay out of the scraps. Instead, he spends most of the time handling whatever the White House has tasked him with—and that’s usually not just labor disputes.

Of course, there have been plenty of those. He played a role in worker disputes at Kelloggs, ports where a lack of workers have contributed to supply chain issues, and during a high-profile players’ union standoff with Major League Baseball.

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But Walsh has also been able to engage with some of Biden’s fiercest critics. He’s the only administration official to have a public, positive interaction with eccentric billionaire-Twitter troll-Tesla czar Elon Musk. Walsh toured his Austin-area factory in early March.

It’s not just that Musk is anti-union; he actually referred to the United Auto Workers, a union he “invited” to try to organize at his plant in early March, as “thieves.”

“UAW slogan – ‘Fighting for the right to embezzle money from auto workers!’” Musk wrote as a part of a Twitter thread in response to a story about an ex-union official who reportedly embezzled millions from the union.

Musk has also referred to President Biden “a damp sock puppet,” “a 200 year old,” and, among other things, raged during the State of the Union that Biden failed to mention Tesla.

But Walsh brushed the tweets off as momentary bluster.

“How can I advocate for workers in the auto industry if I'm not willing to have a conversation with Elon Musk or the head of Ford or the head of GM or whatever industry?” he said.

His willingness to jump into anything the White House asks him to has made him a popular figure in the administration.

“The common theme within Secretary Walsh’s work over the past year and a half has been empowering workers and businesses to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out,” Brian Deese, the director of the president’s National Economic Council, said in a statement. “President Biden’s Cabinet has shown exceptional collaboration taking on historic challenges, and the Secretary has been integral to our efforts ensuring that every worker has a free and fair choice to organize, growing the economy by creating jobs, or fixing supply chain problems created by the pandemic.”

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Still, despite all their efforts, the message hasn’t resonated with Americans who, according to recent polling, blame Biden for not handling the rising gas prices or inflation well—even if it’s not ultimately his fault.

A WSJ-NORC poll conducted in May found 83 percent of respondents said the economy was “as poor or not so good.” An ABC-Ispos poll in early June reported that 28 percent approve of Biden’s handling of inflation and only 27 percent approve of his handling of gas prices.

It paints a bleak picture for Democrats heading into the midterms. But Walsh was quick to stress the importance of pointing out where the country was when Biden took over versus where it is presently.

“I think a year from now we’ll be in a very different place in the country,” he said, adding that talk of recession was premature and confined mostly to punditry. “An executive should never go by poll numbers. They should govern by what and how you move the country forward.”

A former construction worker turned labor official turned politician, Walsh prides himself on his ability to connect with people of all types—much like his boss.

While he first met Biden at a fundraiser in 1997, their friendship burst into public view after Walsh won the mayor’s race in 2013. After the race was called, Biden was quick to call and congratulate Walsh. But, famously, Biden initially reached a different “Martin Walsh” in Boston, telling the man, “You son of a gun, Marty! You did it!” according to The Boston Globe.

After being told he wasn’t, in fact, that Marty Walsh, Biden reportedly congratulated him for not being mayor.

Over the intervening years the two crossed paths many times. It was Biden who traveled to Boston for the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings to speak at the memorial service and grieve with the city. And when Biden was mulling a run for the presidency, according to the Boston Herald, both he and Hillary Clinton reached out to Walsh. Walsh’s then-chief of staff, Daniel Koh, said Biden’s call was more of “a general check-in.”

In 2018, Biden presided over Walsh’s second inauguration as mayor.

Walsh brushed off questions about what he might do next, saying his focus remains squarely on his current mission.

“I’m doing anything I can to make sure that he has a successful administration, and every task that I’m given for him by him or for him, I’m going to do as best I can,” he said. “Because ultimately the president is the person that gets to reflect on how I do.”

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