WASHINGTON — In recent months Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign developed a virtual road show to reassure executives, investment fund managers and financiers who were nervous that the Democratic candidate’s plans to increase taxes could hurt the American economic recovery.
Penny Pritzker, the billionaire former Commerce secretary under President Barack Obama, would lead off with an overview of Mr. Biden’s plans. But the worried capitalists always wanted details, and for that, Ms. Pritzker would turn over the video calls to the little-known fulcrum of the Biden campaigns economic policymaking: a 43-year-old tax and budget specialist named Ben Harris.
Mr. Biden has a sprawling and secretive orbit of economists offering him policy advice as he seeks to pacify an insurgent liberal wing of economic thinkers within the Democratic Party and the business leaders who still feel mistreated by the Obama-Biden administration. Mr. Harris, an economist who is relatively anonymous even to other economists, has taken a starring role in both efforts.
A former chief economist for Mr. Biden in the White House, Mr. Harris helped fashion a campaign agenda from the work of a small inner circle and hundreds of outside economists and sell it to the donors, executives, labor unions and activists that Mr. Biden needs behind him to win the election. He has two other jobs but works up to 50 hours a week for Mr. Biden, unpaid.
In his efforts, people in and outside of the campaign say, Mr. Harris has become a sort of policy avatar for Mr. Biden, molding new ideas into the candidate’s longstanding brand of middle-class economics and changing his sales pitch to meet his audience. Before Mr. Biden even announced his campaign, Mr. Harris was attending senior staff meetings at the vice president’s home to help develop an economic platform.
The economy will present an immediate challenge for whoever wins the presidency. The nation is rebounding from its pandemic recession, but economic indicators show that the improvement has slowed or stopped in key areas. Economists are pushing Mr. Biden to quickly rally support for the type of trillion-dollar economic stimulus plan that Congress and the White House have yet to agree on, while also pressing him to bring about the kind of economic equality that Democrats say will require a big rethinking about tax and spending policies.
Mr. Harris has helped wrap Mr. Biden’s unabashedly liberal agenda in a blanket of technocracy, assembling more than 500 detailed recommendations. In discussions with supporters and skeptics across a wide spectrum of ideology and backgrounds, Mr. Harris has helped burnish the perception that Mr. Biden is responsive to others’ concerns about his plans.
“There are things in which we are not ideologically aligned, but he has the right values,” said Darrick Hamilton, an economist who has studied racial disparities extensively. He served with Mr. Harris on a committee that brought additional liberal ideas to Mr. Biden’s platform. “Ben is persuaded by evidence. He can hear and listen.”
The economic agenda Mr. Harris helped craft includes income and investment tax increases on top earners, higher taxes for corporations and a variety of spending increases in areas like clean energy, infrastructure and higher education. While those plans remain far less aggressive than the tax-and-spending ideas of Mr. Biden’s more liberal primary campaign rivals, he has managed to avoid sharp criticism from the left-leaning economists who have pushed for historically large tax increases on corporations and the rich.
The strategy also appears to have helped Mr. Biden with a broader audience. While Mr. Biden has proposed the largest package of tax increases, in dollar terms, of any Democratic nominee, he has raked in donations from Wall Street, and some investment firm analysts project a Biden presidency driving stock markets higher, in part because of his desire to pass a large economic stimulus bill.
Mr. Harris, in conversations with business leaders, explains the details of Mr. Biden’s proposals to make the case that the candidate would help corporate America by making the economy more productive.
“Ben will go way deep in the weeds, and he has enormous patience for every question,” Ms. Pritzker said, adding that approach gets results. “The American business executive is willing to accept higher taxes, if they will fund a plan that will work and not just expand government for government’s sake. They need to know that the programs and ideas are going to work.”
President Trump and his aides have argued the opposite — that Mr. Biden’s plan would crush American companies and the economy. In a recent television ad, the Trump campaign warns that Mr. Biden’s plan would leave “an economy in ruins.”
Mr. Harris has built his career in Washington, and in economics, around the mechanics of building policies that are data-driven and politically feasible. And he has developed a deep understanding of how Mr. Biden thinks about the economy.
Austan Goolsbee, the former chairman of Mr. Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, who is advising Mr. Biden from the outside, calls Mr. Harris “the Biden for econ Ph.D.s.” Another longtime Biden adviser, Jared Bernstein, said Mr. Harris “knows the current platform and agenda almost better than anyone except Biden himself.”
“When I and others assert something” in campaign policy debates, Mr. Bernstein said, “we often finish the sentence with, ‘but we better ask Ben.’”
While Mr. Harris has appeared frequently as a campaign surrogate — on television, in online get-out-the-vote rallies, fund-raisers and calls with executives and labor leaders — the Biden campaign has revealed little about his role in crafting policy.
Campaign officials declined multiple requests to make Mr. Harris available for an interview with The New York Times. They would not provide an explanation for the decision, or explain why Mr. Harris has been allowed to talk about narrow policy issues during the campaign, but not his broader role.
That move is in keeping with the veil of secrecy Biden officials have attempted to keep over the campaign’s policy deliberations, including strict instructions for most outside advisers to conceal their involvement with the campaign from reporters.
Mr. Harris grew up on Bainbridge Island, Wash., a ferry ride away from Seattle, the son of divorced parents. He lived primarily with his single mother. Friends describe Mr. Harris’s childhood as middle class. The heat in his house came from a wood-burning stove. After college at Tufts University, he earned a Fulbright scholarship to Namibia.
He then rose through Washington’s think tank world, learning budget policy and economic modeling while at the Brookings Institution under the tutelage of William Gale, a renowned tax and budget modeling expert. Mr. Harris continued his economics studies and earned a doctorate from George Washington University in 2011. Mr. Gale recommended him around town. “He might be simultaneously the youngest person in the room and the adult in the room,” Mr. Gale said.
Ms. Pritzker hired Mr. Harris to advise her in 2009 in her role as a member of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, set up by Mr. Obama. . Mr. Goolsbee brought him to the White House — “a gamble” that he said paid off as Mr. Harris proved adept at synthesizing economic research and translating it quickly to policy proposals.
Mr. Harris is now the campaign’s senior economic adviser, a job that he balances with a teaching position at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a role as the chief economist for Results for America, a nonprofit group that pushes for evidence-based policymaking.
Mr. Bernstein said Mr. Harris had brought to Mr. Biden the idea of eliminating a preferential tax treatment enjoyed by heirs, which allows the wealthy to reduce their children’s tax bills when passing assets to them at death. It is not as politically sexy as a wealth tax, but it is one of several provisions in Mr. Biden’s plans that score well in independent budget analyses.
Rich Prisinzano of the Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Harris’s experience with budget models appears to have helped him develop tax plans that would raise revenue at less economic cost than the wealth taxes proposed by Mr. Biden’s former Democratic rivals, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “They tax the same people and the same income as Warren and Sanders, they just do it through the existing tax code,” Mr. Prisinzano said.
If Mr. Biden wins and brings Mr. Harris to the White House, those skills could help the administration craft policies that score well with congressional budget modelers, whose judgments often shape what can pass the House and Senate. Mr. Biden would also be bringing a centrist, white man — one who worries, long-term, about the buildup of the federal budget deficit. Progressives, like Mr. Hamilton, fear that such worries could constrain the Biden agenda as it moves from stimulus to bigger-picture economic policy.
Mr. Harris has spoken publicly about high deficits posing long-term risks to growth. But his most recent academic work is on a topic where he finds more agreement with the left wing of his party: He is co-editing a book on inequality in labor markets, filled with chapters on how rising corporate power has hurt workers’ wages. It might also be a blueprint for Mr. Biden’s thinking on the issue.
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