Election 2020 Joe Biden (copy)

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden arrives to speak at a campaign event at the Colonial Early Education Program at the Colwyck Training Center, Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in New Castle, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

CITIES, big winners for much of the early part of this century, have been confronting potent countervailing forces for the past several years.

New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are losing population. The coronavirus pandemic has hollowed out the parts of cities where knowledge workers live and work. And as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden rolls out his economic agenda, it's clear that its priorities are other than on major cities.

A Biden economy will likely mean cities have less economic and political clout four years from now than they do today.

Of the first three planks of Biden's economic agenda that have been publicly released, none is particularly city-centric. The first, with a "Made in America" pitch, sounds like something President Donald Trump might have run on in 2016, focusing more on manufacturing and domestic production rather than an economy built on outsourcing and stock buybacks.

Although Biden's plan arguably hews too closely to Trump's agenda, the appeal here is presumably to the kinds of white working-class voters in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin who delivered the White House to Trump in 2016.

Biden's second proposal, a $2 trillion clean-energy investment plan, represents a cultural win for cities even if the economic benefits will likely flow elsewhere.

A company such as Tesla shows how these sorts of investments play out in practice. Perhaps the innovation begins with software engineers in knowledge hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area, but eventually the batteries get built in Nevada and production shifts to low-cost states where land is cheaper and taxes are lower, such as Arizona and Texas.

The third plank, announced this week, involves making big investments in the infrastructure of care in America. Although this should be welcome news to all Americans, demographic trends in cities during the past generation have meant young, childless knowledge workers have moved in while families, children and older Americans have moved out.

The benefits of increased child care and elder care will flow more to suburban and rural communities than they will to cities.

Policy is largely a question of priorities, and it's worth noting that Biden has spent relatively little time talking about the advantages of free trade and immigration, policies that have historically benefited cities.

This isn't to suggest that a Biden administration will be as hostile to trade and immigration as the Trump administration has been, only that these issues may not be priorities.

A less urban-centric policy agenda from Biden may, in part, be about rewarding the voters who have ensured him his party's nomination and might carry him to the White House. Polls suggest that Biden is doing better with older and college-educated suburban voters than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the types of younger and more progressive voters who live in cities tended to favor candidates like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

The persistence of the coronavirus raises many questions about just what kinds of policies cities will need in the post-pandemic future. Although cities in recent years have struggled with affordability, gentrification and inequality as knowledge workers have displaced older and working-class residents, we don't yet know what the new urban landscape will look like.

A growing acceptance of remote work and increased office, apartment and retail vacancies may mitigate some of the problems related to affordability.

Transit ridership may take a while to recover, requiring fare increases or bigger public subsidies. A political environment less supportive of trade and immigration may lead to other unforeseen changes in urban economies. It may take a few years to sort out some of these issues.

This doesn't mean the death of cities any more than the collapse of the housing bubble meant the demise of the suburbs. But political, demographic and economic forces have aligned in such a way that the attention of a Biden administration is likely to be focused elsewhere.

Although cities and their urban voters probably will cheer many of the policies Biden will seek to enact, if passed the end result should be a more inclusive economy that is less centered on the superstar cities that have flourished for the past generation.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. This commentary was distributed by the Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Load comments