Biden has a recovery bill to sell and history to avoid repeatingMarch 11, 2021
With the massive Covid-relief bill headed for his desk, President Joe Biden now begins a political tightrope walk that bedeviled his two immediate Democratic predecessors: selling recovery in a time when not everyone experiences its full force.
The task begins in earnest with Biden’s first prime-time address Thursday, during which he is expected to discuss his efforts to halt the pandemic. The passage of the $1.9 trillion package in Congress will serve as a backdrop, with Biden planning to sign the bill into law Friday.
Already, the president has been touting the measure, tweeting that “better days lie ahead,” while his White House promoted announcements from Amtrak and American Airlines that furloughed employees will be brought back or not have their work interrupted because of the relief bill.
For veterans of prior Democratic administrations, the aggressive sales job is a welcome change from the past, when the party often seemed to think major legislation would sell itself. But they warned that Biden needs to strike an appropriate balance, lest his new administration come off as out of touch with those who feel left behind or are struggling to cope with the lingering effects of the year-long pandemic.
“There’s a question about when do you tout your accomplishments. Because if you say the country is coming back and people don’t feel it, they get mad at you,” said James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist. “Voters who feel left behind will think, ‘My life is not better. This guy don’t know what’s going on.’”
As Biden starts off on his high-wire act with a burst of travel, he has the benefit of a rebounding economy and a series of tangible policy wins. His relief package includes direct checks, unemployment support, money for child poverty and rental and mortgage assistance and funding to speed up school reopenings and vaccinations that will offer an immediate improvement for millions of Americans.
“That will be the distillation of our message to the American people in the coming weeks, that help is here for them and their families,” Jen O’Malley Dillon, a senior Biden official, wrote in a Wednesday memo laying out what she called “The Help is Here Tour.”
Specifically, O’Malley Dillon noted the plan will deliver $5,600 in payments to a typical family of four earning less than $150,000, a sign of how broadly the money is being distributed.
“There’s going to be a lot of low-wage workers who are going to see a very big infusion to their family income directly as a result of this package,” said Stan Greenberg, the longtime Democratic pollster and adviser, pointing to the checks as well as the child tax credits, which could begin flowing to recipients as frequently as each month.
But Biden’s White House is also sensitive to the idea that all of the promises they’ve made may not be widely felt by the public. Top aides stressed they have been careful to set what they view as manageable expectations around the twin crises — Covid and the economic fallout it caused — that they inherited. Their task, the officials and allies said, is to make clear to the public that the coming benefits are a product of hard work.
“What’s clear is that this was not inevitable,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama official who is close to the Biden White House. “It required an effective vaccine distribution plan and relief bill to turn the economy around. No Republicans voted for it. The Covid relief package will get us back to baseline while investing in a bottom-up economic strategy for the longer term that reduces poverty, keeps people in their homes and keeps small businesses open.”
Biden’s predecessors may have been in less enviable positions than he is 50 days in. But they also struggled to balance the need to celebrate successes and appear understanding as their first midterm elections approached. Democrats, led by Greenberg, were highly critical of then-Barack Obama’s messaging amid the ‘09 recovery, an opinion he said he first shared with advisers Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod.
Obama’s midterm sell included a multistep metaphor that involved a car (the economy), a ditch (the economic recession) and a tale about how the driver (Republicans) had been at the wheel when said vehicle was driven into the narrow channel. Democrats, Obama argued, were the ones who managed to pull the car out of the ditch, and it wouldn’t be prudent for voters to hand over the keys (political power) back to the GOP, the party at fault.
The problem with that, Greenberg argued, was not the complicated nature of the analogy. It was that it didn’t reflect the feelings of voters, who had yet to see the benefits of the president’s health care law and saw bank executives who sparked the crash doing just fine.
“it just was too out of touch with where people are,” Greenberg said. “They thought they were still in the ditch.”
Obama wasn’t the first to find it hard to turn macroeconomic improvements into political gain. Years earlier, Greenberg pleaded with then-President Bill Clinton ahead of the 1994 midterms that it was too early to run on the administration’s economic achievements.
“He’d have this list of 25 accomplishments of the administration that he carried with him and wanted to read in every speech,” he recalled. “I tried to narrow it down. But it was mainly over my wanting to talk about it as a work in progress. And he wanting to make the case that this was a very successful administration by that point.”
Greenberg had preferred contrasting Clinton’s early tenure with Reaganomics.
In the cases of Clinton and Obama, the political benefits of the recoveries may have been too late for the midterms. But they did come in time for each of the president’s reelections.
Inside the Biden White House, that history is front of mind — as is the fact that his immediate predecessor, former President Donald Trump, simply chose to paint the rosiest of pictures and insist that the public believe it. Biden aides are acutely aware of the difficulty Obama had in selling the Recovery Act and how that legislation became overshadowed by his pursuit and passage of Obamacare in the months that followed.
Rather than relying on metaphors or over-exuberant assessments of his economy, they are planning to build on the Covid-relief bill. Some are already noting that to unleash sustained and widely distributed economic gains, Congress will have to pass an infrastructure package to rebuild roads and bridges and create jobs.
Meantime, officials and allies said that Biden’s biggest task is to execute on getting the checks out, opening the nation’s schools and administering vaccinations, among the other provisions in the sprawling legislation. LaBolt said his expectation this time is the economic gains will be tangible and hit home with people.
“This isn’t trickle-down economics where the average American is waiting for Godot,” he said, in a reference to the much-anticipated character who never arrives. “It’s the opposite.”