Inside the White House plan to sell its massive infrastructure proposalApril 5, 2021
Before President Joe Biden even unveiled his ambitious $2 trillion infrastructure plan, the White House deployed the head of its National Economic Council, Brian Deese, on a sales mission.
Over two days, Deese briefed 60 senators, 124 House members and hundreds of legislative directors and chiefs of staff.
At the same time, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, the former Rhode Island governor, was dialing up governors across the country to lay out the details.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, the former mayor of Boston, tapped into his network to spread the word to more than two dozen mayors.
And Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg talked to South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, as well as Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear.
Simultaneously, the five members of the newly ordained “Jobs Cabinet” — Raimondo, Walsh, Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge — each took to TV to reach constituencies across the country, pitching parts of the plan, like upgrading the electrical grid and replacing lead pipes for clean drinking water, in major cities, some of which were in key swing states like Georgia and Arizona.
In the coming weeks, Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and the Cabinet officials are expected to hit the road to talk to Americans about what’s in the jobs package, making the case for individual projects on a local level and explaining to the people who live there how it will impact their communities.
The massive outreach campaign, detailed to POLITICO by several senior White House officials, comes as the Biden administration attempts to move a behemoth spending package across the goal line, just weeks after winning approval from Congress for its $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package.
Republicans have already cast it as a money grab, layered in unnecessary spending and tax hikes.
But White House officials are betting that approach will backfire. To them, the millions of Americans trapped at home during the pandemic have developed a deep understanding of what it takes to survive in the United States in 2021 — and it goes far beyond fixing roads and bridges. It’s about expanding elder care to help suburban moms sandwiched between taking care of ailing parents and home-bound children, they say. Or with improving broadband networks for families in rural areas who’ve been stuck trying to work and study from home with shoddy networks.
As one person close to the White House put it, in their mind, Republicans will be viewed as “profoundly out of touch” if they don’t get on board with backing the next round of spending.
“The pandemic has put into stark relief the deficiencies in our infrastructure that people are living with day in and day out. Internet is one of the most obvious. The dilemma that families have faced when it comes to care for both their children and for elderly family members during this pandemic has also been a nearly existential one,” said Kate Bedingfield, White House communications director. “If you look at the public polling, the country agrees, the vast majority of people, including the majority of Republicans, think that we need to make infrastructure investment.”
Bedingfield said it was Biden himself who drove the decision to break the massive spending package into two — the $2 trillion “Americans Jobs Plan” that the White House released last week and a forthcoming “American Families Plan” — with the thought that it would be the most palatable way to sell it to Congress.
Inside the White House, there was also a belief that it was an easier sell if separated into two major groupings: the job creation piece of the first package and more of a caring economy piece of the second package.
“Some of that is just a function of trying to streamline and make sure that these are explicable and clear to the American people,” Deese said. “And so part of this is trying to say, you know, we have a big issue around addressing infrastructure-related investments that this country needs. And we have a big issue around investing directly in middle-class families. … Those are two core economic elements.”
Part of the sales pitch to Americans will be an appeal to suburban women, who have been particularly battered by the pandemic, leaving the workforce in droves and often carrying the burden of caretaking amid schools and childcare center closures. They also happen to represent a key voting demographic, one that helped sweep Democrats into power in the House in 2018, followed by the Senate and White House in 2020.
“There’s no question that a lot of pieces of this package resonate with suburban women who have been juggling the needs of their families and their jobs during the last year,” Bedingfield said. “The work-life balance is never an easy one to strike, but the demands that have been put on families during the pandemic have made it nearly impossible for many women.”
Compared to the urgency of the $1.9 trillion Covid rescue plan, the White House is demonstrating a bit more patience on this next round of spending; officials have not specified a deadline. At the same time, they’re cognizant of tapping into public support they’re seeing now for a boost in infrastructure spending and not wanting to lose the momentum that moved their last spending package through the goal posts.
White House aides say they also want to create the space for serious policy conversations.
Deese said his discussions with lawmakers so far have been substantive, and that he expects to dive even deeper into the nuts and bolts of the sweeping proposal after Congress’ Easter recess.
“What we want to avoid is, that we’re not making progress — that anyone in the process is just trying to slow things down for the sake of slowing things down,” Deese said.
It’s a signal that, as with the Covid-19 rescue bill that passed with only Democratic votes, the White House is prepared to move ahead without Republicans.
GOP lawmakers are making it clear they intend to take the same posture on the next big legislative package, as well.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) urged Biden to break out the section of his proposal that’s focused on “traditional infrastructure,” which he argued could win Republican support.
“My advice to the White House has been, take that bipartisan win, do this in a more traditional infrastructure way, and then if you want to force the rest of the package on Republicans and the Congress and the country, you could certainly do that,” Blunt said. “I think it’s a big mistake for the administration, they know I think it’s a mistake.”
And Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Senate Republicans would never line up behind Biden’s proposal as long as it unwinds former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts to pay for it.
“Listen, I’m all for working with the administration on an infrastructure bill,” Wicker said. But, “how could the president expect to have bipartisanship when his proposal is a repeal of one of our signature issues in 2017, where we cut the tax rate and made the United States finally more competitive when it comes to the way we treat job creators? He reverses all that.”
Deese confirmed he’s heard the same critique of Biden’s proposal to raise corporate tax rates in his private meetings with Republicans. “That’s a conversation that we anticipated,” he said.
White House aides feel confident that those GOP arguments are politically tone-deaf, in the same way they believe the GOP made a major strategic error in opposing the broadly popular Covid rescue plan.
“Demeaning the exact investments in jobs and infrastructure that the American people are specifically demanding after the unprecedented hardship of the last year, in the name of protecting tax giveaways for the wealthy and big corporations, couldn’t be more profoundly out of touch,” a person close to the White House said. “These aren’t attacks — they’re gaffes.”