Joe Biden sells. But is anyone buying?
The president, the son of a used car salesman who considers himself an accomplished political pitchman, is stepping up efforts to promote his hard-earned $ 1,000 billion bipartisan infrastructure program to the public, in the hope to present it as his ultimate accomplishment, reversing his recent plunge in the polls and boosting Democrats’ chances in the 2022 midterm election.
Among Democrats, however, concerns are growing over whether the White House – moving from crisis to crisis – can mount the sustained campaign needed to reframe a sprawling bill that has been stalled for months into a triumph that will help them out. hold Congress.
The package is already popular, with a solid majority of voters saying they support its funding increases for rail, roads, ports, water systems, broadband and the electricity grid. But the president and his allies have no illusions about what they’re really selling – Mr. Biden himself, and his theory of facts for US politics, that keeping concrete campaign promises is the only way to transcend the rage and cultural war message of Trump-era politics.
“When you do things that are fundamentally useful for people and make sure they know it, you will be credited with it,” said Jared Bernstein, longtime economic adviser to the president, summing up the Biden brand and the plan for his. back in the polls.
Yet the challenges Mr. Biden faces – who, as Vice President of President Barack Obama a decade ago, has had some success as a traveling salesperson for stimulus and health care bills – are formidable.
The infrastructure bill is designed as a long-term solution to decades of neglect. Many projects will not be selected, let alone completed, for years to come – so many Americans might not immediately see the windfall. And Mr. Biden, for all his enthusiasm for Amtrak, is not a particularly consistent messenger.
In addition, the initial enthusiasm for the bill was undermined by months of bickering within the party that trapped the president “in the sausage factory,” as a senior official put it. the White House. And a new battle over the unresolved $ 1.85 trillion social spending plan threatens to send it straight back to the legislative crusher. Rising inflation and pessimism about the economy, coupled with the lingering pandemic and hangover of the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, have soured public moods and pushed Mr. Biden at 40.
While 32 Republicans – including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, voted for the package (he called it a “boon” to his state this week) – the party is already trying to dilute its impact Politics. Some Senate Conservatives even presented his stint as a sort of victory for former President Donald J. Trump, whose timid pressure on infrastructure has become a common joke.
On Tuesday, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, who heads the House Democrats’ campaign committee, warned the White House not to waste the moment, telling the New York Times that Mr. Biden “has to surrender in everything. the country. “before” the next crisis takes over the news cycle. “
He concluded with a message to White House staff: “Free Joe Biden. “
One of the president’s closest allies, Rep. James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, sees it as a race against time to call Biden’s victory an accomplishment. His biggest worry, he said in an interview, was that Republicans would just start showing up for ribbon cuts to celebrate projects that many in their party were opposed to.
Mr Clyburn cited an example he encountered in his home state this week: Governor Henry McMaster, a Republican ally of Trump, appeared at the inauguration of a popular 1.7 highway project. billion dollars funded, in part, by a state tax. increase that he had initially vetoed.
“Democrats have never done a good job of telling people what we have done,” said Mr. Clyburn, the third House Democrat. “We have to do the job, of course, but then we have to go back and tell people we did it. We have to get rid of our buttocks.
White House officials are also keen to make a quick sale on infrastructure. The Build Back Better Act, which includes a dizzying array of social spending programs, is also popular, but risks meeting unanimous Republican opposition. Recent focus groups led by Democratic pollsters indicate that swing voters could be swayed against the new package by posts that describe it as overly “socialist” in scope.
Mr Biden’s team maintains that both bills are a political boon and say they intend to make full use of their infrastructure victory as quickly as possible. The president has participated in strategy meetings, eagerly asking assistants to simplify their program descriptions so voters can more easily understand them, according to a Democratic official who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the programs. internal deliberations.
Mr Biden has scheduled a White House signing ceremony on Monday that will include lawmakers, mayors and governors from both sides, followed by trips across the country over the next week to sell the plan.
In addition, the administration is turning to a sort of infrastructure sales force by sending cabinet members, led by Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm, to promote investments in infrastructure in towns, villages, rural areas and tribal communities. Vice President Kamala Harris will also play a role, according to White House spokesman Andrew Bates.
The administration is also preparing a blitz of messages on television and in the media targeting black and Hispanic communities, the Democratic official said. The White House digital team is developing explainers and videos on social media to promote the benefits of the infrastructure plan to different constituencies.
“You can have substitutes both across the country and talk about your policies, but at the end of the day, it’s the president’s agenda, it’s his vision, and he’s the one selling it,” said Mike Schmuhl, who led Mr. Buttigieg’s presidential campaign in 2020 and is now president of the Indiana Democratic Party.
But Mr. Biden doesn’t have the luxury of focusing exclusively on selling the bill. Its appearance at the Port of Baltimore on Wednesday, for example, was not strictly an infrastructure event: it aimed to address growing concerns about supply chain bottlenecks, in addition to raising awareness of the $ 17 billion. dollars allocated in the port improvement bill.
The Infrastructure Bill at a Glance
In many ways, Mr Biden’s current challenge echoes the task he faced in 2010 and 2011 when he was sent to states and cities to sell the stimulus and health care packages. of Mr. Obama, who were unpopular at the time, and passed with virtually no Republican. Support.
Assistants to Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden said he was, in general, an enthusiastic and efficient salesperson, particularly adept at being complacent with local authorities and cuddling ordinary citizens, skills that then helped him reassure voters that he was the best choice to replace Mr. Trump.
But Mr. Biden, then like today, tended to ramble and make his fair share of blunders. (A former West Wing aide recalled watching daily clips of his appearances with closed fists.)
At the time, Mr. Biden pressured Mr. Obama, with little success, to spend less time in Washington focusing on the government process and more time on the road explaining his policies to people. voters – the same demand Democrats are now making of Mr. Biden. .
“We have a great opportunity to come out and sell a bill that really makes an impact on people’s real lives,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey who is facing a serious challenge. next year in a New York suburb. district. “But everyone really needs to make their case – and celebrate it – if it can be of any use to Democrats in seats like mine in 2022.”
But Mr Biden’s centrist strategy, rooted in his desire to revive a bygone era of bipartisanship, also provides refuge for a handful of moderate Republicans who bet results for their constituents will offset the damage of a fleeting alliance with a Democratic President.
“It is a difficult time to act in a bipartisan fashion, and some of the phone calls I have received to my office reflect that,” said Nicole Malliotakis of New York, whose district includes Staten Island and the south. from Brooklyn. She was one of 13 House Republicans to vote for the package.
“Unfortunately, you have a lot of people who are more concerned with the optics of giving credit to the president,” she added. “But it’s my job to serve the people who elected me, and they want me to provide real infrastructure because we have real problems here – we have constant flooding and we have to deal with our systems. inadequate sewers. “