Joe Biden has stepped up his efforts to sell his flagship $3.5tn spending bill to voters amid concerns that the White House has muddled its messaging, as Democrats in Washington make a last push to find a compromise on the package.
The US president is scheduled to travel later on Wednesday to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he was born and raised, to tout the benefits of the sweeping investment in America’s social safety net and efforts to combat climate change. On Thursday, he will do the same at a televised town hall meeting in Baltimore.
Biden’s approval ratings have tumbled in recent months as lawmakers from his own party squabble over the details of his proposals to make unprecedented federal investments in early childhood education and public healthcare — policies that should prove popular with voters, according to polls.
“I think it is important that the public understands what is in the plan. Because right now the public does not have any idea of the tremendous upside for working families,” said Ed Rendell, the Democratic former governor of Pennsylvania and a longtime ally of the president.
He added: “It is a complicated and nuanced plan, it’s tough to explain, and we haven’t done a very good job explaining it.”
Intraparty dissent over the package has also held up a separate $1.2tn bipartisan infrastructure bill, in a stand-off that has exposed the ideological fissures within the president’s own party.
Nearly all Democrats now agree that the larger package will need to be scaled back to a price tag closer to $2tn in order to satisfy the demands of conservative Democrat senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
The public squabbling and risk that both bills end up failing has stoked concerns about Democrats’ chances in next year’s midterm elections, when control of both chambers of Congress will be up for grabs.
Democrats have staked their re-election prospects on the swift passage of Biden’s sweeping legislative agenda and their ability to sell the benefits of the new programmes — from universal pre-kindergarten to an expansion of Medicare benefits for seniors — to voters.
But in a troubling sign for the president’s party, recent polling suggests few Americans can even identify what the policies contained in the social spending package. A CBS News poll earlier this month found just 10 per cent of Americans described themselves as knowing “a lot of the specifics” of the so-called Build Back Better plan.
When asked what they did know about the package, the largest share — 59 per cent — said they were aware it had a $3.5tn price tag, and 58 per cent said they knew it would result in tax increases for people on high incomes.
The Biden administration has insisted that the proposals would be fully “paid for” through a combination of closing tax loopholes and raising taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans, in the face of Republican attacks suggesting the spending spree will add to the deficit and national debt.
Just 40 per cent of respondents to the CBS News poll said they knew the White House proposals would lower drug prices for senior citizens, or expand public healthcare for older Americans to include dental, eye and hearing care.
The same poll suggested that the more people knew about the policies being proposed, the more likely they were to support the package. Fifty-four per cent of respondents said they approved of the Build Back Better plan, but that share jumped to 67 per cent among people who knew the plan included an expansion of Medicare and funding for paid family and medical leave.
Rachel Bitecofer, a left-leaning political analyst and co-founder of liberal group Strike PAC, said Democrats needed to zero in on a clear, simple message rather than muddling voters minds with too many policy proposals.
“Sometimes it’s better to focus on one thing that’s really salient, really . . . evokes a lot of emotion and just make that the centrepiece for your marketing,” she said. “It’s really hard to market complexity. You have to be reductionist about things . . . you need a simplistic rallying frame.”
The White House, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill and allies of the president all acknowledge the messaging problem — and the potential upside if Biden manages to turn the situation round and sell the plan not just in the corridors of Washington but in the swing states like Pennsylvania that delivered his election win last year.
Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, have blamed the media for the public’s lack of understanding for what the president is proposing.
Sean McElwee of the progressive pollster Data for Progress cautioned that protracted infighting would not only damage the bill’s prospects on Capitol Hill, but also risk alienating voters in the medium and long term.
“The longer we are sort of talking about this bill, instead of actually talking about the benefits that we’re delivering to voters, the longer we’re talking about what we’re cutting instead of what we are delivering to the middle class, the worse off we are,” he told reporters on a call on Wednesday.
Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic think-tank Third Way, agreed.
“The more time we spend seeming to dither and to argue among ourselves, the harder it is going to be turn the political ship around,” Bennett said.
“Most of the discussion about what’s in and what’s out [of the package] has been a Beltway conversation,” Bennett added. “Voters are not tracking this every single minute . . . what they are going to know is what is in the final package, if it is passed, because that is what Democrats will go out and sell to them.”