As the White House struggles to pitch President Joe Biden’s big infrastructure win — a bipartisan law that may actually deserve the over-used description “historic” — ahead of next year’s midterms, its political salesmanship is already coming under fire. But the forces assailing Biden’s presidency, the obstacles thrown up by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and the weight of his own missteps cut far deeper than anything a public relations blitz can fix.
The administration hasn’t always done a good job drawing direct lines between Biden’s priorities — infrastructure and an even bigger yet-to-pass social spending bill — and the lives of regular Americans, even though each is packed with measures to create jobs, and alleviate the cost of health care, education and other living expenses for millions of people.
“We can deliver real results for real people … in ways that really matter each and every day, to each person out there. And we’re taking a monumental step forward to build back better as a nation,” Biden said as he signed the infrastructure bill into law surrounded by Democratic and Republican lawmakers Monday.
Yet almost every political metric says that for all his passion, millions of Americans aren’t convinced. A recent CNN poll, for instance, found a majority of respondents believe Biden isn’t paying attention to the nation’s most important concerns. An earlier CNN poll found relatively few saw the infrastructure and broader economic package as one that would help them personally. The victory of Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin in Virginia earlier this month suggests Republican fingers may be closer to the nation’s pulse.
Convincing Americans of the merits of a law that may take years to produce civil engineering projects is an especially tough task at a time when Thanksgiving turkeys are shooting up in price and the gasoline it will take to get to grandma’s house next week is blowing a hole in wallets. Transportation projects can make a big difference. But repairing bridges, roads and railroads is a multi-year or decade endeavor. Maybe someday Biden will be remembered in the same way as ex-President Dwight Eisenhower, the architect of the inter-state highway system. But it won’t help his party in time for the midterm elections next November.
And so far, the White House’s efforts haven’t been all that impressive. Biden’s personal salesmanship doesn’t seem likely to suddenly transform his fortunes, if his low-wattage event filled with recycled stump speech lines and jokes in front of a creaking New Hampshire bridge on Tuesday is a guide. He was in Michigan on Wednesday, touting the electric vehicle provisions of the law at a General Motors facility and vowing to secure the jobs of the future in the United States and not in China.
While the Democratic Party and outside groups are stepping up advertising to sell the infrastructure law, there is no real sign yet that it is breaking through in a big way. And previous sales jobs by Biden’s team on more immediate reforms — like an expansion of the child tax credits — hardly eased his political difficulties. Months of internal Democratic debate about the size of programs has also fueled GOP charges of out-of-control spending, while distracting from provisions that would actually benefit the public.
A dark political environment
But even if Biden had the genius for marketing that ex-President Donald Trump claims to possess, simply doing a better job of showcasing the infrastructure law would not do the complex layers of the nation’s mood sufficient justice.
The President faces a dark political environment a year before the first midterms of his presidency, which history suggests already come with a high possibility of losing control of Congress. Some of his own missteps — like overly rosy predictions about the end of the pandemic, a previously blasé attitude to rising inflation and his denial of the chaos of the Afghanistan withdrawal over the summer — all helped drag down Biden’s approval ratings and ability to sell his programs.
The Washington narrative of an economy slipping out of control was not helped by a miscalculation that caused a stunning underestimate of 626,000 jobs created this year. The originally reported numbers created days of bad headlines for Biden, and it’s not clear the correction — which he touted at Wednesday’s event in Detroit — will shift the public’s perception of the economy that may already be baked in.
Many Democrats believe they will be rewarded if they deliver for voters. But that idea may be flawed, at least in the short-term. Passing the Affordable Care Act didn’t stop then-President Barack Obama from getting a midterm “shellacking” in 2010 when Democrats lost the House. It took many more years for Obamacare to become so popular that GOP attempts to repeal it because a losing crusade, overshadowing their 2017 tax cut proposals and contributing to their loss of the House in 2018.
It is always harder to make a positive case for a law than to demagogue it. Republicans are loving the chance to blame post-pandemic economic glitches on Biden’s policies. It may be unfair, but it plays into voters’ immediate concerns.
Many factors are behind the rise in prices, including a supply chain logjam caused by the pandemic, soaring demand by consumers and higher energy prices that make it more expensive to transport goods.
But nuance is the first casualty of campaigns.
“This is going to be the most expensive Thanksgiving for American families in history,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, said on Wednesday. His fellow Republican from Alaska, Sen. Dan Sullivan warned: “More Americans are gonna be driving around to see family and friends and they’re going to start to have sticker shock.” According to GOP Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas, “This year, there won’t be blueberry pie, and there’s not going to be any pumpkin pie.” Florida Sen. Rick Scott — the head of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm — spotted a Grinch. “It’s Thanksgiving, it’s Hanukkah and Christmas. The Biden administration is doing nothing.”
The White House would disagree things are this bad. But the GOP’s relish in painting a picture of deprivation underscores how the perception of tough economic conditions makes it harder for Biden to sell his plans. Seizing on the economy also allows Republicans to distract from the extremism in their ranks as the House on Wednesday voted to censure Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar and remove him from his committee assignments over a violent video targeting New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Biden.
It’s fair to debate whether trillions of dollars that Biden has poured into the economy with his spending plans spiked inflation, although there is strong evidence that the aftermath of the pandemic is more to blame than Biden’s legislation. And the fact that other nations that didn’t stimulate their economies are experiencing similar pain would suggest government spending isn’t at fault. Still, “Bidenflation” is simply too catchy for Republicans to resist. Their glee prompted White House press secretary Jen Psaki to accuse them this week of “rooting for inflation.”
Biden’s conservative media road block
While Biden must tout his achievements to drive Democratic voters to the polls next year, he also has another massive obstacle: the conservative media machine limits the audience he can reach. Pro-Trump TV outlets rarely carry Biden’s speeches live or give him a chance to make his case. As he signed the infrastructure bill this week, social media feeds directed at conservative readers were filled with misinformation about the legislation, mockery of Biden’s age, claims that Democrats — and not Trump’s insurrection-appeasing GOP allies — were authoritarians, and lobbying for Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenage shooter on trial for homicide in a politically charged case in Wisconsin.
But to markedly improve his position Biden must break through in critical Midwestern battleground states. He managed to do so in 2020 in some cases. But right-wing media also constantly showers such voters with cultural rather than economic messages, focusing on immigration, race and guns, which may be just as resonant. So even if Biden’s policies improve the living situations of millions of working Americans, they may not believe the evidence or give Biden credit for it.
The idea that better marketing would help Democrats also discounts the question of whether they are actually giving voters what they want.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell often makes the point that minuscule Democratic congressional majorities mean there is no mandate for the kind of vast political reform that Biden is attempting. Even an endangered House Democrat, Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, caused a stir by declaring that no one elected Biden — who carved out a more moderate image in the 2020 campaign — to be Franklin Roosevelt, the father of the New Deal.
The fact that Biden outperformed congressional Democrats on the ballot suggests the 2020 election might have been more of an anti-Trump vote than a pro-Biden one. So it’s possible he may have misread his mandate.
But while the political environment looks grim for Biden and the Democrats now, they may have hit bottom. America is forever changing, as forces emerge to reshape national politics. So House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy might not want to take his prediction of a more than 60-seat gain next November to the bank. Anything can happen — from foreign crises to domestic controversies — to change voters’ minds in 12 months.
It’s also reasonable to expect that the national mood could improve next summer, after a public health crisis that has already lasted nearly two years, if plentiful booster vaccines, new anti-viral treatments and high natural immunity make Covid-19 an endemic rather than pandemic threat. Investment bank Goldman Sachs this week predicted that the unemployment rate could slip to a 50-year low of 3.5% by the end of 2022 and that inflation will stabilize. So Biden’s approval ratings — a critical measure of success for first-term presidents — might tick up and selling his policies could become far easier.
And even if they don’t, Biden is doing what all presidents must do. Power is there to be used because it quickly erodes, and presidents are often remembered for only a few big things once the fever of the political moment has passed. So it makes sense for Biden and any other Democratic or Republican president to go big when they can, even if they struggle to sell what they are doing in the short term.