Democrats gear up for PR battle on COVID-19 relief


Democrats are gearing up for a battle of public opinion as they seek to keep approval for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package at a high level.

The legislation has proved popular so far despite near uniform GOP opposition in Congress, but Democrats aren’t taking any chances — particularly as Republicans step up their attacks on the measure.

Biden and the party are conscious of the first years of the Obama White House, when public opinion turned against the new president’s stimulus legislation. Public opinion also faltered for the Affordable Care Act, and Democrats lost their House majority in 2010 while their Senate majority was greatly diminished.

Biden this week encouraged House Democrats to “speak up and speak out” about the plan, suggesting the Obama administration “paid a price” for not taking enough of a victory lap after the 2009 recovery package.

The White House, Democrats on Capitol Hill and outside groups are all planning advocacy efforts that will emphasize direct benefits in the package to everyday Americans, including the measure’s popular $1,400 direct payments, which would be distributed to millions of households.

“Fourteen-hundred-dollar direct payments are popular,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said when asked about the bill’s popularity in polls. “I can go out on the corner and hand out hundred-dollar bills and that’s popular.” 

Democrats acknowledge they fell short with their 2009 messaging.

“Any of my colleagues at the time would say that we didn’t do enough to explain to the American people what the benefits were of the rescue plan and we didn’t do enough to do it in terms that people would be talking about at their dinner tables,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday.

“That’s one of the reasons we, of course, have been trying to break down the impact of the American rescue plan into the key components that will impact people directly,” she said, mentioning funding for direct payments, coronavirus vaccines and school reopenings. 

Democrats have some reasons for optimism.

Polls show larger majorities back the relief package that the 2009 stimulus measure.

A recent Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey provided to The Hill found that 73 percent would vote for a $1.9 trillion relief package if they were in Congress, including 55 percent of Republicans. 

Psaki on Friday said that while Biden is now focused on turning the measure into law, the White House would soon shift to touting its provisions.

“Our focus is on getting the package passed and once it does, we look forward to taking some time, using the president, the vice president, the first lady, the second gentleman to engage with and communicate with the American people about how the package impacts them and how it will help them get through this difficult period of time,” Psaki said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the rest of her caucus plan to highlight the local benefit of the provisions in the relief bill, according to a Democratic aide, who said there would be a “direct line” drawn from the bill’s passage to its results once it is signed into law by Biden. 

“This bill is going to be a huge opportunity to show an incredible, concrete impact in people’s lives,” said Navin Nayak, president and executive director at Center for American Progress Action Fund. “It is rare that you get to pass legislation where the impact is felt both so clearly and so quickly, and I think that is the crux of what we and a lot of other progressive institutions are going to be focused on, is trying to localize and personalize all the ways in which Democrats have delivered.”

A Senate Republican aide said GOP lawmakers want to replicate the success Democrats had negatively defining former President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017.

Republicans thought Trump’s signature tax initiative would help them in the 2018 midterm election but the Democratic messaging effort was so successful, the tax-cut law provided little help to GOP candidates. A Gallup poll from April 2019 showed that only 40 percent of Americans approved of the Trump tax cuts while 49 percent disapproved.  

Republicans are criticizing Biden’s relief bill as too expensive, and as a partisan measure that will have no GOP support.

Johnson delayed a vote on the measure by forcing a prolonged reading of its 628 pages on the Senate floor, a move that puzzled some of his colleagues and that Democrats believe will ultimately backfire.

Johnson, however, thinks the bill will become more unpopular as the public becomes more familiar with its details. He referred to a concerted GOP effort to paint $1.5 million in funding for the Seaway International Bridge to Canada and $141 million for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system as pet projects helping the home states of Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Pelosi. Democrats eventually pulled funding for both projects. 

“When the public actually sees what’s in this and when they start realizing their states will get the short end of the stick compared to California, New York and Illinois — that’s the type of information the public needs to have — and you just might see public opinion turn,” Johnson said. 

One Republican strategist said the GOP started the PR debate with a disadvantage because the storming of the Capitol by rioters on Jan. 6 and former President Trump’s second impeachment trial last month distracted from the COVID-19 package. 

The strategist said the goal moving forward is to argue that a relatively small proportion of the bill is going to vaccine distribution and other needs most directly linked to the pandemic. 

Schumer has countered the Republican attacks by arguing the pandemic is a “once-in-a-century crisis” that requires bold and immediate action and that taking weeks or months to negotiate with Republicans will deliver too little relief, too late. 

“We are not going to make the same mistake we made after the last economic downturn, when Congress did too little to help the nation rebound — locking us into a long, slow, painful recovery,” Schumer said Friday. 


Tags Charles Schumer coronavirus relief direct payments Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Ron Johnson
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