With Build Back Better, Dems aim to correct messaging missteps

House Democrats acknowledge they weren’t very effective at selling their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan to the general public. Now, they’re hoping to improve on those mistakes with their mammoth climate and social spending package.

While President Biden’s Build Back Better Act still has a tough road in the Senate, House Democrats have already begun holding a series of roundtable discussions, site visits, in-person and virtual town halls and news conferences across the country highlighting individual pieces of the roughly $2 trillion package.

The idea is to break it up into smaller bite-size chunks — things like child care, climate change, education, health care and help for seniors — that will make the 2,135-page bill easier for voters and constituents to digest and understand how it directly impacts their lives.

Those events would also feature everyday Americans who would benefit from the bill, whether they be families who could enroll their 3- or 4-year-old in free universal preschool or receive another year of the child tax credit; college students who could be eligible for expanded Pell Grants; or senior citizens who could see the cost of their prescription drugs go down.  

“There are some challenges. I think we never messaged effectively the American Rescue Plan. I think we have to do it bit by bit,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), a senior member of the Ways and Means and Budget committees who is planning separate events focused specifically on child care and students.

“So given the size and scope of the bill, the messaging of it cannot be done in a day or a week,” he said. “It’ll have to be spread out, and do it with people whose lives really will be affected by what we do.”

Vulnerable Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a mother of three, has done local TV interviews focused on her top priorities in the bill: universal preschool and the one-year extension of the expanded child tax credit. Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries and seven other members of New York City’s House delegation gathered outside City Hall to discuss specific ways that the Biden package would aid working families.

And at a Phoenix pharmacy this week, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) joined patient advocates at a health care-themed news conference, highlighting how Build Back Better empowers Medicare to negotiate lower prices for some prescription drugs, expands Medicaid coverage and allocates $150 billion for home care for seniors and people with disabilities.

“This bill alone will save Arizonans millions of dollars in prescription costs,” Gallego said.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a former leader of the Progressive Caucus, said the sheer number of benefits in Build Back Better hand Democrats a wealth of options to choose from in their messaging campaigns. He agreed with Doggett and others that lawmakers should hold events with groups and individuals who will benefit directly from the bill.

The bill will be a political winner, Pocan said, “because there’s so many great things that we can talk to folks about — some benefits will be for people with children, some will be for seniors — when you start breaking it down and talking to the groups that are going to really see how much this is going to improve their lives.”

Democrats are still smarting from what they say was a missed opportunity to execute a sound messaging strategy with Biden’s coronavirus relief package, dubbed the American Rescue Plan. While it proved to be popular with voters overall, polls show, lawmakers have encountered constituents who were unaware what exactly was in the rescue plan or how their families personally benefited.

In St. Louis, a father of two children told The Hill this week that he is receiving $500 a month in expanded child tax credits, yet he didn’t know that those recurring payments are due to the COVID-19 relief plan that the Democratic-led Congress passed and Biden signed into law earlier this year. The father also did not know that the tax credits are likely to be extended for an additional year if congressional Democrats can pass the Build Back Better bill.  

It’s just one example of the disconnect between some voters and the benefits they are enjoying thanks to Biden policies.

Democratic leaders are desperately trying to increase awareness of their legislative wins as they fight to defend the slimmest of majorities in the House and Senate in next year’s midterms and combat the GOP’s messages of rising inflation, high gas and grocery prices and “reckless” spending by the Democrats.

“Enough! Enough with Washington waste. Enough with fraud, Washington abuse and Washington corruption. Enough with higher taxes, higher prices and higher borrowing. Simply enough,” Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in his record-breaking eight-and-a-half-hour floor speech railing against the Biden package.

The four co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee — Reps. Matt Cartwright (Pa.), Debbie Dingell (Mich.), Ted Lieu (Calif.) and Joe Neguse (Colo.) — have challenged their House colleagues to hold as many events as possible on the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package during the next few weeks.

And Democrats are aiming to do 1,000 Build Back Better events by the end of the year, according to Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), who has the tough assignment of leading the Democrats’ campaign arm for the 2022 cycle.

Maloney recently gave a pep talk to colleagues at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, where he unveiled internal polling numbers showing that Democrats are only 2 percentage points behind Republicans in a generic ballot across battleground districts — suggesting his party has plenty of time to make up the difference if they message Build Back Better effectively.

“It’s our job to tell people what we’re doing. We don’t expect them to know if we don’t tell them. That’s fair. …” Maloney said.

“While we have a tall order in breaking through the noise, delivering these achievements, and telling people about them, remember we have a plan to give you a better country,” he added. “The other side has a ploy to win back power for themselves. That’s the difference.”

The head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been critical of Biden and the White House for doing too little to sell the climate and social safety net plan, and stressed the importance of fully utilizing that bully pulpit. But he hailed the president for making trips to an unsafe bridge in Woodstock, N.H., and an electric car plant in Hamtramck, Mich., to promote his infrastructure and Build Back Better packages.  

“Every day he’s out there telling the American people what we’re doing is a good day,” Maloney said.

Tags Abigail Spanberger Build Back Better Build Back Better Act Debbie Dingell Hakeem Jeffries Joe Biden Joe Neguse Kevin McCarthy Lloyd Doggett Mark Pocan Matt Cartwright Ruben Gallego Ted Lieu

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