Voters need to feel the benefit, not just hear the message

Now comes the hard part. Congress has passed and President BidenJoe BidenCourt nixes offshore drilling leases auctioned by Biden administration Laquan McDonald's family pushes for federal charges against officer ahead of early release Biden speaks with Ukrainian president amid Russian threat MORE signed the trillion dollar-plus bipartisan infrastructure plan and is poised to consider the “human infrastructure” Build Back Better — or BBB — reconciliation bill. But these signature Democratic achievements will yield little political benefit without determined efforts on two additional fronts by Biden and congressional Democrats over the next several months: persistent messaging and swift implementation.

A review of efforts following enactment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, the Obama stimulus) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) a dozen years ago provides important lessons for Democrats. Throughout much of 2009-2010, Hill leaders — including Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBriahna Joy Gray discusses Pelosi's 2022 re-election announcement The Hill's Morning Report - Who will replace Justice Breyer? House Republicans bash Democrats' China competition bill MORE (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidSchumer vows to vote on Biden Supreme Court pick with 'all deliberate speed' Democrats say change to filibuster just a matter of time The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters MORE (D-Nev.) — implored the Obama White House for a sustained messaging effort to explain the complex initiatives. But despite administration assurances of a messaging campaign “like nothing you’ve ever seen,” the promotional efforts were paltry, especially compared to the relentless castigation from the Republican messaging machine. As I note in my forthcoming book "Arc of Power," the administration “blew the selling job,” Pelosi told Obama’s messaging strategists. “At times we lost the narrative,” David AxelrodDavid AxelrodThe Memo: No more 'the former guy' as Biden tackles Trump head-on Biden's to-do list for 2022 looks a lot like 2021's Voters need to feel the benefit, not just hear the message MORE acknowledged. Obama himself did not disagree. “I’m not making any excuse for … White House messaging,” he said after the 2010 election loss.

Biden, who had responsibility for implementation of ARRA as vice president, claims to have learned the lesson of ceding the messaging field to the Republican detractors.

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But even effective messaging cannot substitute for ensuring that the beneficial impact of the legislation registers by the time voters go to the polls in 11 months.

By the summer of 2010, nearly a year and a half after ARRA’s enactment, only one in six voters felt they were doing better economically. A July Newsweek poll found that 63 percent believed the ARRA stimulus had yielded them no beneficial effect. There was little evidence of the tens of thousands of jobs created by “shovel-ready projects” that the Democratic messaging had proclaimed. “Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected,” Obama admitted the following year. Even the hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts crammed into ARRA in a futile effort to attract Republican support failed to register — in part because (unlike with Trump’s 2017 tax cut), taxpayers received no rebate checks or even notices of the often miniscule reductions in their paycheck withholding. Two weeks before the election, only 8 percent of voters realized the stimulus had given them a tax cut at all, and far more believed their taxes had risen because of the ARRA.

The immediate benefits of the Democrats’ hard-won legislative victories were so indistinct that consultants warned against promoting them during the fall campaign.

In the case of ACA, many key provisions would not go into effect for years after enactment, during which time insurance premiums continued to soar, and the Obama administration stumbled badly on the public rollout of the ACA online portal. That advice left Democrats unable to claim credit for the very landmark laws they were being pummeled for having passed.

Now it appears, largely for budget scoring purposes, Democrats are on track to again face voters having passed key BBB provisions that will not take effect until after the 2022 election, including penalties on pharmaceutical companies for raising prices faster than inflation (takes effect in 2023), a ceiling on insulin costs (2023), a $2,000 cap on out-of-pocket drug costs for seniors (2024), and a three-year phase-in of Medicare negotiated drug pricing beginning in 2025.

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Democrats (and their critics) should be more focused on these implementation issues than on precisely when the legislation is enacted. Given the expense and complexity of the two infrastructure measures, the narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and the factionalism that pervades both caucuses, it is hardly surprising that it has taken nine months for the first bill to pass. But even if it takes until Christmas to finalize the Build Back Better measure, that would still be nearly three months sooner than the ACA, so valuable time remains for messaging and implementation.

The experience of a decade ago, during the first two years of a Democratic president with a Democratic Congress in midst of great crisis, offers historical guidance for Biden and his allies going into 2022. Perhaps the most important lesson is that passing legislation and touting its benefits are insufficient; voters must feel the impact.

The lesson is unmistakable: act swiftly, expedite implementation through job creation, ribbon-cuttings and distribution of tax benefits, and leave no ambiguity about which party delivered the relief tens of millions of Americans desperately needed.

John A. Lawrence, Ph.D., former chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is the author of “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship” and the forthcoming “Arc of Power: Politics and Policy in the Pelosi Era 2005-2010.” Follow him on Twittter @JohnALawrenceDC.