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Biden’s political misfire on the COVID-19 relief bill

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Even in victory, Democrats seem intent on undermining their own political agenda. The imminent passage of President Biden’s massive $1.9 trillion stimulus represents many potential wins: for American workers, for small businesses, for the battle against COVID-19 — and for Biden’s administration.  

So naturally, this being the Democratic Party in 2021, the White House has decided to cast all of that aside and focus on – what else? – selling the one part of the bill that really matters to voters: its hyper-progressive street cred. 

The American Rescue Plan is “the most progressive piece of legislation in history,” declared White House press secretary Jen Psaki. It’s the “most progressive domestic legislation in a generation,” proclaimed the president’s chief of staff Ron Klain.  

Not to be outdone, Biden himself got in on the action: “Bernie Sanders said this is the most progressive bill he’s ever seen passed since he’s been here,” he said.

Well then. What could possibly go wrong? 

Surely, the problem isn’t the merits of these claims. A nearly $2 trillion stimulus – packed to the brim with federal spending, and a bevy of Democratic wish-list items – probably is the most progressive bill since at least the Johnson administration.  

The problem is that Biden’s team doesn’t need to advertise it that way. It’s politically counterproductive in at least four main ways:

First, the rhetoric conflicts with the opinions of most Americans, who elected Biden to the White House based on his pledge to govern from the center. Public opinion polling shows that only about 11 percent of U.S. voters self-identify as “progressive.”  

While it’s true that there’s broad bipartisan support among Americans for Biden’s COVID relief package, that’s because many know the country needs assistance right now — not because voters are lured by its “progressive” labeling.

Second, Biden’s messaging isn’t winning over any Republicans on Capitol Hill. In fact, Republicans actually used Klain’s “most progressive” words to mobilize against the stimulus prior to the Senate vote. A video later published by the Senate GOP shows Klain making his assertion, followed by the text: “He accidentally said the quiet part out loud.”  

Going forward, it will be hard enough for Democrats to persuade 10 Republican senators to vote with them on any legislation – from prescription drugs to infrastructure – requiring compromise. There’s no reason to give them a built-in excuse to reject their agenda on spec. 

Third, the White House risks alienating moderates within its own party, including the critical swing vote of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va). It’s no coincidence that, even as he voted for the stimulus, Manchin commented that he won’t simply tow the party line in the future without good-faith efforts by Democrats to reach across the aisle.

In referring to the prospect of a Biden infrastructure proposal, Manchin said, “I am not going to get on a bill that cuts … [Republicans] out completely before we start trying.”

Finally, touting the historically progressive nature of the stimulus isn’t likely to satisfy even progressives. Last Saturday, for example, Biden was still forced to defend himself against claims that those on the far left of his party thought the legislation didn’t go far enough. 

“This is not the promise that we made,” complained Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). “This is not why we are given the opportunity to be in the majority in the Senate and have the White House.” 

“We remain extremely disappointed that the minimum wage bill was not included,” wrote the Congressional Progressive Caucus — a point reiterated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Twitter.  

At some point, Biden might remind himself that he’s in the Oval Office. Not Ilhan Omar. Not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

As Nate Silver recently tweeted, “[T]he fact that Biden easily won the Democratic primary despite having little support from blue-checkmark liberal elites [on Twitter] is something that ought to have been a pretty big wake-up call but doesn’t seem to have been.”

The sooner Biden himself realizes this, the sooner his White House can get back to political messaging that’s an asset for Democrats, not a liability.

Thomas Gift is director of the UCL (University College London) Centre on U.S. Politics. Follow him on Twitter @TGiftiv.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez American Rescue Plan Act Bernie Sanders Biden coronavirus Ilhan Omar Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Presidency of Joe Biden Progressivism in the United States Ron Klain

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