“There are a lot of people who use the term ‘victory lap’ in a derogatory way. I’ve already heard people saying that Biden is about to take a victory lap. Well, that’s a lot of crap,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a close Biden ally. “One of the—if not the biggest—mistakes that Obama made, in my opinion, was getting the Recovery Act done and not explaining to people what he had done.”
Biden and top administration officials acknowledged they’ll have to do more to ensure the benefits of their package sink into the public’s consciousness. And they’ve spent weeks carefully planning how best to begin their efforts while much of the country remains consumed by the pandemic. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that once the American Rescue Plan is signed, “We will need to do some work and use our best voices.”
Part of the White House strategy before the Covid package passed was aimed at avoiding the kinds of storyline distractions that Biden can sometimes create in less guarded moments. That’s one reason the White House so far has avoided putting Biden in front of reporters for more in-depth questioning.
The upcoming sales job will require Biden to assume a new posture: fewer scripted events and private dealings with lawmakers, more interactions with the press and appearances before the public. That will give the president opportunities to make more emotional appeals, such as highlighting older family members finally being able to get together with their grandchildren.
BIden enters this new phase in an enviable position. Support for the coronavirus legislation is sky high, as is confidence in the president’s handling of the pandemic.
“I think they start from a very popular place,” said Robert Gibbs, Obama’s press secretary when the 44th president passed his own recovery act. “This legislation from the polling looks more popular than the 2009 bill. The real question now is driving that awareness. They should be reminding people as often as they can, what is in it for them. This is the foundation of essentially what they are going to run on in four years.”
Though administration officials have studiously avoided discussing the bill in the context of future elections, top Democrats say that the two are intertwined. Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior Obama official, framed the challenge for the Biden White House as the beginning of the battle for the 2022 elections.
In a post over the weekend, Pfeiffer argued that Democrats’ struggles in the 2010 midterms weren’t for a lack of effort from Obama. His former boss, he said, gave speech after speech on factory floors that had reopened, but it was nearly impossible for the then-president to break through the avalanche of bad economic news at the time.
While the benefits of Biden’s rescue plan are more specific and easily understood than Obama’s recovery act — and the whole package polls better — Pfeiffer told POLITICO that the challenges the current White House faces are the same ones they encountered in 2009. “How do you balance selling the thing you accomplished with pushing the things you still want to accomplish in a media environment with little to no attention span?” he asked.
One suggestion Pfeiffer made was to “flood the zone” with videos, charts and graphics about “good news” around the legislation.
White House officials said they plan to build off the approaches they’ve taken over the last several weeks in growing support for the plan’s passage. That includes making the case directly to Americans through interviews with local media and by leveraging the coalition of groups and leaders who have endorsed the rescue plan. So far, they said, more than 400 bipartisan mayors and governors; officials in organized labor and the business community; economists and other experts have spoken favorably about the package.
Among outside organizers, the effort will involve highlighting provisions in the bill that have received less attention than the checks, school funding and vaccine money. Union leaders and their Democratic allies pointed to an $86 billion aid provision in the package that would prevent multiemployer pension plans from collapsing. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who pushed for its inclusion, said it would “not only protect these pensions, but will stimulate our local economies and prevent a major bailout that would have cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars if we did nothing.”
Phil Smith, the head of governmental affairs with United Mine Workers of America, said while their workers had their pensions shored up in 2019, the rescue plan provides a “backstop” to protect their retirement accounts, and listed it along with other wishlist items that the union plans to tout internally, as well as though its social media channels.
“That is such a signature accomplishment that has been worked on for more than a decade,” Smith said. “It’s huge.”
They also welcomed expanded benefits that will soon begin flowing to thousands of unemployed mine workers. Other union leaders said out-of-work members whose families are suffering through the pandemic will make them aware of their eligibility for COBRA subsidies to help them afford healthcare.
“Unions are often in the position of having to explain to our members that after we fight, and after we mobilize, the negotiators come back and it’s not everything we wanted,” said Damon Silvers, policy director for the AFL-CIO. “President Biden’s American Rescue Plan is one of those extraordinary moments when that’s actually not true.”
“This is what we fought for—right down the line.”
The most popular aspect of the plan, however, is the money that will directly go into people’s pockets. And as Biden and surrogates fan out to the states to advertise the $1.9 trillion bill, they will hammer away at the potential for a family of four to receive $8,200 in direct benefits.
Unite the Country, a pro-Biden super PAC, is planning to launch its own effort to amplify the rescue plan through digital and TV ad buys in 2022 battleground states, an official with the committee told POLITICO.
And more allied political groups are close behind in preparing their PR campaigns.
But, as Psaki confirmed to reporters on Tuesday, there are limits to how much promotion the White House is going to do. Officials, notably, won’t be putting Biden’s name on the checks. That’s a break from former President Donald Trump, whose congressionally-approved payments last year bore his name. It was a first for any president, but Psaki argued it’s unnecessary when the bottom line is delivering relief.
“I don’t think you need to do that,” Gibbs said. “If that was the big winner, we would still have President Trump. I think Americans just want the checks cashed.”
Sam Stein contributed to this report.