Selling the ‘Build Back Better’ Plan

The Catch-22 of passing a massive spending bill in an undemocratic system.

President Joe Biden observes trainers and apprentices at work at the final assembly station during a tour of Plumbers & Gasfitters Local 5 Training Facility, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Lanham, Maryland. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

The New Republic’s Walter Shapiro thinks “Build Back Better” Is an Awful Catchphrase. More importantly, he thinks it’s not only hampering getting the policies in question passed into law but making it more likely that Democrats will lose big in 2022. But, more so than the slogan itself, his critique is really that President Biden and other party leaders are doing a bad job of explaining how the things in the package help voters.

[T]he expansive vision that Biden is promoting—as laudable as the individual parts are—overwhelmed the format. The closest Biden came to expressing his overall rationale was his closing words: “Let’s look forward together as one America. Not to build back, but to build back better.”

Even in an era of emojis and TikToks, words matter in politics. A good bill needs a good catchphrase. And one of the biggest, if little-discussed, challenges Democrats face in the weeks ahead is to explain, in easily comprehensible fashion, what they are trying to do in Congress with their unprecedentedly ambitious spending bill.

But this is something of a Catch-22. The reason the bill is so hard to explain is that it’s so multi-faceted. It’s a little of something for everybody. Or, more cynically, a grabbag of longstanding Democratic policy initiatives being unleashed at once. And the reason they’re being lumped together in one, messy, hard-to-explain package is it’s the only way they can realistically pass in the current climate.

Technically, the ever-shifting, maybe $3.5 trillion plan is known as reconciliation, which is a congressional term for catch-all budgetary legislation that can skirt a Senate filibuster. But to most Americans, reconciliation refers to that moment when a clearly doomed couple tries to get back together for one last time.

So . . . I can’t imagine more than 10 percent of Americans have any idea what budget reconciliation is and that more than 15 percent of them are even aware that it’s involved with this package. They just know that it’s a $3.5 trillion “infrastructure” package.

But even if I’m wrong in my aesthetic judgment, the actual phrasing of Build Back Better conjures up the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that is currently in congressional limbo. As determined as Biden may be, it is illogical to use this tired catchphrase to describe the Democratic reconciliation bill with its trillions devoted to climate change, health care, education, and expanding the social safety net. Calling this “Build Back Better” is like describing a 12-course tasting menu with a wine pairing as breakfast.

So . . . I agree that many of the things in the bill aren’t infrastructure, much less building something. But, again, I can’t imagine most people much care about the semantics.

Voters crave explanations—and right now the Democrats, from Biden on down, are doing a mediocre job explaining an overarching vision for what they hope to accomplish with the 13-digit reconciliation bill. The problem for Democrats is that they have gulled themselves into believing that because the individual parts of the package poll well, the entire plan will be popular with voters in 2022.

Probably everyone aside from Joe Manchin’s immediate family is beginning to find his constant TV appearances dissenting from the Biden agenda a tad tedious. But like it or not, in a recent CNN interview the West Virginia Democratic senator asked a question that may resonate with voters: “What’s the urgency and the need that we have?”

I’m not at all sure that the average voter “crave[s] explanations.” But I do think there’s something to the idea that few people are clamoring for this package. It’s true that Biden ostensibly ran on much of it—oddly, more so in the general than in the primary— but it was hardly central to his campaign. I pay a lot more attention to these things than most people and, frankly, the main message was “We need to get rid of this Trump bozo and I’m your only alternative.” Which sold me.

Manchin, along with everyone in politics, knows the true answer to the “What’s the urgency?” question. With Democrats quaking in mortal terror that they will lose control of Congress in 2022, the reconciliation bill is seen as the last chance to fund liberal priorities in this decade. In legislative terms, it’s the last train out of Paris in 1940 with the Germans on the way.

But try selling a plan to voters as the “Only Way Around Mitch McConnell for Years to Come Act.” Only on Capitol Hill does it makes logical sense to combine in the same legislation a climate change plan and a massive expansion of health care coverage. 

This is the Catch-22 to which I referred earlier. Even if the individual pieces are popular, they’re likely not passable individually. It’s not a slam dunk that all 50 Democrats would vote for them. But, cramming them all into one package is the best hope—and it seems to be fading—of getting Manchin and Krysten Sinema on board. And it’s the only way of getting around the Republican filibuster.

Regardless, this is all eerily reminiscent of another era for Shapiro.

In his speech on the economy, Biden also made a strongly worded pitch for his vaccination mandates, which included direct attacks on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott for “doing everything they can to undermine the lifesaving requirements that I’ve proposed.” But that presidential appeal also highlighted a potential political weakness in the Democrats’ ambitious reconciliation plans. At a time when Covid-19 and the delta variant dominate everything, it is hard to simply move on to talking about spending $3.5 trillion for a vast array of programs that have nothing to do with the pandemic.

This was, in part, Barack Obama’s political problem with the Affordable Care Act in 2010. The landmark legislation squeaked through Congress at a time when voters were still struggling to recover from the economic meltdown. At the time, as I recall, Democratic pollsters found that voters in focus groups were grumbling about Obama’s obsession with his political promises (passing health care reform) rather than their current problems (lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and other wiped-out assets).

ObamaCare was rather unpopular at the time although, as Democrats rightly bet, most of it was politically impossible to overturn once inertia set it.

The Affordable Care Act (an awkward moniker that morphed into the term used by everyone, Obamacare) had another glaring political weakness relevant to the current congressional struggle over reconciliation. Most of the key provisions of Obamacare phased in over four years, which meant that the material changes the law would eventually make to improve the health care system were still abstractions for most voters in the 2010 elections. While the details of the reconciliation package are in constant flux, the odds seem high that implementation of many of the new programs will also be delayed until after the 2022 election, both to reduce the overall cost of the package and because federal rules and regulations will need to be written.

But Shapiro doesn’t give us any guidance as to what Biden or Congressional Democrats should do about this. There are technical and practical reasons why the impacts of this bill—even if it overcomes long odds and gets passed into law in time for the fiscal year—won’t have a material impact on the average voter a year later.

Since Democrats assume that reconciliation is the last big legislative moment of the Biden presidency, the infighting over what provisions actually make it into the bill is growing increasingly nasty. The defection last week of three skittish House Democratic moderates on a committee vote to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices was a symbolic blow to party unity. The Wall Street Journal, playing the “Democrats in disarray” card, headlined its story on the committee vote: “Drug-Prices Measure Splinters House Democrats.”

Each well-publicized Democratic squabble over the contents of the bill carries the risk of antagonizing 2022 voters. It is not as if a large band of Americans is following every detail of the congressional negotiations. But as the reconciliation package drags on into the fall (and maybe later), voters can pick up a downwind whiff of the sausage-making. This is not an abstract fear. Buyoffs to individual Democratic legislators during the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act—whether it was centrist Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson or anti-abortion Michigan Representative Bart Stupak—created a sense of backstairs dealmaking that partly poisoned public sentiment against Obamacare.

All these factors—Obama seemingly ignoring economic distress, the long phase-in period, and congressional favor-trading—contributed to the Democratic wipeout in the 2010 congressional elections. This was clear from polls immediately following the passage of the Affordable Care Act in late March 2010. An early-April Kaiser Health Tracking poll revealed that as many voters believed that they would be “worse off” under the plan (32 percent) as “better off” (31 percent). A Washington Post/ABC News poll in late April found voters evenly split over whether they approved of the way that Barack Obama was handling health care. Even though health care is a traditionally strong Democratic issue, 40 percent of the voters strongly disapproved of Obama’s performance while only 29 percent strongly approved.

That was the Democrats’ initial political reward for the biggest expansion in health care coverage since the passage of Medicare in 1965.

So, here’s the thing. I opposed ObamaCare for a host of reasons. I voted Republican in the 2010 midterms and against Obama in 2012. But the Democrats’ reward for the biggest expansion in health care coverage since the passage of Medicare was the biggest expansion in health care coverage since the passage of Medicare. And, with only a few tweaks around the edges, it’s still with us a decade-plus later.

The point of getting elected to office is getting one’s policies enacted. Otherwise, the only advantage to winning elections is stopping the other guys from getting their policies enacted.

Biden came into the White House determined not to repeat Obama’s initial mistake in approving too meager a stimulus package as the economy was reeling in early 2009 from the financial meltdown. As a result, “Go Big” has become the mantra of the Biden presidency, starting with his $1.9 trillion spending bill to jump-start the Covid-plagued economy that Congress approved back in March.

Voters in times of trouble certainly understand the need for economic stimulus. And after four years of comically empty talk about Infrastructure Week in the Donald Trump White House, they likely also appreciate the need to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges.

But what Biden and the congressional Democrats are doing now with reconciliation is not nearly as easily grasped by someone who isn’t watching MSNBC 12 hours a day and reading every bulletin from Capitol Hill. Yes, the nation has more than $3.5 trillion in unmet needs and problems swept under the rug for too long. But the Democrats are behaving as if this is all intuitively obvious—and that few explanations of an overall strategy are needed.

In politics, virtue is not its own reward. Even the virtuous need a compelling message.

Well . . . sure. But Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, et. al. —who are pretty good at politics—are unlikely to come up with a better marketing slogan in the next couple of weeks. As I’ve stated directly and Shapiro seems to acknowledge if obliquely, the bill is a hodgepodge of loosely related deferred policy goals and the only way to pass them, if at all, is through the reconciliation process.

Should they pare the bill way back and just concentrate on the provisions likely to be the sexiest to the voters? Should they just give up on the climate change provisions, for example, which are expensive and unlikely to actually cool the climate between now and the midterms? What?

FILED UNDER: Joe Biden, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    “Build Back Better” sounds, unfortunately, like “Be Best.”

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  2. mattbernius says:

    And while its definitely uncertain of whether or not this would pass with just Democratic votes, the need to try and force everything through reconciliation is again further proof of how badly the modern fillibuster has broken the legislature. Which in turn leads to the all but necessary growth of the imperial presidency and the power of the Courts.

    Otherwise, the only advantage to winning elections is stopping the other guys from getting their policies enacted.

    Honestly, it appears primarily to block the other guys’ judicial and Supreme Court nominations (see the above point about the power of the Courts). Beyond that, you’re pretty much able to block legislative policies getting enacted if you are in the minority in the senate, so long as you have 41 seats or more.

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  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    Granted I woke up too early after too little sleep but I’m feeling maybe the American people are just too fucking stupid to continue functioning as a nation. Maybe it’s time to take another look at that whole secession thing. Imagine how much better life would be in this country without Texas and the deep south.

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  4. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I don’t know. The Houston and Austin enclaves would be hideously vulnerable and isolated.

    Perhaps the Democrats should just name all their bills “American Freedom of Religion Act,” and number them.

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  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    I’m not sure what is happening elsewhere, but I can hardly look at the local news website or watch a YouTube vid and not see an ad from Shaheen, Papas or Hansen, trumpeting the benefits to NH or the 1st district of the reconciliation bill. Some of the these ads are specific to the point of mentioning specific projects in town that would be funded.

    Messaging at a national level maybe a mess, from my provincial part of the world, it is being presented in a manner that voters will understand.

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  6. wr says:

    @CSK: ““Build Back Better” sounds, unfortunately, like “Be Best.””

    Aside from the whole not being incoherent part.

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  7. CSK says:

    @wr:
    “Be Best” is totally inane, as well as illiterate, but “Build Back Better” sounds disquietingly close.

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  8. just nutha says:

    @CSK: Which is why it might not have been the best idea to have invested time in criticizing the phrase out of contempt for the creator. Nobody on their side cared and now the other side is feeling the same bias toward a new phrase that sounds similar.

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  9. Scott F. says:

    @Michael Reynolds & @Kathy: Succession, plus funding for airlifts. Swap the Austin enclave with Fresno’s.

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  10. CSK says:

    @just nutha:
    Maybe. But “Be Best” was too idiotic not to lend itself to mockery.

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  11. Scott F. says:

    @mattbernius: The badly broken legislature is the entire story – there is no strategy for re-packaging or re-messaging that the Biden administration can pull off that will serve as a countermeasure to a Congress that has abdicated their responsibility to lead.

    And a bill of massive scope and cost is inevitable when deferral is all the legislature will do, while an imperial presidency and the power of the Courts has limits.

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  12. Gustopher says:

    @CSK:

    “Be Best” is totally inane, as well as illiterate,

    Illiterate but alliterative.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    There are technical and practical reasons why the impacts of this bill—even if it overcomes long odds and gets passed into law in time for the fiscal year—won’t have a material impact on the average voter a year later.

    The Child Tax Credit has immediate impact. And it’s a good policy. And it is not means-tested away from middle class families, so they will actually see the benefit.

    (I’m annoyed that it is means-tested at all… what do I care if we spend 3% more to cover the wealthy? They pay into the system, they should get the benefits)

    And, if we don’t pass it, we see the current one year program stop and actually hurt people who will notice.

    Everything else in the bill will be largely unnoticed on the individual level by 2022.

    Should they pare the bill way back and just concentrate on the provisions likely to be the sexiest to the voters? Should they just give up on the climate change provisions, for example, which are expensive and unlikely to actually cool the climate between now and the midterms? What?

    We should get the preventative climate stuff in, despite the lack of will of the American people, because we can’t keep kicking the can down the road as we are running out of road.

    I would leave out some of the climate change mitigation — I don’t know what image is going to be the one that resonates with the American people to make climate change a crisis, but it hasn’t happened yet, so maybe by not mitigating we will see the nice, photogenic tragedy (middle school suddenly sinking into the mud, and being set ablaze by wildfires, while classes are in session?)

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  14. just nutha says:

    @Gustopher: As long as it’s not my kids in the fire and my house doesn’t become engulfed as the flames spread, why will I care? Sure it’s tragic and all, but there are lots of tragedies and we can’t stop most of them. Stopping the ones that affect me personally will have to be good enough.

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  15. Jay L Gischer says:

    To me, what’s going on right now is the main actors are staking out bargaining positions, and the final resolution will be made at basically the 11th hour.

    Manchin is looking to make headlines that will please voters in WV, and that probably means some reductions in the omnibus somewhere. Sinema is a bit more of a mystery, but she’s probably in the same place.

    And ya know, we can probably make that happen. Going big and then dialing it back to get it to pass is kind of a traditional thing to do, after all.

    And the debt ceiling thing is how Minority Leader McConnell gets to put his oar in and just confuse things, or drag things out, or get a concession he wants. He’ll probably get something, it needs to look like “he completely outfoxed Schumer”, but the bill(s) will be passed and the debt limit will be raised.

    That’s my take. It’s kind of boring and cynical, so that’s why you don’t see a lot of writers saying this. But I kind of tend to ignore what the principals say to the public at this stage – there’s a bunch of theatrics and posturing that always happen. That’s how politics works.

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  16. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Going big and then dialing it back to get it to pass is kind of a traditional thing to do, after all.

    When I was in China, I used to teach a basic class on western-style negotiation (way different than Chinese style!), and I would talk about common ground, middle ground, and deal-breakers. “Ask for a lot so you have something to give away and still get what you want” is a common tactic to move the middle-ground–and that’s fine. I stressed, however, that deal-breakers should be extremely rare.

    All I’m seeing from Congress is deal-breakers. They’re not overshooting so they have room to dial back and still get a good deal. At this point, they’re insisting that they should get everything.

    When the Dems said “Okay, we’ll break this in two so we can get the stuff we all agree is basic infrastructure” that looked good. Then Pelosi said “Okay. But you only get that stuff if you also agree to all the other stuff that we just took out.”

    Manchin is saying “Nobody gets anything unless I get what I want”.

    Deal-breakers and temper tantrums all around.

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  17. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    I agree with everything you say. For instance, “Manchin is saying, “nobody gets anything unless I get what I want”.

    Manchin is totally saying that. AND, he’s not saying what he wants. Deal breakers are politically popular. You get lots of cred for being tough for having lots of deal breakers. So you want to pose as having deal breakers, while not having many deal breakers. Which is exactly what he’s doing, since he isn’t saying what he needs to make the deal.

    I have no guarantees, of course. Sometimes negotiations fail. Sometimes people do have deal breakers. That’s not my guess for this case, though.

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  18. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    What McConnell wants: if the debt ceiling is dealt with in regular order, it can be suspended instead of being raised to a specific dollar amount. If it’s dealt with via reconciliation, it can only be raised to a specific dollar amount.

    He wants to force it to be part of reconciliation so next year he can run on “The Dems raised the debt ceiling more than a trillion dollars!”

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  19. John430 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: What was the old NY newspaper trope about the oil-producing states angrily pulling away? Oh, yeah…”Let the bastards freeze in the dark!”

    We South Texans will go along with that and offer our own POV. Question: “What did liberals use before candles? Answer: Electricity.”

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  20. Thomm says:

    @John430: oh look, the welfare queen is back. Weren’t you guys the ones freezing in the dark this year because if 4 inches of snow? Btw…Texas bbq sucks.

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  21. Jax says:

    @John430: Texas can’t even keep the lights on and the gas flowing in it’s own damn state.

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  22. Ken_L says:

    I think too many people are caught up in the hourly tweets and #breaking! stories about process to have any real idea what’s going on. It’s pretty much a given that public statements are made for various reasons that have nothing to do with informing the public about private negotiations.

    I suggest the sensible course of action is to let them get on with it and see what, if anything, they manage to send to Biden’s desk for signature.

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