law, avoid 2010 replay
WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, then-Vice President Joe Biden was at his side. Months later, Biden watched with the former president as Democrats suffered staggering losses at the federal and state level in the midterm elections.
Now Biden is the one tasked with leading his party in selling historic legislation to the American people ahead of what’s expected to be another bleak midterm season for Democrats. This time it’s the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, the largest such federal investment in decades — and in some sectors ever. The challenge, both then and now, is how to sell voters on a plan whose benefits they might not see for several years.
Standing at an 82-year-old bridge over the Pemigewasset River in Woodstock, New Hampshire, Biden launched his administration’s cross-country goodwill tour Tuesday to make the case that the bill addresses the needs of ordinary people in small towns across America. The bridge is one of 215 deemed to be in poor condition by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and part of the law’s focus on safer roads, high-speed internet and updated water infrastructure.
Biden painted the bridge as a lifeline for the community. If it collapsed, the local fire department would have to drive 10 miles out of the way to reach people, he said. “This is real stuff,” Biden told about 30 local residents as snow fell across his face. “What does it mean if a school bus or water treatment trucks or logging trucks can’t cross? It means jobs. It means time. It means energy.”
Early on in the speech, Biden lauded the Democratic members of the New Hampshire delegation in attendance, paying special attention to Sen. Maggie Hassan.
“She led by getting bipartisan support,” Biden said. “She made the case for making sure the law delivers high-speed Internet everywhere in New Hampshire, which, as you know from the pandemic, is badly needed.” Hassan, who was first elected in 2016 by a margin of 1,000 votes, is expected to face a tough reelection battle next year.
The bipartisan legislation is a much-needed victory for Biden, who has been battling intraparty fighting over his landmark social safety net bill, an ongoing pandemic and inflation largely driven by supply chain issues.
He has seen his approval ratings drop even as the Democratic agenda remains popular. A Washington Post-ABC poll released Nov. 14 found that while 63% of respondents support spending $1 trillion on infrastructure, only 39% approve of the way he’s handled the economy. Biden’s overall approval rating is 41%, down from 52% in April 2021.
As the president’s motorcade wound through rural New Hampshire, he was greeted by pro-Trump and anti-Biden signs, including ones that read “Mandates are 4 Greed and power,” a likely reference to mandates to fight COVID-19. Just down the road from the bridge where Biden gave remarks, reporters heard at least one anti-Biden protester chanting “Let’s go, Brandon,” a pejorative political slogan that has become conservative code for harsher, anti-Biden chants.
“What I think he needs to do is pretty much what they’re already doing, and that’s hit the road and start selling this thing all across the country,” said Jim Manley, a former senior staffer for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Manley played a significant role in helping with the messaging and strategy around the Affordable Care Act.
“One thing we learned from Obamacare is you can’t over-promise,” said Manley. “But you need to figure out how exactly to show people that they’re going to benefit from what was just passed.”
Obamacare’s political journey serves as a reminder of both the importance of messaging and the long game politicians must play as they wait to see how the public receives their legislation. Republican criticisms of the Affordable Care Act — including fears over rising costs, losing beloved doctors and false rumors of “death panels” — dominated the 2010 and 2014 midterms.
By the 2018 midterm cycle, however, protecting Obamacare from future repeal attempts was a key component of Democrats’ successful effort to retake the House. As president, Biden has been able to bolster the health care law by reducing premium costs through the American Rescue Act.
“The White House and many Democrats for sure will be frustrated at the lag time of how long it takes for people to feel benefits of things,” said Jeremy Rosner, a managing partner at GQR, a Democratic polling firm. “But the Obamacare case shows that, at some point, sound policy on things that touch people’s lives — like health care, roads or child care, things like that — ultimately starting to help as messengers and become strong assets.”
That’s little comfort to Democrats heading into next year’s midterm elections, a lesson Republicans learned in 2018.
“We were hoping tax reform would be the silver bullet to let us keep the House,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist and former communications director of House Republicans’ campaign arm during the last midterm election cycle. “While I’m glad we did it — it was good policy — it was certainly not that silver bullet.”
House Democrats flipped control of 41 GOP-held seats in 2018. Vulnerable House Republicans hoped that their legislative wins would distract from the president, but the tax overhaul alone wasn’t enough to overcome a year that included a government shutdown, the Russia investigation, the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border and legal troubles for various aides.
Gorman said Republicans would likely paint Biden as a “bystander,” not a leader, on events such as Afghanistan, the border and inflation.
“You can’t turn a huge trend with a single piece of legislation,” Gorman said.
Historically, the president’s party tends to lose seats in Congress during midterm elections. The 2022 map — currently being redrawn after the 2020 census — will likely favor House Republicans, according to multiple analyses. And House Democrats in competitive districts, such as those of John Yarmuth of Kentucky and Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, have announced plans to retire.
Unlike the health care bill, the infrastructure bill, which won the support of 19 Republicans in the Senate and 13 in the House, will likely retain its popularity. The messaging challenge for the administration is distinguishing what work can be done now and what won’t be shovel-ready for several months or years. Officials have emphasized that this isn’t a 2009 stimulus-style bill designed for immediate effect. While some funds will be directed toward existing programs, other will only be in the planning stages a year from now.
Asked about the implementation of the law’s $65 billion broadband service plan, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told reporters earlier this month that communities would see “activity and action” ahead of next year’s midterm elections, but it will take “some number of months” for projects to get off the ground.
“It’s more important to get it right than to rush,” Raimondo said. “I think people will see their state putting together a plan, they’ll see us starting to move out on that plan. But you know, not everybody’s going to have broadband a year from now.”
This week, several members of the administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will fan out to red and blue states across the country to promote the bill. The stops include a mix of politically significant regions, urban areas such as San Francisco, Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, and cities such as New Orleans, where Regan will highlight the law’s environmental justice funding.
Biden will follow up his visit to New Hampshire with a trip to Detroit on Wednesday, when he will visit Factory ZERO, General Motors’ electric vehicle assembly plant, to tout the law’s $7.5 billion investment in expanding electric vehicle charging station infrastructure.
On Tuesday, Biden drilled down on the specific issues the law was intended to address in places such as Woodstock, which has a population of just over 1,300. He noted that the bridge where he was standing, part of the NH 175 highway, “has been structurally deficient for years,” the maximum weight allowed on the bridge had dropped from 40 to 20 tons, and the state has spent a quarter of a million dollars on “Band-Aid” repairs. The enactment of the infrastructure law will speed up meaningful repairs on bridges, many of which are traveled roads in small towns such as Woodstock, by at least one year, he said.
“My message to the people of New Hampshire is simple,” he said. “Because of this delegation, New Hampshire and America are moving again. Your life is going to change for the better. And that’s literal.”
(Logan reported from New Hampshire.)