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Democrats are struggling to sell Biden's agenda. It isn't the first time, either

Democrats have staked their political future on enacting President Biden's domestic agenda.
Anna Moneymaker
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Democrats have staked their political future on enacting President Biden's domestic agenda.

Democrats have staked their political future on enacting President Biden's plans for trillions in social spending, but a new NPR/Marist poll shows that most voters are skeptical of the party's proposals.

Just 41% of the survey's respondents said they support the Build Back Better bill, the roughly $2 trillion bill currently being negotiated in Congress. Nearly three-quarters of all Democrats said the support the bill but only 36% of independents and 13% of Republicans agreed.

Democrats including Biden say voters elected them to use their full control of Congress and the White House to transform the federal government.

"This agenda — the agenda that's in these bills — is what 81 million Americans voted for," Biden said in an October speech at the White House. "More people voted than at any time in American history. That's what they voted for. Their voices deserve to be heard, not denied — or, worse, ignored."

But Democrats have struggled for months to finish work on the legislation, due largely to divisions within their own party. As the negotiations have worn on, even Democrats have grown frustrated with the delays.

John Fitzgerald, a Democrat from Florida who responded to the poll, told NPR that he likes policies like the expanded child tax credit, which gives parents up to $300 per child per month, but he feels like Biden's plans are being stymied.

"He's trying to do big things but the Congress is trying to stop him every chance they can," Fitzgerald said. "He can't do nothing right with Congress."

Fitzgerald said he has seen the benefits of the policies that already passed. He got a stimulus check and his son is benefitting from the child tax credit.

But the survey respondents were less optimistic about the in-process Build Back Better legislation. Just 42% said they thought it would help people like them.

While a clear majority of Democrats — 69% — said the policies would help them, just 36% of independents and less than 20% of Republicans agreed.

'Use it while you can'

"We're going to have to message, persuade and communicate in headlines," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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"We're going to have to message, persuade and communicate in headlines," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

Democrats have been predicting this kind of gap. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters last month he's aware that Democrats have often failed to sell their plans to voters and he thinks they can do better this time.

"We're going to have to message, persuade and communicate in headlines," Jeffries said. "We're going to be very successful in getting these things done, mastering the fine print and then communicating in persuasive way."

That is a difficult lift with GOP opposition to the legislation high and support among independents under 40%.

Democrats have chosen to try to pass Biden's legislation — which includes funding for child care programs, universal pre-k for 3- and 4-year-olds, expanded coverage under Medicare and Medicaid and roughly $500 billion to address climate change — without the help of any Republicans. That process means they need unanimous support within their own party in the Senate.

It also means they will need to convince a majority of voters to support their plans if they hope to keep control of the House and Senate in next year's midterm elections.

Some Democrats, like Jennifer Merritt of New York, are frustrated by all of the delays.

"I'm like, 'Dude, you have all of the power right now,' " she told NPR. "Use it while you can, you know, before we lose it again."

Her fears about Democrats losing aren't unfounded. Historically, the party that controls the White House loses seats in Congress in the next midterms.

In this case, that's less then a year away.

Senate Democrats aim to pass the Build Back Better bill by Christmas, a rapidly approaching goal. But even that wouldn't give much time to sell it to voters.

The Obamacare example

The party faced this exact same challenge more than a decade ago with the Affordable Care Act.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, said Democrats are repeating a familiar pattern for the party by hoping to pass a massive government overhaul and explain it to voters later.

"I think Democrats should be cautious about assuming that the popularity of these bills will suddenly become known," he said. "The famous phrase from Nancy Pelosi in 2010 was that Democrats had to pass the Affordable Care Act so people could learn what was in it."

Nyhan said that much like Build Back Better, individual policies in the ACA were popular when the bill passed, but not the bill itself. It took about a decade — and threats that Republicans would repeal the legislation — for Democrats to successfully campaign on the law.

That could spell trouble for Democrats' immediate need to defend their majorities in the midterm elections next November.

Nyhan says a lot can change between now and Election Day. A recent NPR/Marist poll found that inflation is the No. 1 economic concern for voters. Those priorities can shift and Nyhan said people typically vote based on their concerns in the moment.

But they also vote based on political affiliation.

"People these days vote very consistently up and down the ticket in a way that means every Democrat is tied to Joe Biden's fortunes," he said. "For better or for worse."

NPR and Marist's latest poll shows Biden's approval remains at 42%, his lowest rating since he took office.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 13, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
This story originally referred to Dartmouth College incorrectly as Dartmouth University.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.