The President was running late. It was one of Joe Biden’s first chances since his enormous bipartisan infrastructure bill passed Congress to beam directly into living rooms in Kentucky and Ohio and describe how it will change daily commutes, water quality and Internet access for Americans at home.
After Biden came onto the television screen Monday evening, in the middle of stripping his mask off from a previous meeting, Kyle Inskeep of Local 12 WKRC-TV immediately asked what the bill will mean for improving the Brent Spence Bridge, a long-time chokepoint for traffic crossing the Ohio River between the two states.
It was exactly the kind of question Biden’s advisors know Americans are wondering about. Biden pumped his fist. “We can get it done now,” he said. Biden listed off what billions of dollars in highway and bridge investment, new water pipes, broadband cable and electric school buses will mean for the Cincinnati area. After seven minutes, the interview was cut short. “I’m sorry to be late,” Biden said. “I hope I can see you again. I apologize for—little foreign policy issues—I apologize.”
White House aides like to say that President Biden can tackle more than one problem at once. But it’s proved challenging. When asked by TIME, White House officials wouldn’t explain what “little” foreign policy problems Biden was facing Monday night that caused him to compress his television sales pitch on one of his biggest legislative wins to date. For months, Biden’s struggled to find the time to explain clearly what he’s accomplished, and get credit for it with those who elected him.
He has a case to make. His Administration has presided over a large increase in vaccinations and a decline in COVID-19 cases, as well as historic job growth, the passage of $1.9 trillion in pandemic relief measures and the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But those successes have been drowned out by internal squabbling among Democrats over passing the infrastructure bill and a companion social spending bill that remains stalled, the fallout from Biden’s chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal over the summer, and his Administration’s inability to curb rising prices or ease the supply chain pressure caused by increasing consumer demand for goods as the economy reopens from the pandemic shutdowns. By mid-November, Biden’s approval ratings numbers hovered near their lowest point in the low 40s.
Democratic strategists and White House officials think Biden is suffering from a perception gap. With the midterm elections a year away—and control of the House and Senate hanging in the balance— they believe Biden needs to spend the next several months visiting other parts of the country and talking about local benefits that the bipartisan infrastructure bill will bring. He took a soft approach with lawmakers during the negotiations over the bill, but now experts say it’s time for him to make a sharper pitch to Americans about the results.
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While the broad elements of the infrastructure bills are popular, “the contents of them are not widely known,” says Ben LaBolt, who was the national press secretary for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Democrats would benefit from diverting money currently set aside for advertising in electoral races and spending it on explaining what the infrastructure spending will do to “persuadable voters in key states,” LaBolt says. “Little will matter more to next year’s midterm election results than that.”
Biden already seems to be heeding that advice. He visited the Port of Baltimore on Wednesday to highlight the $17 billion in the bill to improve coastal ports, inland ports, waterways, and border crossings. The Biden Administration also plans to use funding to speed up customs inspections at ports to help alleviate backlogs contributing to supply chain delays. Biden is pushing the ports in Los Angeles to use funding to operate round the clock and speed up offloading of ships. In the political battleground state of Georgia, the White House is touting funds from the infrastructure bill that the Savannah Port can use for upgrades, as well as funding for a project to build five temporary storage yards in Georgia and North Carolina to help speed the offloading of ships at the port terminals.
The White House is also dispatching several cabinet secretaries, including Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm across the country to sell the plan. Biden will hold a Cabinet meeting on Friday to discuss implementing the bill and its impacts.
Biden is expected to sign the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on Monday in what the White House hopes will be a show of unity, bringing Republicans who voted for the bill to stand with the President. Then Biden will turn his attention to a larger package of social spending to fund child care, expand health care and make progress against climate change, which Congress could vote on next week.
But the White House is preparing to go on the attack against the other Republicans who did not support the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. (The bill got support from 13 Republicans in the House and 19 in the Senate.) “Our contrasting message is that ‘the Republicans didn’t support any of this, just to protect the wealthy and corporations,'” says John Anzalone, a Democratic strategist who advised Biden’s campaign. That “is in itself maybe the best contrasting message we’ve had in a generation.”
In his Monday night interview to viewers in Cincinnati, Biden acknowledged that he has a lot of work to do to convince Americans his policies are on the right track. “Even though we’ve created almost 6 million jobs since I came into office, we’re in a situation where people, they don’t feel it right now,” he said. “They don’t feel it.”
The next several months will be a test of Biden’s policies—and his sales pitch—to see if he can change that.
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