After signing a massive but temporary expansion of the social safety net into law this week, President Joe Biden will set about convincing Americans that its benefits – which amount to a dramatic reshaping of the country’s economy – must be made permanent.
His first venue will be a primetime address Thursday night, a direct-to-camera reckoning on a year of pandemic that aides say will still lean heavily into positive signs the country is slowly emerging from crisis – fueled along, he’ll say, by the contents of his new law.
The legislative lifeline, while extraordinary in scope, is only a temporary solution to pull America from its crisis. A legacy-making program along the lines of a modern-day New Deal for Biden would require an even more difficult measure of political capital.
Mindful of the nation’s collective weariness at pandemic forced restrictions – illustrated in part by polling conducted for Democrats and viewed inside the White House – the President’s speech will be his most forward-looking toward reopening, an aide said.
Biden will spend the ensuing weeks firing up Air Force One to fly around the country highlighting where the bill’s effects will be most felt, an effort designed to sell people outside Washington that it is in part because of his plan that vaccinations are speeding up, schools are reopening and life is starting to look like normal, according to people familiar with the plans.
After avoiding one, Biden will likely convene his first formal news conference in the coming days to help advance his ideas. He’s waited longer than any president in the past 100 years to do so.
And likely next month, he will speak to a joint session of Congress to lay out his next steps, which the White House says are still being developed but will likely include a push on infrastructure, climate and making permanent the provisions that ease burdens on families. That is likely to require tax increases, making its passage a tougher sell but solidifying its larger effect on American society.
The President has taken the 2009 stimulus as a cautionary tale, telling White House officials and fellow Democrats that he doesn’t want to repeat what he believes was a mistake the Obama administration made in not selling that plan to Americans.
“We didn’t adequately explain what we had done. Barack was so modest,” Biden told House Democrats last week. “I kept saying, ‘Tell people what we did.’ He said, ‘We don’t have time. I’m not going to take a victory lap.’ And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility.”
The sales job isn’t merely self-promotion. Because of the narrow scope required to pass the bill through a budget process, many of its benefits expire – like increased subsidies for health insurance and an expansion of the child tax credit – after a year. Making them permanent will require another act of Congress that would likely need some Republicans on board.
Biden and his advisers have wagered Americans will welcome the expanded benefits and punish Republicans who work to block them from becoming permanent next year, just as the 2022 midterm elections loom.
“We’re still thinking through the contours of what’s going to be in that next package,” Bharat Ramamurti, the deputy director of the National Economic Council, told reporters Tuesday.
Desire to highlight government help
Biden’s recovery plan, which the House is poised to pass Wednesday without a single Republican vote, is aimed squarely at helping poor and working class Americans emerge from the dire economic and health crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
After a year of government mismanagement and chaos, the American Relief Plan is a signal that Washington is ready to help with $1,400 direct payments to Americans, increased funding for vaccine distribution and funding for state and local governments.
The White House has pushed to distribute the payments before the end of the month, hoping to increase the number of electronic deposits to get money to Americans quicker. Biden won’t take a step his predecessor insisted upon: putting his name or signature on the physical checks.
“This is not about him. This is about the American people getting relief,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “He didn’t think that was a priority or a necessary step.”
Already, Biden has sought to underscore the help his administration is bringing to small businesses. Standing next to a rotating display of doorknobs at a Washington hardware store on Tuesday, a double-masked Biden said he wanted his relief funds better targeted than efforts under the previous administration to shore up the economy.
“A lot of money went to people who shouldn’t have gotten help,” he said.
It was a preview, aides said, of increased engagement with Americans outside the White House, where Biden has spent most of his term so far engaging lawmakers on the relief package. He has traveled outside of Washington on only a few occasions, to visit vaccine facilities and tour storm aftermath in Texas. But he has been itching to travel more, one official said, believing the case for his bill is best made out in the country, where polls show it widely popular.
An optimistic approach meant to spur more action
In his Thursday evening address, delivered from the White House and timed to reach the broadest swath of Americans, officials said Biden would both reflect on one of the darkest years in recent memory while leaning heavily into a message that, through collective effort, the end is in sight.
An official said Biden was still working with his speechwriters on the final draft.
Still wary of overpromising a return to normalcy when unknown factors like vaccine hiccups and variants may complicate the timeline, Biden will nonetheless seek to project optimism that the country will begin reopening soon. He’ll underscore sped-up vaccination efforts, which are well exceeding his initial goal of 1 million shots per day.
And he will use the freshly passed stimulus plan – which the White House has said is necessary to jump-start the country out of crisis – as reason for optimism.
Yet the plan is also meant to go further than just the effects of the pandemic, by reducing child poverty, combating income inequality and hunger and expanding health coverage, in ways Democrats have pushed for years.
Already, wide majorities of Americans say in polls they support Biden’s plan, which the White House began selling as a necessity to return the country to normal through funding for reopening schools and expanding vaccine distribution. Republicans struggled to unify behind a message of opposition, focusing instead on culture war issues and internal divides in the post-Donald Trump era.
Republicans have complained the President, who made nods toward working across the aisle on the measure, ultimately pushed through a plan without any GOP support. And some have warned it could trigger inflation.
“It’s a real tragedy,” House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney told reporters on Tuesday. “We know for sure that it includes provisions that are not targeted, they’re not temporary, they’re not related to Covid. And it didn’t have to be this way. We could have had a bill that was, you know, a fraction of the cost of this one, that could have gotten bipartisan approval and support.”
It’s only been more recently that the administration began promoting the plan as a major win for progressive ideas, including the notion that it could cut childhood poverty in half and provide a major expansion of Obamacare.
The bill does not contain everything Democrats wanted, namely an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. Last-minute bargaining also led to a reduction in unemployment benefits.
But even the most progressive members of Congress have come to support it.
“This is the most significant legislation for working people that has been passed in decades,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Monday, arguing that although the measure was about alleviating the economic and educational consequences of the pandemic it also went deeper.
“I think what shocks many in the establishment, and certainly my Republican colleagues is that we wrote a bill to address the crisis facing working families and the middle class and low-income people, and not the wealthy and large corporations and their lobbyists,” Sanders added.
CNN’s John Harwood, Jeff Zeleny and Annie Grayer contributed to this report.