In 2009, President Obama got no public credit for the crisis relief in his stimulus bill. A dozen years later, Joe Biden vowed not to make the same mistake. Where Obama slipped stimulus dollars quietly into paychecks with reduced withholding payments, Biden sent stand-alone checks. Where Obama waged no sustained marketing campaign to sell his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Biden said he was determined make sure the public knew about his American Rescue Plan.
Even so, a series of focus groups conducted by the pro-Biden Super PAC Unite the Country found “the [American Rescue Plan] and these other [infrastructure] proposals remain worryingly undefined in the public consciousness,” according to a report by Politico’s Natasha Korecki.
What went wrong? If you ask me, the problem is that nobody understands the proper lessons of the 2009 stimulus.
“You don’t get re-elected for things voters don’t know you did,” warned The New York Times’ Ezra Klein back in January. He was referring to the signature feature of Obama’s stimulus: “The Making Work Pay tax credit … was constructed to be invisible — the Obama administration, working off new research in behavioral economics, believed Americans would be more likely to spend a windfall that they didn’t know they got.”
Obama himself made the same point to Klein in an interview last month:
Larry Summers talks me into the idea that we should spread out the tax cut in people’s weekly paychecks, in the drip, drip, drip fashion because the social science shows that they’re more likely to spend it. But if they get a big lump sum, then they might just pay down debt. And we needed more stimulus. And I thought, well, that makes sense. But of course, as a result, nobody thought I’d cut taxes. Or everybody was confident that I had raised their taxes. That’s an example of a policy design where we were too stubborn, [believing] we’ll just get the policy right and the politics will take care of itself. … I should have done a deeper dive in FDR, in recognizing that you’ve got to sell the sizzle as well as the steak because that creates the political coalition to continue it.
Biden seconded this analysis in March, in remarks to the House Democrats:
We didn’t adequately explain what we had done. Barack was so modest, he didn’t want to take, as he said, a ‘victory lap.’ 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.
When he designed his COVID-19 stimulus plan, Biden rejected the humble approach. Biden not only sent out checks to nearly every American, he sent a separate signed letter which read, “When I took office, I promised the American people that help was on the way. The American Rescue Plan makes good on that promise.”
Shortly after the Biden stimulus was signed into law, Biden scheduled a “victory lap” event in Atlanta. But his speech for that event had to be rewritten after a white man murdered eight people—including six Asian-American women—in three Atlanta spas. Eleven days later, Biden announced the next phase of his economic agenda: the American Jobs Plan. Two months after that Biden announced his “human infrastructure” American Families Plan.
Biden still mentions the Rescue Plan frequently—during his address to a joint session of Congress marking Amtrak’s 50th anniversary, he touted the stimulus’s benefits for restaurants, noting favorable jobs numbers. But as Biden lobbies for the remaining items on his agenda, and continues to react to major news events, he finds himself in essentially the same position as Obama.
Actually, Obama did take a victory lap. In the months following the passage of the the February 2009 stimulus, Obama promoted its benefits at a California electric car facility, an Iowa wind tower manufacturer, and a New Mexico high school. By June, though, Obama was changing the subject to his proposed health care reform package.
Biden is not repeating Obama’s mistakes. Like Obama, Biden is being a president of the United States. And presidents can’t spend every day talking about what they did. They have to talk about what’s left to do, as well as manage a constant stream of unplanned problems and crises.
The public’s failure to absorb sufficiently what Biden has delivered probably has less to do with Biden’s use of the bully pulpit than with simple timing. The relief checks of up to $1400, sent courtesy of Biden’s American Rescue plan in mid-March, followed earlier relief checks sent courtesy of President Donald Trump. The last of these, for $600, went out in early January. Since most voters don’t pay close attention to the news, they didn’t likely pay close attention to which president wrote which checks (especially since Trump was on record saying his $600 wasn’t enough). That made any communications strategy formulated by the Biden White House an uphill battle.
But I’m not sure it matters all that much. Klein’s stern warning that “You don’t get re-elected for things voters don’t know you did” overlooked the salient fact that Obama did get re-elected. Yes, the Democrats had a bad 2010 midterm, but that’s normal for a president’s party. By 2012, the economy had recovered enough—with the help of additional stimulus that Obama finagled out of the Republicans—for the president to win re-election.
The lesson is that there’s only so much a president can do to beat his own drum. Biden should do his best to communicate his successes, but, more important, he and the Democrats must keep notching policy victories, especially ones that further strengthen the economy. If they can keep that up, voters—no matter what they know about what Biden did and didn’t achieve—will be inclined to maintain a status quo they judge favorably.