Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks during a visit at the Port of Baltimore, Wednesday, November 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In the aftermath of Democratic defeats in Virginia, a near-death experience in New Jersey, and losses from Seattle to Long Island, congressional Democrats have found themselves rushing to pass nearly $3 trillion in spending for infrastructure, climate, and the social safety net. In recent days, the House has passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package (now headed to the president’s desk), and Democrats are negotiating their marquee legislation to “Build Back Better,” a $1.75 trillion social spending bill that includes paid leave, universal pre-K, and an extension of monthly tax payments for families with children, among other benefits.

By enacting this historic legislation, so the thinking goes, Democrats can stave off a bloodbath in next year’s midterms. “Democrats need to look like the party that knows how to govern and produces results that benefit Americans of every race and region,” as former U.S. Representative Tom Perriello, a progressive from Virginia, wrote in The Washington Post.

But Democrats shouldn’t count on Build Back Better (BBB) to solve their electoral problems next fall. Most Americans still have no idea what’s in the bill, despite—if not because of—wall-to-wall press coverage of Democrats’ intraparty warfare over its details. An October 31 Ipsos poll found that 69 percent of people know only “some, little or nothing” about Democrats’ proposals. And massive spending has never been a path to midterm victory.

Democrats also have a branding problem that the passage of BBB won’t solve. Despite the merits of the bill, a recent survey of voters in battleground states and districts indicates that a significant number of key voters are wary of the legislation and see it—justified or not—as an expensive measure that won’t help the economy. If Democrats aren’t careful, BBB could reinforce voters’ stereotypes about the party as big-spending liberals. “We’re poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory even if something passes,” says the pollster Pete Brodnitz, the founder and president of Expedition Strategies.

In a survey commissioned by the center-left Progressive Policy Institute, Brodnitz polled 1,800 likely voters in 44 competitive House districts and nine battleground states, including Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio (with a margin of error +/- 2.19 percent). Among these voters, just 54 percent approve of Democrats’ social spending plan (though 73 percent approve of the bipartisan infrastructure bill). Brodnitz also found that 73 percent of respondents say that Democrats in Congress “want to spend too much money without paying for it,” and that 74 percent—including 49 percent of self-described liberals—were concerned that the bills “will overheat the economy and cause inflation to rise.”

The bad news doesn’t stop there. Battleground voters gave Republicans the edge on the economy despite the ruinous policies of former President Donald Trump, who launched a destructive trade war with China and added $7.8 trillion to the national debt. Though voters were split 50-50 over which party “knows how to create good jobs,” they favored Republicans 52 percent to 48 percent as the party that “knows how to strengthen the economy.”

More troubling, 65 percent say Democrats are “too anti-business,” including 73 percent of independents and even 42 percent of Democrats. Biden, moreover, has not helped shed the party’s baggage. Only 48 percent of battleground voters say they can identify Biden’s “economic strategy for the country.”

Brodnitz conducted his survey in September, and his findings didn’t get the attention they deserved. But in light of Democrats’ electoral shellacking, his results were prophetic. The BBB, as it’s currently constructed, is not selling. With the GOP already charging “socialism,” Democrats can’t afford messaging and policies that don’t neutralize these false attacks.

Recent polling backs up Brodnitz’s September findings. In a November 3–5 survey by USA Today and Suffolk University, just 47 percent of registered voters said they support the BBB package, and only 25 percent said they expect the legislation will help their families (60 percent say it will “hurt” or have “not much effect”).

In the 1960s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was savaged when he called for a time-out in the war on poverty, which he called a period of “benign neglect.” The BBB could likewise benefit from a “strategic pause”—to borrow West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s phase—so Democrats can hone their sales pitch and ensure that the package they construct responds to voters’ needs and rehabilitates the party’s image. Indeed, the centrist senator recently renewed his call to delay the bill, citing the latest numbers on inflation—the highest in 30 years.

Understandably, Democrats want BBB passed now while it feels like there’s some momentum after months of negotiations. But Democrats shouldn’t balk at the idea of a time-out just because Manchin is promoting it, even if they resent his successful efforts to slash the size of the bill, strip many of its clean energy provisions, and favor things like a work requirement attached to the child tax credit. A pause could benefit progressives as much as moderates, by allowing Democrats to reap the political benefits from the already-passed and more popular infrastructure bill and to perfect BBB. (Moreover, if Manchin wants a pause, then a respite is likely anyway.)

One way to improve BBB, Brodnitz says, is to reframe the bill as a powerful job creator rather than a cradle-to-grave expansion of the safety net. The White House website, for example, walks visitors through the hypothetical life of a manufacturing worker named Linda and the generous lifetime benefits she and her child will receive. Liberals believe that’s just what Americans want. But while each benefit in Build Back Better may be popular—and White House polling says it is—the sum is less than the parts if voters see it as a lavish package of benefits.

“If the economy continues to weaken, the safety net will be appreciated, but no one will think that it’s an answer to the economic weakness,” Brodnitz says. “And if the economy goes the opposite direction and roars to strong growth, we won’t get credit.” The better message, Brodnitz says, is for Democrats to talk about the bill’s benefits—like child care—as engines of economic growth enabling employees to reenter the labor force. Republicans, in contrast, “want to let the market sort it out, which isn’t going to work,” Brodnitz says. “We need to point out that the GOP strategy destroyed the economy twice in our lifetime.”

Democrats might also want to fine-tune BBB to support an aspirational message of middle-class success. While the bill is generous in its support for the “care economy,” with billions of dollars for child care, universal preschool, paid leave, elder care, and the child tax credit, it offers nothing to entrepreneurs and small business owners, nor does it tackle middle-class concerns such as homeownership or retirement. Its educational and national service benefits deserve more attention.

Another survey by the pollster Stefan Hankin, president of the public opinion firm Lincoln Park Strategies, shows that voters worry America’s middle-class life is slipping compared to other countries. This isn’t startling news, but the specifics are sobering. When Hankin asked voters whether they are better off in the United States or elsewhere on seven measures, including “getting a high paying job,” “being able to retire comfortably,” and “starting a new business,” just 25 percent of respondents said the U.S. was best on all of these metrics. Only 41 percent said they were better off in America when it comes to retirement security. Non-college-educated white men were the most pessimistic on all of these measures (a mere 58 percent of these voters, for instance, thought they were better off in America than elsewhere for getting a high-paying job).

Hankin, who is a Democrat, believes that the correct agenda is one “where the United States will be the economic and moral leader for the next 100 years. The other side is winning because we’re not making a clear juxtaposition between building for the future versus looking backwards.”

Finally, pausing BBB has the benefit of preventing Democrats from stepping on their own message. Congress returns on November 15, just as Biden is planning a cross-country PR blitz to promote the infrastructure package. Democrats risk blowing their infrastructure victory lap by running straight back into the messiness of Manchinema-versus-House-progressives, which the press covers ad nauseam to the exclusion of what’s actually in these bills. And suppose, by some miracle, House Democrats do manage to pass their BBB social spending bill in November, as they hope, and the Senate dispenses with it quickly. In that case, Democrats still risk swamping voters with the sheer magnitude of the legislation, even as its new benefits take time to materialize.

Democrats have the opportunity to bolster the economy and improve the safety net. But they should ensure that “building back better” is an electoral success as well as a substantive one. The party doesn’t need a repeat of 2010, when the Obama administration passed landmark health care legislation that was greeted with more skepticism than cheers, and Democrats got slaughtered in the midterms. (Eventually, of course, Americans came to embrace the Affordable Care Act.)

Having delivered two monumental achievements already—the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the American Rescue Plan (remember that one?)—Democrats shouldn’t rush to pass BBB this week. Instead, they should take a breath, and build this bill back better.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.