White House moves to sharper, populist message to keep Democrats together in make-or-break agenda moment

White House moves to sharper, populist message to keep Democrats together in make-or-break agenda moment
Evan Vucci/AP

As the President Joe Biden enters a make-or-break moment for his legislative agenda, the White House has moved toward a clear message for the Democrats it can’t afford to lose: This is a simple choice.

The message — that lawmakers are either with Biden or against him, for cutting costs or against them, for making real progress or reverting to the status quo — has become more pronounced in public remarks from Biden and top White House officials just as lawmakers enter the most high-stakes moment of months of negotiations over infrastructure.

It’s also become a focal point of a behind-the-scenes push with congressional Democrats and key allies outside of government, driven by messaging and polling memos circulated by White House officials in the last two days, underscoring the ramped-up efforts to bring Democrats in line at the most fraught moment of the process.

“The real choice right now is whether you’re going to lower costs for people in this country on elder care, childcare, cost of college or whether you’re going to allow the wealthiest Americans and corporations to continue to pay the tax rates that are hardly fair moving forward,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Wednesday.

The White House and congressional Democrats are in the midst of feverish negotiations over the shape of the final proposal and face a series of critical differences or outright disputes to resolve on key policy areas in a matter of weeks.

Those talks come as the White House grapples with no margin for error in the Senate, where Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote and already face a call for a pause in the process from moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi only has a three-vote margin to work with in the House — and moderates in the House Democratic caucus have their own anxieties about the direction of the proposal, according to sources on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Republicans are unified in their opposition to the package and have moved to sharply attack its scale, particularly in a moment of elevated inflation, over the course of the last several months.

“I’ve never seen a bigger threat to America fundamentally than this bill I just described, which will be slugging it out on floor in the next couple of months,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said this week in remarks referring to the Democrats spending package. “Not a single Republican, not one, will support it.”

But while the details of the package are still a matter of intense debate inside the party, so is the ability to convey what it would actually do if signed into law, something officials acknowledge is a critical component to keeping Democrats across the spectrum unified as things move toward an end-game.

The messaging shift marks an intentional effort to simplify the choice facing Democrats in the weeks ahead, many of which have been wavering about the scale and scope of Biden’s plan. The President’s sagging approval numbers after an August defined by crises and questions about the speed of negotiations have only served to complicate things as lawmakers return to Washington this month.

Now, the focus is on cutting costs on everything from prescription drugs and health care to childcare and education. The message on financing the package is that the rich and corporations will pay their fair share.

“The President’s agenda will ease the burden of high costs on working families, deliver significant tax cuts to the middle class, and create millions of jobs, while making the super-wealthy and profitable corporations pay their fair share,” said one of the opening paragraphs of a White House polling memo obtained by CNN that was circulated on Wednesday to congressional Democrats and outside allies.

What followed was three pages of data, touching on everything from overall views of Biden’s agenda nationally, his approach with the middle class and the popularity of specific provisions within the proposal. All were framed as sharply positive.

The White House also highlighted a poll that showed what they framed as “durable support” in key swing districts and among independent voters — something they plan to push to moderate lawmakers often in the weeks ahead.

White House advisers have always touted what they continue to view as a proposal that, from paid leave to universal pre-kindergarten, carries a clear level of popularity.

But they also spent weeks focused on countering the inflation argument and months highlighting specific elements of the proposal before settling this summer on the popularity of lowering prescription drug costs as the most potent message. They’ve circulated poll after poll in an effort to underscore to skittish moderate Democrats that the tax increases they propose to pay for the plan carry wide public support.

Those efforts won’t disappear entirely. Manchin’s mention of inflation as one of his primary concerns has drawn regular administration attention.

But White House officials are keen on framing things as a binary — and more populist — choice.

Gone are dives into the weeds and merits of the tax policy. The word “reconciliation,” the key procedural mechanism Democrats will utilize to bypass the Senate filibuster, was more or less banned weeks ago.

The $3.5 trillion size of the spending elements of the package is now rarely mentioned and White House officials bristle at the short-hand, which fails to account for Biden’s intention of paying for most, if not all, of the proposal.

In its place: “President Biden believes this comes down to a simple proposition: Scranton, PA v. Park Avenue,” Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, wrote in a memo to her House Democratic counterparts this week.

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