Democrats go on the offense with Biden's agenda to avoid a repeat of Obamacare battle
Updated December 1, 2021 at 8:45 PM ET
Democrats in Congress are banking that President Biden's Build Back Better agenda — the largest expansion of the social safety net in decades that includes a wide range of programs to address health care, child care, elder care and climate change — is the ticket to keeping their majorities in the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.
But the last time the Democratic Party created a new social safety net government program — the Affordable Care Act in 2010 — the backlash created a red wave that saw Republicans gain 63 seats and capture control of the House of Representatives.
Still, Democrats say they've learned lessons from that debate. They are working to point out all the ways they are delivering on their 2020 campaign promises and to get credit for an economy that was jolted by the coronavirus pandemic. More importantly, they say they also have time to connect to communicate how the broader federal reach will improve people's lives in tangible ways.
Chris Carney thinks this time is different. He represented a red district in northeastern and north central Pennsylvania for two terms, but was one of the several dozen Democrats to lose in 2010 after voting for the Affordable Care Act. He said when it comes to voting for the Biden agenda now he told NPR "it's an easy yes."
He said back then Obamacare "wasn't explained well." He said Democrats "allowed the opposition to get out in front of the argument" and left them on the defensive.
But when it comes to what Congress has been working on these past few months, Carney said the benefits will be easier to explain. Take the first part of the agenda, the bipartisan infrastructure bill that will fix potholes and make tunnels and bridges safer, will be easy to identify in communities.
"When somebody sees the road in front of their house improved — that they're not blowing out their tires or their front end alignments on potholes — when they know that the bridge that they're crossing is going to be safe," Carney said, "those kinds of peace of mind issues are very important to people every day."
The House recently passed the second component of the agenda, the roughly $2 trillion domestic spending bill. But it's expected to change in the Senate, where Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., wants to strip out the four weeks of paid family leave, and other Democrats also want to make adjustments.
Almost all Democrats in both chambers agree on one thing: getting it over the finish line by the end of the year is critical to their political fortunes in 2022.
Swing district Democrats tout various pieces of the agenda
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., voted for both the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills. Still, she's warned her party about trying to roll out too many new policies at once.
"I thought we should pick a few things that mattered a lot to our constituents and do them well and do them in a sustainable and lasting way," Murphy explained.
She said the fights inside the party have also complicated getting the message out. "It makes it difficult to communicate when there is Democrat on Democrat attacks."
But Murphy was quick to point out that some pieces of the broader bill are already resonating with voters back home. "I think that my constituents in Florida clearly understand the impact of climate change and the need to take action on that."
Unlike Carney who lost in 2010, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., voted for the ACA and survived that wave election. But he is a top tier GOP target in 2022 and expects Republicans to nationalize the election again.
He said he plans to talk about his role getting specific things in the bill. "I am going to run on the prescription program that I negotiated. I'm going to run on the bipartisan infrastructure package that I started with my problem solvers group. I think those are winning messages, but you got to have the resources to get your message out," Shrader said last week.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., maintains that the situation in 2010 and the environment going into 2022 are different, pointing to the fact that Biden has already been on the road touting the agenda's impact in several states.
"There's no substitute for the bully pulpit of the president of the United States," Pelosi said last week.
Selling hard infrastructure v. human infrastructure
Still, Democrats admit it's harder to explain the immediate value of the elements in the social spending and climate bill. Programs like universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds and elder care enjoy support across the political spectrum, even though some people don't always back expanding the government.
Carney told NPR "government can, and in some times should do, big things to improve the overall well being of the nation."
Democrats who were in Congress in 2010 — and those that have heard about the political fallout in the dozen years since that debate — say talking specifics sooner will be key ahead of the 2022 midterms.
The House Democrats' campaign arm is pushing for over 1,000 events across the country.
Kristin Hawn, a Democratic strategist and partner at ROKK Solutions, worked for the moderate Blue Dog Coalition in 2010 and told NPR that explaining the component parts of the Build Back Better act as soon as possible is the way Democrats move beyond the messy process talk that has dominated the last few months.
"We always say that the second that you get into having to explain what you're doing, you're losing the messaging battle already. That's the difficult part about legislating," Hawn said. She said things like getting affordable health care if you have pre-existing conditions or having adult children stay on their parents health care plans are popular now, "but we weren't able to effectively communicate that at the time and that was detrimental to us in the midterm elections in 2010."
Hawn also noted that back in 2010 there was a Tea Party movement that focused on the ACA, but also channeled anger more broadly at Washington. She said people had to be escorted out of town hall meetings when they were talking about things beyond the ACA. "It was it was at times violent. It was angry. And I think you have some of that same sentiment here, certainly with the former President Trump stoking those fires and stoking that anger and that anger is still out there."
Messaging is only part of the equation
Carney said, unlike Obamacare, the Build Back Better bill can be a potent political weapon because Democrats can show concrete ways they are changing people's lives for the better. "I would go on the offensive with this. I would ask everybody who voted against it, why?"
The messaging war over Build Back Better is in full swing with the GOP campaign committees and its allies working to define it as a "socialist spending spree" to voters.
The president's low standing in the polls, and the historic trend of the party in power losing seats in midterms, could mean this push is Democrats' last chance to enact major public policies for a while.
Hawn said the dip in approval ratings is a motivating factor to get the full agenda through before the end of the year. "The president is at the top of the ticket. And his numbers need to come up in order for these candidates in the House to to be successful in their reelection campaign or their election."
Carney said he knew the ACA was unpopular in his district before the vote, but is glad he voted yes.
"I was able to get health care for 33,000 more families and individuals. So yeah, that's worth losing a seat over frankly," he said.
Over time, the ACA has become a political plus as more people are covered. Democrats' warning about GOP efforts to dismantle the law was key to their ability to retake the majority in 2018. In fact, Pelosi has pushed to strengthen the ACA by making sure subsidies that were included in recent coronavirus relief bills were extended in the recent spending package.
Democrats on Capitol Hill believe the Build Back Better agenda can also turn into a political plus, and some argue it already has with things that help people now like the child tax credit.
But as they work to avoid a repeat of 2010, Democrats are relying on Biden to aggressively tout policies in the coming year that will help families and the economy.
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