President Joe Biden put his signature on his first major legislative achievement. Then on Friday he prepared to hit the road to sell it to the American public – even though polling shows strong support for the $1.9 trillion package, including majority support among Republicans.
It’s a markedly different approach than the one employed by President Barack Obama, back when Biden was second-in-command. Obama, too, started office with a series of crises and an ambitious agenda to address them. But Obama did not spend time peddling the laws to voters, many of whom still had misgivings about the sweeping packages Obama got through a Democratic-controlled Congress.
Biden, meanwhile, is headed to Delaware County, Pennsylvania, Tuesday and to Atlanta next Friday to tout the COVID-19 relief package in what the White House is calling the “Help is Here” tour. First lady Jill Biden will travel to Burlington, New Jersey, Monday and to Concord, New Hampshire, Wednesday on the same mission, while Vice President Kamala Harris and the second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, will go to Las Vegas on Monday and to Denver on Tuesday.
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Emhoff will take the tour to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Wednesday, while Harris will join Biden in Atlanta on Friday in their first joint trip of their administration.
The political implication of those visits is notable – all are in battleground states, and Georgia, which arguably delivered passage of the American Recovery Act with the January election of two Democrats to the United States, gets top billing by having both principals there. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the locals were not chosen by politics, and that the president – who has already visited Texas – would be going to red, blue and battleground states.
The broader goal, Biden indicated this week, is to avoid the mistakes made when Obama was newly in office, when the 44th president forged ahead with the next item on his legislative wish list instead of touting his own accomplishment and explaining it to the American people.
“We didn’t adequately explain what we had done” after passing the economic stimulus package in February 2009, Biden told Democrats in a virtual meeting this week, saying Obama had been “too modest” in his approach.
“I kept saying, ‘Tell people what we did.’ He kept saying, ‘We don’t have time, we’re not going to take a victory lap,'” Biden recounted. “And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility.”
Obama signed the stimulus act in Denver on Feb. 17, 2009, but did not do a victory tour afterward. On a more contentious law – the Affordable Care Act, signed March 23, 2010 – Obama made a limited effort to explain the package to a nervous public. He traveled to Iowa City, Iowa on March 25, and to Portland, Maine, April 1 to defend the law, but his travel schedule was otherwise focused on foreign affairs, fundraising and his next legislative priority, financial services reform.
“They have very different personalities. Biden is more emotional; Obama is more cerebral,” says Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California and a former Republican Capitol Hill staffer. “The important thing is that Biden learned from Obama’s experience. He witnessed what happened to Obama’s agenda.”
Nor has Biden repeated the same mistake Obama himself acknowledges he made by waiting and trying to get Republican support for his health care plan. In his book, “A Promised Land,” the former president discusses his frustrations and sense of being burned by dragging out negotiations on the Affordable Care Act in hopes of garnering GOP votes that never materialized.
Biden has repeatedly talked of unity and bipartisanship – and has notably made it clear he does not support getting rid of the Senate filibuster, even though it would make it much easier for him to pass his agenda.
But nor did Biden wait around to get bipartisan support for his COVID-19 recovery plan. Instead, the Senate used a peculiar tool – a process called “budget reconciliation” to pass the law without having to overcome a filibuster. In the end, not a single Republican voted for the law in the House or the Senate, but experts say Biden’s win is more powerful than the lack of bipartisan support.
That’s especially relevant for the 2022 and 2024 elections, says William Howell, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, projecting that Biden will have a hard time passing some other major pieces of…