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Who’s to blame for the Build Back Better knowledge gap?
It’s a failure of four key stakeholders, two of whom could suffer consequences in the upcoming 2022 and 2024 elections.
New polling from CBS News has given Democrats cause for concern: Just 10 percent of Americans describe themselves as knowing the specifics about what’s in the family and jobs proposal championed by President Joe Biden and currently being negotiated by the House and Senate.
Known as the Build Back Better Act, the plan would invest in the following if signed into law by President Biden:
Home-based care for seniors and people with disabilities
Lower prescription drug costs
Two years free community college
Universal child care and pre-K
Funding to transition the country’s electric grid to clean energy
Permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness
Funding to repair inadequate public housing
Medicare expansions to cover dental, vision and hearing
A Civilian Climate Corps to act on the worsening environmental crisis
Paid family and medical leave
An extension of the Child Tax Credit (a benefit that’s already cut child poverty in half)
An end to Big Oil and Big Gas tax subsidies
A roadmap to citizenship for undocumented people
These investments represent one-half of two pieces of legislation focused on rebuilding the nation’s roads, bridges and transit systems and expanding internet access to the entire country and uplifting women and underserved communities through education, housing and climate action.
The first has already passed the Senate, with 19 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats to approve the bill. But Build Back Better is opposed by every single Republican in both chambers of Congress. So Democrats are using a wonky Senate procedure that enables them to pass proposals like Build Back Better with a simple majority.
It could all be so simple. But a few conservative Democrats think their progressive colleagues want to spend too much money, considering the government spent trillions of dollars on economic relief during the worst-worst-worst parts of the pandemic. The rationale for the progressives is that the old way of governing was unfair to too many people and that they’ll squander a prime opportunity to reshape the country if they don’t push for these provisions now. (For the record, I agree.)
Add in the CBS poll, which also found that what most people knew about the Build Back Better proposal was its $3.5 trillion price tag and that Democrats plan to pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations. It’s honestly all too much for most people.
This knowledge gap is a failure of four key stakeholders, two of whom could suffer consequences in the upcoming 2022 and 2024 elections. Below is a breakdown of each and the methods behind their madness.
Press secretary Jen Psaki often tells reporters in press briefings that the president believes the buck stops with him, so that’s where we’ll start.
Save for two strategic public appearances in swing districts last week and a visit to Capitol Hill a couple of weeks ago to meet with Democratic lawmakers, Biden has worked behind the scenes to bridge the gap between conservative and progressive Democrats. But critics would prefer he apply much more public on the handful of legislators — namely Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema in the Senate and a handful of folks in the House who often choose the interests of their corporate donors over those of the American people.
In fairness to Biden, the White House communications team keeps the reins pretty tight around him to avoid the kinds of gaffes he’s known for. It’s part of the reason why the White House press corps lives in perpetual frustration that he hasn’t held a formal press conference in months. (Psaki’s counterargument: Biden takes several questions from reporters before and after he travels each week.) From an optics standpoint though, there’s value in the president leading from the front and reassuring voters that he can meet the moment.
While my politics are anything but conservative, I believe we’re better served by a Republican Party with robust policy ideas that require Democrats to sharpen their arguments, define their priorities and offer a clear contrast to voters. It’s fine if Republicans are against universal pre-K, extending the child tax credit or acting on the climate crisis. But what’s not OK is the party’s preference for culture wars against the “woke left” as a distraction from the fact that they lack any serious legislative solutions to the problems the average American faces. It’s a continuation of the GOP’s devolution into what Steve Benen, author and producer of The Rachel Maddow Show, calls a “post-policy party” in his bestseller The Imposters.
There’s literally no political incentive for Republicans to work with Democrats or offer any good-faith ideas to the issues that trouble their constituents. They know doing so will incur the wrath of the former occupant of the White House. He’ll make it his mission to find a MAGA-zoid candidate from the party’s fringe to challenge the GOP incumbent in the next election. For most politicians, that’s too steep a price to pay. They also know Republican voters are fine with being poor, oppressed, ignorant as long as it means women and Black, brown, queer people and those living with disabilities are marginalized too. As long as Trump is the leader of the Republican Party — and a ratings and traffic boon for news organizations — policy debates like the one occurring over the Build Back Better agenda will continue to take a backseat.
Each morning before I start covering the news of the day, I make a list of stories I’m working on and sources I want to speak with to help me write them. The goal is to have a rough concept of the narrative thread I’ll weave around the news to make it engaging to you. If you ask any of my colleagues on the politics beat, they’ll share a similar process.
Stories are how we make sense of the world. And we all make editorial decisions about whom we want to center, what details we’d like to amplify and how we’d like to report the items we discover. Case in point: It’s spicy to frame the debate as one between the feisty progressives and pensive conservatives in the party, never mind the fact that almost everyone in the party supports the plan. And reporters can slip their obsession with Manchin and Sinema under the guise of newsworthiness instead of pointing voters to the fact that they are actually in defiance of the agenda President of the United States in service of their corporate donors. This puts these two politicians at the center of a spectacle that serves their ambitions and those of activists who vilify them for the sake of their (worthy) causes.
But it’s obvious, based on polling about the declining trust in media and the overall unawareness of the specifics of the president’s agenda, that this approach is a disservice to readers and voters everywhere. To be clear, I respect the work of my colleagues in the press. I wouldn’t be able to do my work without theirs. But many of them are working against a business model that encourages them to cover politics as a sport instead of the means to a policy end that it should be.
During her daily briefing today, Speaker Nancy Pelosi conceded that it’s a challenge to break down such a comprehensive package like the Build Back Better Act into its disparate parts. She also expressed optimism that as Democrats solidified their strategy for scaling back from their previous $3.5 trillion ask, they would be able to convey a clearer message to voters. I wish I wrote with the same hopefulness that Pelosi speaks with.
Ultimately though, I still think Democrats figure out a way to pass these two bills. It would be political self-sabotage not to. And I think once they do, enough voters will pay attention to the subsequent victory lap members of the party will embark on to brag on their wins. But it would definitely help the case if more voters were empowered with enough knowledge to join Democrats in spreading the word about what would be the most transformative investment from the federal government in generations.