Biden plays the long game as he sells benefits of COVID bill

The US president and his fellow Democrats hope the effects of the relief package result in electoral success.

President Joe Biden speaks about the American Rescue Plan, a coronavirus relief package, at the Rose Garden of the White House, March 12, 2021 [File: Alex Brandon/AP Photo]

Now that President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package is signed, sealed and delivered, he and other members of his administration are fanning across the United States to tout its benefits.

“It’s a big deal,” Biden said during a tour of a small business in Chester, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday. “More help is on the way, for real.”

This is not merely an effort simply to educate Americans about what is in the bill.

Unlike former President Donald Trump’s frenzied zig-zagging from one message to another – a seemingly deliberate exercise to feed each news cycle with something different – Biden’s strategy is clearly designed as part of a long political game to cement what he and Democrats believe is a massive accomplishment in the minds of voters.

And polling shows they are onto something. A Politico/Morning Consult poll released on Wednesday shows that 72 percent of US registered voters somewhat or strongly support the package, including 44 percent of Republicans. Meanwhile, a CBS News/YouGov poll released on Sunday reveals that 59 percent of Americans believe the bill will help them personally, including 45 percent of Republicans.

“Biden’s going to be riding a wave of optimism, and that will help him and his fellow Democrats,” Democratic strategist Kevin Casey told Al Jazeera.

Among the states, the president, Vice President Kamala Harris and their spouses are visiting this week include battlegrounds Colorado, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. Biden won all of these states last November and five of them will have key Senate races in the 2022 midterms.

The Biden team is banking on a significant economic recovery with the potential added benefit of an overall improved attitude towards their party to give them a boost next year, even though recent history shows the party in the White House tends to lose seats in Congress in midterm elections.

Casey believes that Biden’s promise to get a stimulus bill passed and signed into law will help Democrats buck that trend. “Biden is building a reservoir of trust by delivering on his promise, and that creates an aura of goodwill among voters,” he said.

But in politics, goodwill can be fleeting, and any number of things could derail this long-game strategy.

Possible pitfalls

Republicans are already on the attack, focusing less on the popular COVID relief package and more on other issues such as the growing political crisis on the US-Mexico border.

The number of undocumented migrants – especially unaccompanied children – is exploding, with no let-up in sight. “We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement on Tuesday.

Republican leaders have signalled that criticising Democrats on immigration, an issue Biden is hoping to tackle with comprehensive reforms, will be a key focus for them, especially as they target moderate voters in key battleground areas. And some Democrats are extremely worried.

“The Republicans will turn around and use this for a political weapon against Democrats — that we’re weak on the border, we’re not doing enough, we’re letting everybody in,” Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar, who represents a Texas border district, told The Washington Post. “I’ve been warning the party and the administration: Don’t let this get out of hand, because all you’re going to do is you’re going to give Republicans an issue.”

A US Border Patrol agent instructs asylum-seeking migrants as they line up along the border wall after crossing the Rio Grande River into the US from Mexico on a raft, in Penitas, Texas, March 17, 2021 [Adrees Latif/Reuters]

The polling backs up the Republican strategy on this. Although Biden’s job approval – 51 percent in a CNN poll released last week – remains positive, views of his handling of immigration are not keeping pace. Only 43 percent of Americans approve of his handling of that issue, while 49 percent disapprove, with a majority of independents and Republicans disapproving.

And Republicans are ready to pounce, especially after unexpectedly picking up seats in the House last November, although the Democrats still hold the majority. The GOP House gains came as they lost control of the White House and the Senate.

Add their criticism of Democrats’ handling of immigration to other areas where polling is generally not in the Democrats’ favour – potential Democratic overreach (too “progressive” or “socialist”) and social issues such as so-called “cancel culture” or transgender rights – and Republicans see a path to potentially reclaiming control of the House and the Senate in 2022.

However, Casey, the Democratic strategist, believes that Biden and Democrats will have a better political argument than the GOP to sell to Americans next year.

“Republicans are going to be comparing and contrasting, using culture wars and immigration as their issues. Democrats will have the economy and the end of the pandemic to run on,” he said. “If the midterms were held today, the Democrats would crush the Republicans.”

Alas, the midterms are not today.

Will Americans, who are so gung ho about the COVID relief package, be so enthusiastic about it in 20 months when they head to the polls? Will the economy’s ills be healed or, as some on Wall Street fear, will inflation kick in, creating another set of economic problems?

Or, as Republicans are hoping, will a crisis – or series of crises – dog Biden and Democrats and give the GOP an opportunity to wrest control of the House or the Senate?

With those questions unanswerable today, Biden and his fellow Democrats are hoping his long-game strategy ultimately answers those questions in the Democrats’ favour. Otherwise, history repeats, and Democrats will be looking for fresh answers as the minority party after the 2022 midterms.

Source: Al Jazeera