Democrats are on the brink of approving the most sweeping revision to the social contract since the Great Society.
And Americans know almost nothing about the terms.
Just one in 10 respondents to a CBS News poll in October said they knew “a lot of specific things” about what’s in the sprawling climate and social spending measure known as the reconciliation bill, or Build Back Better package.
And more than half admitted they didn’t know any of the specifics — or anything about the legislation at all.
That owes something to the sheer complexity of the measure; there’s a lot to keep track of. But it’s more than that.
Build Back Better, it’s increasingly clear, just isn’t built for our broken political process. Its individual provisions are too popular to crank up the anger machine. Who can get frothy about home health care for seniors? And if no one is fighting over those provisions, how will voters hear about them?
The media would be the best vehicle. But the potentially monumental shift in public policy has been too often ignored in favor of the latest utterances of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the centrist Democrats who have positioned themselves as the chief obstacles to passage of the measure — and emerged as the irresistible antagonists of Washington’s drama du jour.
None of this is good for Democrats in the short term.
It suggests that Biden, whose approval ratings are flagging amid concerns about inflation and shortages of everything from furniture to sneakers, wouldn’t get much of a boost from passage of the roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better package. And Democratic lawmakers, many of them petrified about their prospects in next year’s midterm elections, may not benefit either.
But it also raises a bigger strategic question for the party.
The progressive wing has long insisted that if Democrats could finally enact some of the sweeping legislation they have been envisioning for years — if voters could finally see what the party has to offer — it would lay the groundwork for an enduring majority.
But what if it doesn’t?
The Build Back Better legislation isn’t quite on the scale of the New Deal or the Great Society.
It would shift a smaller share of the gross domestic product to social-welfare spending than those barrier-breaking efforts did. And it lacks their radical energy.
But make no mistake, it is a generational piece of legislation.
The measure, passed by the House of Representatives last month and now before a closely divided Senate, would send $400 billion to the states to build universal pre-kindergarten and affordable child care programs.
The measure is designed so that all but the wealthiest families would have to pay no more than 7 percent of their income for child care. And those making less than 75 percent of their state’s median income would pay nothing at all.
If Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson built an enormous safety net for older Americans with Social Security and Medicare, Biden is aiming for a historic investment in the nation’s families and children.
The legislation’s climate provisions may not be as ambitious as those that appeared in an earlier, more expensive version of Build Back Better. But the $555 billion allotted to reduce carbon emissions represents the largest climate commitment in American history by far.
Some $320 billion would go toward tax incentives for wind, solar, and other clean energy. Buyers of electric cars could get up to $12,500 in tax credits. The measure would pay for a network of electric charging stations for those vehicles. And it would offer $12.5 billion in rebates for homeowners who install energy-efficient appliances.
Build Back Better would also make the largest investment in affordable housing in the country’s history. And it would pour huge sums into home health care for older people. Medicare would get the power to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies over the prices of some of the costliest drugs.
These individual provisions are wildly popular with Americans, even if they’re mostly unaware that these things are in the package.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll from October found that 83 percent of American adults support allowing the government to negotiate drug prices. And there are big majorities for universal pre-K, clean energy, and home health care, too.
But the very popularity of these proposals, it seems, is a problem.
Unwilling to fight losing battles over the substance of the legislation, Republicans are instead accusing Democrats of pushing a “massive socialist transformation,” as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell puts it, or imposing “Marxism” on the country, as Senator Marco Rubio has said.
And with the controversy centered on the overall spending in the package, that’s where the public’s attention has gone.
The CBS poll shows Americans are more likely to know about the size of the package — once $3.5 trillion and now about $2 trillion — and the taxes that would pay for it than the individual provisions of the legislation.
That worries people like Sean McElwee, a cofounder of the liberal polling firm Data for Progress.
“Home-based care for elderly and disabled people is a super-popular thing and we haven’t talked about it all, because it’s not really contested,” he says.
“So there hasn’t been a ton of coverage about how transformative this would be for seniors, who are a disproportionate voting bloc,” he adds, referring to the fact that older voters turn up at the polls in especially large numbers.
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, says the news media isn’t built for the sort of coverage that would dig into the details of the legislation.
Its aim, he says, is not to create public understanding but to produce daily content. And that means reporters are rewarded too much for incremental coverage — the latest on what Manchin or Sinema said — and not enough for the sort of contextual reporting that might do justice to a subject like Build Back Better.
What we’re seeing now, Rosen says, is “democratic decision-making at its worst” — a deeply polarized, name-calling brand of politics — combining “with some weaknesses in journalism to make it very difficult to get across what the bill is actually about.”
That may explain the legislation’s mixed standing in the polls. A recent Washington Post-ABC News survey found 58 percent backed the package. But a Morning Consult poll found just a plurality supporting the measure — with 49 percent backing it and 39 percent opposed.
And only a quarter of respondents to an ABC News poll in late October said the package would help “people like you.”
Three in 10 said it would hurt.
McElwee, of Data for Progress, says Build Back Better still has some fundamental political strengths.
Republicans have no controversial provision to latch on to as they did with the individual mandate to buy health insurance that bedeviled Obamacare.
And once the measure is passed, he says, Democrats will be able to sell the public on its individual components in a more methodical way.
But as he acknowledges, it’s not clear that the media, which has written comparatively little about the substance of the legislation to date, will be in a more explanatory mood after the package becomes law — assuming it becomes law.
And with Build Back Better spending spread out over the course of a decade, it will take years for Americans to feel the full impact on their lives.
Even immediate, tangible benefits seem unlikely to pay the political dividends Democrats have long hoped for.
The Biden administration mailed stimulus checks to millions of Americans earlier this year. And it has continued to deposit money in the bank accounts of some 35 million families with kids — on a monthly basis. And yet voters haven’t seen fit to credit the president.
They tell pollsters he hasn’t helped them personally, and they’ve sent his approval numbers tumbling into the mid to low 40s.
As Nate Cohn recently noted in the New York Times, this phenomenon isn’t actually new. Voters pummeled Democrats at the polls after they passed Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s. The public, Cohn wrote, seems to reward presidents not for enacting legislation but for “presiding over peace and prosperity.” And it’s hard to feel prosperous right now, when gasoline prices are rising and breakfast cereal is in short supply.
So after he gets Build Back Better through the Senate, the president would be wise to put all of his energy into doing what he can to tame inflation and fix the supply chain.
But the truth is, he has limited options for addressing those macroeconomic forces. And that means the fate of the party in the midterms and 2024 election — and with a Trump comeback looming, the fate of the country itself — will rest in no small part on luck.