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Opinion Wanted: A better Build Back Better campaign

President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after a meeting with House Democrats on Capitol Hill on Oct. 1. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The campaign for President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda is about to be, well, rebuilt — and it needs the thorough restructuring that’s underway.

The public chaos of last week demonstrated many things: that the various wings of the Democratic Party misread each other; that the relentless focus on the single number of $3.5 trillion has left most Americans clueless about what Biden wants to do; and that the party’s exceptionally narrow majorities in Congress require more finesse than even its most skilled vote-counters anticipated.

If there is good news for Biden and his party, it’s that each side in the internal skirmishes now knows the other’s strengths and red lines.

Moderates learned that progressives have the numbers in the House to block a physical infrastructure bill if Biden’s broader social and climate investment program isn’t passed alongside it. Progressives learned that the overall spending number in the package has to come down more than they initially thought to satisfy Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).

And Biden administration officials acknowledge that the president and his allies need to do a far better job in refocusing the debate away from the big numbers and toward the concrete help the president’s initiatives offer to middle-class and lower-income families. He plans extensive travel to stress such measures as expanded child care, the child tax credit and health coverage, along with the urgency of action on climate change.

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A hint of what’s to come was the White House’s announcement Sunday that the president would be visiting Howell, Mich., on Tuesday to make his case for the plan and how it would be paid for “by repealing tax giveaways to the rich.” Biden intends to push back hard on claims that he wants to add to the deficit by highlighting the revenue he is calling for.

In an effort to meet Manchin’s ceiling of $1.5 trillion on outright spending, the administration will also underscore that perhaps $1 trillion of its initiatives can fairly be classified as tax cuts or tax incentives, not spending. This could give Manchin a path to helping Biden salvage a decent share of the program. But the trickiest challenge could be Sinema’s opposition to many of the tax increases that Manchin could support. Killing the tax increases would only aggravate Manchin’s deficit fears.

Another sign of a reboot: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s letter to her colleagues on Saturday setting a new Oct. 31 deadline on passing the physical infrastructure bill. It is a real deadline — created by the expiration of a temporary extension of transportation spending — not an artificial one akin to the pledge Pelosi made to a small group of moderates to hold a vote last week on the bipartisan bill that progressives blocked.

The longer timeline will, Democrats hope, put an end to the debilitating and divisive public frenzy of recent days. It is also a realistic acknowledgment of the complexities of passing an initiative this large when Democrats have no votes to spare in the Senate, and just three in the House.

Progressives signaled this weekend that they were prepared to find a route to compromise. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) on “Fox News Sunday” both suggested that the bill’s overall price tag could be cut by limiting the duration of its various programs, leaving further extensions to future Congresses.

Moderates, in the meantime, have been forced to confront the reality that the fates of the physical infrastructure and Build Back Better bills were always intertwined. Biden, for example, was able to make concessions to pick up Republican support for the narrower bill without losing Democratic votes because all sides assumed some of the measures that progressives favored, particularly on climate, would be taken care of in the second bill.

What remains a mystery is what Sinema will ultimately ask for. Her enigmatic approach has led to widespread Democratic fury. The frustration is only aggravated by the fact that in a 50-50 Senate, there is no alternative but to come to terms with her.

What Democrats must fight above all are misrepresentations of the Build Back Better bill as some left-wing scheme. On the contrary, Biden’s proposals are a direct response to critiques often emanating from middle-of-the-road Democrats: that the party needs to spend less time on cultural issues and more on fighting for direct benefits to the working and middle classes, a cause that unites voters across racial and regional lines.

“This package goes to the very heart of why working-class Americans vote Democratic,” Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), one of Biden’s earliest and staunchest supporters, told me. “If we are able to pass this bill, I am confident it will help us with those blue-collar voters who went for Obama twice and swung to Trump.”

But only if they know what’s in it. And, yes, only if it passes.