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Biden seeks infrastructure bounce. But can a nuts-and-bolts pitch overcome cultural divides?

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg talks to reporters Monday at the White House about the infrastructure package.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg talks to reporters Monday at the White House about the infrastructure package. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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The White House and congressional Democrats are preparing an aggressive sales campaign to promote the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package soon to become law, an effort they hope will begin to counter the serious political problems exposed by last week’s elections.

But some Democrats worry that voters — including those who broke from the party in Virginia and New Jersey — are often mobilized by divisive cultural issues concerning race and identity. That makes the upcoming stretch a critical test of whether President Biden’s core political strategy of delivering tangible benefits still resonates in a powerfully polarized environment.

Democratic lawmakers are already holding events back home this week, touting smoother train commutes and other benefits of the infrastructure bill they hope voters notice in coming months. Cabinet secretaries are being dispatched to talk up the measure, while campaign operations are attacking Republicans who opposed it.

Biden will kick off an infrastructure sales tour Wednesday at the Port of Baltimore, outlining how the measure will upgrade ports and help ease supply-chain disruptions that are preventing consumers from purchasing toys, electronics and other goods. He will also participate in a virtual town hall in conjunction with the Democratic National Committee on Tuesday to promote the infrastructure bill, and on Monday he sat down for an interview with Local 12 in Cincinnati, where he was asked what the measure means for the perennially dilapidated Brent Spence Bridge that connects the city to northern Kentucky.

As Democrats continue to dissect what happened in Virginia and New Jersey in a pair of critical off-year gubernatorial races last week, many in the party say the key to winning over swing voters, including those who side with Republicans on culture war issues, is to deliver a compelling economic argument and make tangible progress toward improving life for middle-class Americans.

The question is whether that strategy is effective in the current climate. Republicans like Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, for example, are seizing on emotional issues like what children are being taught about race in schools.

Democrats hope that only worked because Democrats’ economic agenda was unfinished amid intraparty bickering, which they say they have now put behind them.

“This is not a complete solution to the set of challenges presented to Democrats over the country, but this is the most popular big thing Congress has done in two decades,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Monday. “Go out and talk about this, and let’s see what happens to people’s faith in democracy and the Democratic brand.”

Daily 202: Here comes the infrastructure PR blitz

Senior White House officials say the bipartisan infrastructure package — particularly in tandem with a separate measure winding through Congress that will invest heavily in climate provisions and the social safety net — will be a political boon for the party ahead of what is expected to be a grueling midterm election next November.

“We believe that this will help to establish a real record of accomplishment that people will be able to see in their lives,” White House senior adviser Mike Donilon said. “And so it’ll be a full-court effort all across the country.”

That push, the White House said, includes visits not only to states that Biden won last year, but also to red states and rural areas that would see benefits, too. The deal was negotiated by a bipartisan group of 10 senators, and Democrats hope to amplify the fact that some Republicans are also touting the achievement.

Much of the work of promoting the infrastructure package, White House officials say, is ready made, considering the popularity of infrastructure among voters who drive to work, who want clean drinking water and who need speedy Internet.

“A lot of this sells itself,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during Monday’s news briefing at the White House. “Communities never needed to be persuaded that their bridge needed to be fixed or that the airport needed an upgrade or that their ports needed investment. They’ve been trying to get Washington to catch up to them.”

Even so, some Democrats worry that for many of those communities, the benefits will not be evident until years down the line when various projects are completed — far too late to help in next year’s midterms.

For now, the administration is replicating much of its messaging playbook from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that passed shortly after Biden took office, dispatching top Cabinet officials to highlight the most popular provisions of the infrastructure package.

Buttigieg will promote physical infrastructure, including roads, rails and bridges, while Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will focus on repairing the electric grid, according to a White House official.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will tout climate resilience and impacts for Native American communities, while Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan will discuss the bill’s funding for replacing lead pipes and addressing pollution. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo will sell the package’s high-speed Internet provisions.

A cavalcade of press events by Democratic lawmakers has already begun. In the president’s hometown of Wilmington, Del., Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) on Tuesday will tout the legislation during an event at the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Amtrak station. In Connecticut on Monday, Murphy and fellow Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) talked up more efficient train commutes for their constituents during an event at Union Station in Hartford.

Murphy portrayed the bill as a political gift that keeps on giving.

“The bipartisan infrastructure bill is a cornucopia of press announcements about a never-ending set of funding announcements and grant awards and rail-line extensions and bridge replacement groundbreakings,” said Murphy, who added that he has already told his constituents the bill will help cut the train ride from New Haven to New York City by about 25 minutes.

Analysis: Infrastructure bill as job creator

Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison said the party is planning an aggressive campaign to sell Biden’s economic agenda to voters with a wide-ranging media effort that is likely to include TV ads, billboards and digital ads. The goal, he said, is to “invade the ways” people get information.

“It’s going to get to the point where people are going to send me hate messages and tweets saying, ‘Can you shut up about infrastructure,’ and I won’t,” Harrison said in an interview. “I will double down.”

Harrison said the DNC will leverage its network of state and county parties to tailor specific messages about how the infrastructure plan will benefit local communities — from bridge construction to the replacement of lead pipes to the expansion of broadband.

The party launched a vigorous campaign to sell the American Rescue Plan after the massive pandemic relief package passed in March, Harrison noted, but he acknowledged the effort faltered in the months after.

“We need to do better,” he said. “It can’t be short term. You can turn up your message so it’s high heat for a few minutes, or you can have a slow burn. This is something that we simmer, that we constantly talk about and we don’t let up. It’s not just an intense period right after it passes.”

Meanwhile, state Democratic parties are coordinating with campaign committees based in Washington to highlight exactly what Democrats were able to deliver — such as improvements to ports in Georgia or commuter rails in New Hampshire, both key Senate battlegrounds next November.

More critical for Democrats, campaign officials say, is emphasizing that Republicans couldn’t — or wouldn’t — enact an infrastructure package when they controlled Washington under President Donald Trump.

“By opposing the bipartisan infrastructure plan, Republican Senate candidates are standing against growing jobs, rebuilding our country and helping America out-compete other countries,” said David Bergstein, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Democrats will make sure voters know that GOP Senate candidates are lining up against popular proposals that resonate with voters of all political ideologies.”

The Republicans who oppose the infrastructure package portrayed it as a big-spending “socialist” measure.

“I can’t believe Republicans just gave the Democrats their socialism bill,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted about his 13 GOP House colleagues who voted for it.

Trump, in his reaction to the bill’s passage, focused angrily on its potential to help Democrats rather than on its substance, though he claimed without evidence that only a small percentage of the spending would go toward infrastructure.

In a statement, Trump castigated Republicans who voted for the package, complaining that it was “politically correct” and “gave Biden and Democrats a victory.”

Beyond that, the White House playbook concerns some Democrats, who fear the administration is following a strategy similar to the one they deployed to unsuccessfully sell the American Rescue Plan.

Democrats were eager to tout that law’s policies — including a child tax credit, stimulus checks and expanded unemployment benefits — but many concede that party leaders never managed to convince voters that they deserved credit for passing the package without any Republican votes.

Celinda Lake, a pollster for Biden, said Democrats should take two cautionary tales from the American Rescue Plan: Few voters know that Republicans voted against it, and voters only temporarily gave credit to Democrats for passing it.

“It’s a sobering reminder of how hard it is to break through, how hard it is to get credit and how little people really understand who is voting for and against these things,” she said.

White House officials say circumstances are different now. For instance, the infrastructure plan will take much more time to implement, in contrast to the American Rescue Plan, for which the administration worked to get relief out to Americans as quickly as possible.

That longer timeline, officials said, will allow the administration to continue to sell pieces of the plan for many months and even years later. White House officials also said Biden and Cabinet officials faced a set of historic crises upon taking office, and they had less time to aggressively travel and sell the rescue plan when it passed in March.

Now, with the country making significant progress in battling back the pandemic and its impact on the economy, the administration will have more resources and time to devote to pitching the package, they contend.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a close Biden ally, said in an interview Saturday that Democrats did not do a good enough job promoting their previous accomplishments, including the sweeping pandemic relief bill, and cannot afford to fall short again.

“We did not do a sufficient job of explaining to people exactly what we’d done to rescue families, rescue businesses,” Clyburn said. He added a sharp warning: “We cannot make that mistake with this.”