The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden wants to sell the stimulus. The White House is still figuring out how.

President Biden at a recent White House appearance.
President Biden at a recent White House appearance. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)
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The Biden administration weighed putting the president’s name on stimulus checks to make sure he got credit for helping the millions of Americans who will receive aid — but rejected the idea in recent days.

The White House is planning for President Biden to hit the road to promote the $1.9 trillion plan, but officials did not settle on where he should go until Wednesday afternoon.

And there is currently no major advertising campaign focused on the proposal.

As Democrats celebrate what they see as one of the most significant domestic policy achievements in modern history, the White House has yet to fully develop a strategy for the next crucial step: selling it to the public.

Biden aides and top Democrats have vowed to avoid what he sees as the Obama administration’s disastrous mistake of not touting its early wins, particularly the 2009 stimulus that was ridiculed by Republicans and, Democrats believe, never received sufficient recognition for its role in saving the economy.

Biden’s presidency, aides say, relies not just on squeezing legislation through a narrowly divided Congress, but getting credit for its benefits in the face of a Republican opposition preparing to portray the bill as a liberal fantasy run amok. Although the legislative battle is winding down, the political fight is only beginning.

“It will really take a sustained drumbeat to make sure everyone understands what’s in that package,” said Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist close to the White House. “The important thing is the communication campaign and that it’s sustained over time, like a presidential campaign. Everyone has to hear the message seven times to remember it. One event, one signing ceremony, is not going to cover it.”

The plan, which passed the House on Wednesday, includes numerous measures for Americans hurting during the economic and health crises — including $1,400 checks for millions of families, an expanded child tax credit that analysts believe will lift millions of children out of poverty, and more generous unemployment benefits.

Unlike the relief passed by the Obama administration, this one includes concrete benefits that will reach individuals in a lump sum. Although Obama veterans hope that will make the aid more obvious, they doubt it will be enough to break through to most Americans.

White House officials acknowledge they have not fully developed their sales plan, but say it’s far from too late.

“The president is very focused on ensuring that we spend the time having a conversation about it,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in an interview. “I think you’re underestimating how quickly things can be put together. We’re not at the ‘final, final,’ but we’re discussing what’s next. Things can move quite quickly.”

Democratic leaders hold a deep conviction that they blew it in 2009, when Barack Obama took office amid another economic meltdown and enacted a sweeping stimulus plan. Instead of getting credit for rescuing the economy, they say, Democrats let Republicans blast them for big-government overreach, and they lost badly in the 2010 midterms.

The Biden White House is filled with people who served in the Obama administration, and they are determined not to make that mistake.

They also argue that conditions are favorable, citing polls showing that the plan is widely popular, including with Republicans and independents. About 70 percent of Americans support the relief package, according to a Pew poll published Tuesday, including 41 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

White House officials and congressional Democrats also say it will be easier to explain to people how the bill benefits them, because Americans will receive checks that go directly into their bank accounts, unlike under the Obama stimulus.

An administration effort to organize outside groups to promote it is only in an embryonic stage. The biggest related ad campaign so far is a $1 million buy in Wisconsin aimed at reminding voters that Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) opposed the aid package.

Still, American Bridge, which backs Democrats, has pledged $100 million over the next two years to support Biden, and said it would be spending money to sell the legislation.

“We won’t let 2022 be a repeat of 2010,” said Jessica Floyd, the group’s president.

But some Democratic strategists say that they are confronting donor fatigue after a lengthy presidential campaign and then a pair of Senate races in Georgia.

“Even if it’s a wildly popular product, you can’t sell something with nothing,” said one Democratic operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations about marketing the plan. “This is one of the biggest moments in a decade to show people the difference between what the two parties are getting done, but it only counts if we make sure they see it.”

Some Democrats say they could take a lesson from President Donald Trump’s brazenness in taking credit for popular initiatives.

Trump treaded new ground in presidential self-promotion by putting his distinctive signature on tens of millions of stimulus payments sent via check through the mail, accompanied by a letter that he also signed. The former president also required a food aid program that sent more than 100 million boxes through the Agriculture Department to include a letter from him claiming credit.

Some Democrats want Biden to do something similar.

“Why not? Trump did it twice,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee. “Given all of the ‘yes’ votes for this bill came from Democrats — and every single Republican voted against it — I think we need to hammer home to the American people that it is Democrats who delivered this popular relief to them.”

Psaki said the White House decided not to put Biden’s name on the checks mostly because doing so would delay getting them in the mail. “This is about delivering on what he promised . . . and he doesn’t feel like he needs his name on a check for people to know that,” Psaki said.

The White House has been batting around ideas about how to sell the plans for weeks and has placed a series of op-eds touting the bill, one West Wing official noted. The discussions included working out a travel schedule for Biden and Vice President Harris.

Late afternoon Wednesday, the White House told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Biden will travel on Tuesday to sell it in Delaware County, Pa., which is just over the border from his home state.

But a list of potential states for Biden to visit was floating around the West Wing as late as Monday, another person with knowledge of the strategy said. The debate included whether Biden should go to a red state to highlight the bipartisan support for his ideas, the person said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to define the bill as unnecessary deficit spending at a time when the government is already at record peacetime borrowing rates. Just after the bill passed the Senate, Republicans posted a video on Twitter attacking the plan as a “liberal wish list” and arguing that less than 10 percent of it focuses on the coronavirus.

“At this rate and the direction Democrats are taking us, there is no way our nation will ever be able to pay off this unsustainable debt without significant change,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who chairs the Senate Republican campaign arm, said in a statement blasted out after the legislation cleared the Senate. “It’s time to get serious about what this means for our nation moving forward.”

Congressional Republicans plan to highlight parts of the bill they say have little to do with the coronavirus, such as a paid leave provision for federal employees. Democrats argue that such aid is critical to helping the country recover from the biggest economic downturn in decades.

More generally, Republicans reject the notion that the Democrats’ main problem is messaging. Voters rejected Obama’s big-government overreach, they say, and Biden will suffer a similar fate in the 2022 midterms.

In recent days, the White House staff has been brainstorming on ways to deploy Biden, Cabinet members and other surrogates to sell the rescue plan.

The broad outlines include being sure Americans know how to take advantage of the benefits, which will include “hearing directly from people in their communities,” Psaki said.

The effort begins on Thursday when Biden will deliver a prime-time address, the first of his presidency, marking the first anniversary of the coronavirus shutdowns. He is expected to discuss the plan as part of a broader message about how his administration is responding to covid, according to people familiar with the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about them.

Biden Chief of Staff Ron Klain told Punchbowl News on Tuesday that the White House is “going to take a couple of weeks to really explain” the plan to the public.

Some members of Biden’s Cabinet have been appearing on local television and radio stations to pitch the plan. They include Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who gave interviews on the Biden plan in Indiana, North Carolina, Nevada, Virginia and Ohio over the past week.

Former Biden aides said they expect the president to mount an aggressive push to sell the stimulus plan, since he is among those who think the Obama administration fell short in selling its policies.

“Barack was so modest, he didn’t want to take, as he said, a ‘victory lap,’ ” Biden told House Democrats last week via videoconference. “I kept saying, ‘Tell people what we did.’  He said, ‘We don’t have time. I’m not going to take a victory lap.’ And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility.”

Biden’s comments followed earlier remarks suggesting that the 2009 package was too small. “We have learned from past crises that the risk is not doing too much,” Biden said days after his January inauguration. “The risk is not doing enough.”

Biden has privately remarked about the need to show how government is helping everyday people, often drawing on phrases that he says come from his parents and grandparents to hammer home a point, associates said.

“The way Joe Biden thinks about public policy is, you ought to be able to explain it to anybody — and if you can’t, your policy is not good enough,” said Sarah Bianchi, who was a top adviser to Biden when he was vice president.

Biden was tasked with implementing the Obama stimulus, and he privately groused that it centered on a payroll tax cut that increased workers’ take-home pay from their employers — so Americans credited their bosses, not the government.

Biden told Obama administration economist Jason Furman that the administration should have sent another round of tax rebates to millions of American households, as the Bush administration did in 2008, rather than alter withholdings, Furman said.

Some Republicans say the relief package is popular enough that Biden will not have to work that hard to sell it, in part because the public is less concerned about government spending than it was a decade ago.

“We’ve lost the narrative on this covid package,” said one former Trump administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations. “It’s overwhelmingly supported, and we haven’t done a good job to message why Americans should oppose it.”

Others think Biden has good fortune coming his way because an economic rebound is sure to follow the end of the pandemic.

“The trouble for Republicans is that the economy is really going to take off,” said Stephen Moore, who advised Trump on economic matters. “It’s a strong rest of the year we’re looking at, which means Biden will be able to take care of it even though it’s mostly the vaccine. The stimulus is the vaccine.”

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.