This August, Democrats are returning home with a much more focused message. On Tuesday, three Democratic political committees unveiled a plan for how to sell President Biden’s agenda to their constituents, with just three bullet points: middle-class tax cuts; an infrastructure plan to create jobs; and lower health-care costs.
Democratic pollsters tested 150 different messages near the end of July with voters in six battleground states, finding that one theme stood out as the overwhelming winner with voters: “Cutting taxes for middle class families, creating jobs by investing in infrastructure like roads, bridges and high speed Internet, and cutting your health care costs. No one making under $400,000 will pay more taxes.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has demanded that Democrats hold events in their districts touting the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, signed into law in March, with a heavy focus on a new child tax credit that gives families up to $300 a month per child.
“Our message simply said, ‘It was for the people. Lower health-care costs, bigger paychecks, cleaner government,’ ” Pelosi said Friday at her weekly news conference, recalling the 2020 campaign themes and signaling how Democrats intend to approach next year’s midterm elections.
All this as Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is on the verge of securing passage of a more than $1 trillion infrastructure plan, with a sizable pocket of Republican support, that would create public works jobs across the nation.
Yet there are troubling signs on the political horizon that have some Democrats worried about a repeat of 2009-2010, when the party lost the House and narrowly hung on to the Senate, because voters are not giving Biden and his congressional allies credit for the economic rebound.
According to a CNBC poll released Tuesday, just 42 percent of voters approve of the president’s handling of the economy, down from 46 percent earlier this year, and his handling of the pandemic has had a corresponding drop: 53 percent of voters support his coronavirus work, down from 62 percent.
In late July, the Gallup poll showed Biden’s overall job performance falling slightly among Democrats, but down seven percentage points among independents, to 48 percent.
“Midterm elections are about keeping Democratic voters energized and not angering independents,” said Rahm Emanuel, who was White House chief of staff 12 years ago.
After pushing through an $800 billion stimulus bill in 2009, Democrats turned their focus to a nearly year-long slog to pass the Affordable Care Act, a health law that many centrist voters did not feel met their needs at a time when the unemployment rate hovered around 10 percent. Similarly, in 1993, the Clinton White House put a huge amount of political capital into a national health law proposal that never passed Congress, at a time when the economy was still lagging in job production and wage growth.
After pushing the 2009 stimulus bill into law, President Barack Obama’s advisers split on whether he should focus on the health law. Emanuel wanted to turn quickly to an overhaul of Wall Street laws, with congressional hearings pillorying rich bankers who had sunk the economy with bad trades.
David Axelrod, a senior adviser, also warned Obama about losing his focus on the economic recovery.
“We’re doing everything we can do on the economy,” Obama said to his advisers, according to his recollection in his first presidential memoir, “A Promised Land.”
“I know that, Mr. President,” Emanuel said. “But the American people don’t know that.”
“We all think we should try,” Axelrod told Obama about the ACA effort. “You just need to know that, if we lose, your presidency will be badly weakened.”
Democrats pushed ahead that summer of 2009 on a very long effort to get the ACA through the House and Senate.
When they went home for the long August recess in 2009, armed with their 12-point plan to promote the health proposal, Democrats were overrun by angry voters furious about the economy, as Republicans accused Obama of trying to take over the health-care industry.
The anti-government tea party movement turned town hall meetings into shouting matches. With an incredible effort by Pelosi, Obama signed the health legislation into law in March 2010, but Democrats never did a sufficient job of connecting the proposal to the economic recovery.
Up against Republican candidates promising to cut taxes, Democrats never bothered to tell voters that more than a third of the $800 billion Recovery Act’s cost went to lowering tax bills.
In November, Democrats lost 63 seats in the House, ceding a majority they would not reclaim for eight years, while barely hanging on to the Senate majority and getting wiped out in many other down-ballot races.
Democratic strategists are furiously trying to avoid repeating that politically toxic mix of mishaps this time around. That’s a big reason Democrats want to forcefully brand the child credit as a tax cut.
“Every Republican voted against these tax cuts for American families,” the Democratic campaign committees wrote in their recess memo.
One big difference between August 2009 and August 2021 is that there is no big anti-Biden movement growing in a fashion similar to how the tea party sprouted in its opposition to Obama, the country’s first Black president. Additionally, at this stage of 2017, liberals had an energized movement against Donald Trump’s presidency that grew from rallies into well-financed candidates who narrowly lost special House elections in heavily Republican terrain, foreshadowing the 2018 midterm landslide that gave the speaker’s gavel back to Pelosi.
Biden retains strong approval ratings with liberal Democrats, despite his moderate image, as demonstrated by Tuesday’s victory of the candidate more aligned with Biden in a House special-election primary.
As a nod to House liberals, Pelosi reiterated Friday her plan to hold off on the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure plan until Schumer sends over the $3.5 trillion budget plan with spending for education, child care and climate change that he will need to pass with only Democratic votes. That budget outline is so ambitious that it could take several more months to pull it together, leaving the infrastructure bill hanging in limbo.
Some Democrats wonder if Pelosi will be able to hold on that long to what will be a significant victory for Biden, particularly if the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread and force new restrictions on economic activity.
But Pelosi is adamant. “All of these things are urgent, and we’re going to get them done together,” she said.