Joe Biden Faces His Next Challenge on the Infrastructure Bill: Making Voters Care

The President was in late. It was one of Joe Biden’s first chances since his enormous bipartisan infrastructure bill passed Congress to beam directly into living rooms in Kentucky and Ohio and describe how it will will change daily commutes, water quality and Internet access for Americans at home.

Biden appeared on the TV screen Monday night, while he was stripping off his mask from an earlier meeting. Kyle Inskeep is a Local 12 WKRCTV-TV.Instantly, we were asked to clarify the meaning of the bill regarding the Brent Spence Bridge. It has long been an obstruction for traffic that crosses the Ohio River between these two states.
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It was exactly the kind of question Biden’s advisors know Americans have questions. Biden raised his fist. “We can get it done now,” he said. Biden talked about the impact of billions upon millions in infrastructure and bridge investments, new water pipes, broadband and electric school bus funding on the Cincinnati region. The interview ended after seven minutes. “I’m sorry to be late,” Biden said. “I hope I can see you again. I apologize for—little foreign policy issues—I apologize.”

White House staffers like to claim that President Biden is capable of tackling multiple problems at once. But it’s proved challenging. When asked by TIME, White House officials wouldn’t explain what “little” foreign policy problems Biden was facing Monday night that caused him to compress his television sales pitch on one of his biggest legislative wins to date. For months, Biden’s struggled to find the time to explain clearly what he’s accomplished, and get credit for it with those who elected him.

There is a compelling case for him to present. His Administration was responsible for a significant increase in vaccines, a decrease in COVID-19, and historic job growth. It also helped to pass $1.9 trillion worth of pandemic relief and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But those successes have been drowned out by internal squabbling among Democrats over passing the infrastructure bill and a companion social spending bill that remains stalled, the fallout from Biden’s chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal over the summer, and his Administration’s inability to curb rising prices or ease the supply chain pressure caused by increasing consumer demand for goods as the economy reopens from the pandemic shutdowns. By mid-November, Biden’s approval ratings numbers hovered near their lowest point in the low 40s.

White House officials as well as Democratic strategists believe Biden suffers from perception gaps. With the midterm elections a year away—and control of the House and Senate hanging in the balance— they believe Biden needs to spend the next several months visiting other parts of the country and talking about local benefits that the bipartisan infrastructure bill will bring. He took a soft approach with lawmakers during the negotiations over the bill, but now experts say it’s time for him to make a sharper pitch to Americans about the results.

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While the broad elements of the infrastructure bills are popular, “the contents of them are not widely known,” says Ben LaBolt, who was the national press secretary for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Democrats would benefit from diverting money currently set aside for advertising in electoral races and spending it on explaining what the infrastructure spending will do to “persuadable voters in key states,” LaBolt says. “Little will matter more to next year’s midterm election results than that.”

Biden appears to have already started following that advice. On Wednesday, Biden visited Baltimore to show support for the $17Billion in the bill that will improve coast ports, inland ports and waterways. Biden Administration will also use funds to accelerate customs inspections at ports in order to reduce supply chain delay backlogs. Biden has asked Los Angeles ports to make use of funding in order to keep them open 24 hours a day and to accelerate offloading ships. The White House has pushed for funding from the infrastructure bill for the Savannah Port to be used for improvements and for the construction of five temporary storage yards in North Carolina and Georgia to speed up the ship offloading at port terminals.

The White House will also send several Cabinet Secretaries to the United States, such as Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, in order to promote the plan. Biden will be holding a Cabinet meeting to discuss the bill’s implementation and impact.

Biden will sign Monday’s bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The White House expects this to be a demonstration of unity that brings together Republicans who voted in favor of the bill. Biden could then turn his attention towards a larger social spending package to expand child care, fund health, and fight climate change. Congress might vote next week.

However, the White House has begun to take aim at other Republicans for not supporting the passage of bipartisan legislation on infrastructure. (The bill received support from 13 Republicans and 19 senators. “Our contrasting message is that ‘the Republicans didn’t support any of this, just to protect the wealthy and corporations,’” says John Anzalone, a Democratic strategist who advised Biden’s campaign. That “is in itself maybe the best contrasting message we’ve had in a generation.”

Biden, in his interview Monday night to Cincinnati viewers acknowledged that it is difficult to convince Americans of the merits of his policies. “Even though we’ve created almost 6 million jobs since I came into office, we’re in a situation where people, they don’t feel it right now,” he said. “They don’t feel it.”

The next several months will be a test of Biden’s policies—and his sales pitch—to see if he can change that.


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