Joe Biden is about to test the politics of going big

April 28, 2021 Vox

The Biden administration’s theory of policy so far is to go big. The same goes for its politics.

Taken together, President Joe Biden’s $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan and newly introduced $1.8 trillion American Families Plan come out to slightly over $4 trillion in proposed new spending. It’s an enormous investment in American job creation; the last bipartisan infrastructure bill Congress passed in 2015 clocked in at about $305 billion — about one-thirteenth the size of Biden’s proposed plan. And Obama’s $800 billion stimulus plan of 2009 was about one-fifth of Biden’s plan, not even taking into account the $1.9 trillion in Covid-19 relief that has already been signed into law.

That sheer amount of proposed federal funding is meant to do a lot of things, but the main goal is to get as many jobs to as many people in as many voter constituencies as possible. Under Biden’s plan, infrastructure no longer calls to mind images of white men in hard hats; it includes working mothers, home health aides who care for the nation’s elderly, and workers of color across the nation. Women and people of color were crucial to Biden’s presidential win, and they are also crucial elements in his jobs plan.

“We talk about the working middle class as white men in pickup trucks in Ohio, but they’re really Black and brown workers that are keeping our economy afloat,” said longtime Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha, who is advising the pro-Biden outside group Building Back Together on outreach to Latino voters.

Republicans are making a bet that the sheer size of Biden’s collective “Build Back Better” agenda could be a problem for him, and that voters will be turned off by trillions of dollars in new spending. Congressional Republicans have pitched a package that’s about a quarter of the size of Biden’s American Jobs Plan. Meanwhile, prominent progressives including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) want Biden to go as big as $10 trillion in infrastructure spending over the next decade.

But the White House and Democrats are already building a public case that infrastructure accounts for a lot more than roads and bridges. They seem to have had success so far; numerous pollsters Vox interviewed said “infrastructure” is a nebulous concept to many voters.

“What people don’t realize is that the majority of voters don’t know what infrastructure is to begin with,” said veteran Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who advised and polled for Biden’s presidential campaign. “The caregiving situation is as critical as the road you drive on to get to work. The Covid experience has really brought that home.”

“Jobs,” on the other hand, is a term that voters understand well. And Biden’s massive plan — funded by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations — is jobs creation on steroids.

Democrats are arguing infrastructure is more than transportation

Historically, the word infrastructure has called to mind very male-dominated jobs: Construction, manufacturing, and maintenance, getting shovels in the ground. Indeed, just 10 percent of construction jobs are held by women.

Multiple experts told Vox that if roads and bridges are the physical infrastructure Americans need to get to work, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare a long-existing reality about the lack of “human infrastructure” in the US. Often, affordable child care or elder care makes all the difference as to whether women with care obligations are able to work at all.

“Without a robust care infrastructure, we’re essentially choosing to bench half our labor market,” Rakeen Mabud, managing director of policy and research and chief economist at Groundwork Collaborative, told Vox. “The fact we’re even having a debate of whether or not care is infrastructure … is so deeply rooted in racialized and gendered deservingness.”

Biden’s American Jobs Plan contains $400 billion specifically to lower the costs of long-term care for elderly and disabled patients, keeping them in their homes. But it also aims to raise the low wages of home heath aides and caregivers themselves, who are predominantly Black and brown women.

“Receiving the respect, recognition and compensation they are due is not only essential and necessary, but it is just the beginning of what we must do to address the long history of racial exclusion that this workforce has faced,” Ai-jen Poo, the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told Vox.

The Biden administration also employs a number of progressive economists who have spent their careers focusing on how to make the US economy more equal for women and workers of color. Mabud’s argument is echoed within the administration by people like Janelle Jones, who formerly led policy and research at Groundwork Collaborative and is now the chief economist for the US Department of Labor.

“I think the pandemic and this recession have shown that … an economy built on the structural flaws of racism and inequality is less stable for everyone,” Jones said during a recent interview with NPR. “It really has shown that when we have an economy that is just the rich getting richer and everyone else doing worse off — we’re all worse off.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has made this situation acute. Data shows that women and workers of color were forced out of the labor market, owing to lower-wage jobs being more likely to be cut during the pandemic, and women being unable to work while also providing at-home school and care for their children.

This makes good policy sense for Biden, but it’s also good political sense. Biden’s base is diverse; his presidential win and Democrats’ surprise wins in Georgia were powered by women and voters of color alike. Appealing to a large base that government policy has left behind for decades is a shrewd political move ahead of the 2022 midterms.

It’s also responding to the current moment. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 25 percent of women and 27 percent of workers of color said their family’s financial situation is worse off today than it was before March 2020, when pandemic shutdowns went into effect. The survey also found that middle-aged and younger women were impacted more, with 29 percent of women younger than 65 saying they are financially worse off today, compared to 10 percent of women who are 65 and older.

As the New York Times’s David Leonhardt writes, recent US census data showed the US birth rate grew by just 7.4 percent over the last decade, the smallest increase since the Depression-era 1930s. One of the big reasons could be the high cost of raising children, coupled with relatively modest income increases in the US that often aren’t enough to compete with rising costs.

“The decline in the birthrate, in other words, is partly a reflection of American society’s failure to support families,” Leonhardt wrote. Biden’s American Families Plan is a bid to fix that.

Finally, while the current unemployment rate is hovering around 6 percent, it’s a different scenario for workers of color in the United States. Unemployment for Black workers is 9.6 percent, while unemployment for Latino workers is around 7.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And top economic officials including Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell say this is likely an undercount; workers who dropped out of the workforce altogether to school their children at home wouldn’t necessarily be captured by these statistics because they are not actively looking for work. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was unequal, and the US recovery continues to be.

“We’re not just coming out of a crisis, we’re rebuilding from decades of disinvestment,” said Mabud. “We know women have been hit hardest in this crisis, and Black and Latinx women in particular. We can’t stop until we see a full recovery and then some for women.”

The public is receptive to Biden’s large proposals

A range of polling shows that Biden’s expansive view of what counts as infrastructure has fairly broad support among the American public.

A recent NBC News poll found that 59 percent of respondents supported Biden’s American Jobs Plan. A recent Vox and Data for Progress poll found that 68 percent of likely voters support the plan. And a Monmouth University poll released Monday found 68 percent of respondents supported Biden’s infrastructure bill, with another 64 percent supportive of the ideas in Biden’s American Families Plan, which aims to make child care, higher education, and health care more affordable.

As Republicans and Democrats argue over the semantics of what constitutes “infrastructure,” Monmouth polling director Patrick Murray told Vox that Biden’s broad brush does not appear to be turning off voters so far.

For instance, Vox and Data for Progress polling found that a majority of likely voters of all parties supported Biden’s proposal of putting $400 billion into bringing down the costs of long-term care: 88 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents, and 55 percent of Republicans support the idea. And recent polling from Politico and Morning Consult shows that a large majority of Black voters support Biden’s pledge to increase housing options for low-income Americans; 80 percent of Black voters support that measure, and 58 percent “strongly” support it.

In other words, voters seem to care more about things that directly impact their lives than they do about whether these things meet a strict definition of “infrastructure.”

“[Biden] understood that just a straightforward infrastructure plan on roads and bridges was not going to sell as well as a broader plan where people could see a potential benefit coming directly to them,” Murray told Vox. “He knows he’s not going to get support from Republicans on this; certainly not on the Hill. But he might try to build Republican support in the public once these things start rolling out.”

Murray noted that though support for Biden’s plan is split along party lines, about one-third of Republicans support his plans, which is not extremely low. The pollster also cautioned that the problem that former President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden encountered with the 2009 stimulus bill was too small. Their initial plan polled well, but that changed after it was watered down to appease congressional Republicans.

“By the end of 2009, it tanked in public opinion,” Murray said. “What the public was asking at that point was, ‘What’s in it for me?’” The Biden administration appears to have absorbed this important lesson of the Obama era.

Both Murray and Cameron Easley, senior editor at Morning Consult, noted that Biden’s plan goes up in popularity when poll respondents are told it will be paid for with higher taxes on corporations and America’s wealthy. Easley told Vox that “pay-for” seems more popular among voters than deficit spending, where the government continues to borrow rather than pay for its plans outright. The popularity of raising corporate taxes also complicates congressional Republican opposition to the plan.

Easley said the public would “much rather fund it by hiking taxes on corporations or the rich than they would by deficit spending.”

Trying to define infrastructure as roads and bridges could be a problem for Republicans

Republicans struggled to effectively attack Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill in large part because the bill — which included $1,400 stimulus checks — was popular with their constituents.

Now, “it seems Republicans have had trouble finding an effective message on infrastructure like they have had finding an effective message on Covid relief,” Easley told Vox.

So far, the main Republican attack on Biden’s American Jobs Plan is that it takes too expansive a view of infrastructure, which Republicans more narrowly define as conventional transportation infrastructure, along with broadband access. Last week, Senate Republicans unveiled a $568 billion counteroffer, which they see as the starting point of their negotiations with the White House.

“What do people think of in our states when they think of infrastructure? Roads and bridges; public transit systems; rail — which could be cargo, passenger rail; water and wastewater …ports and inland waterways; airports; broadband,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said at a press conference.

The Monmouth University poll found that a majority of voters equally favor Biden’s plan to spend heavily on infrastructure and his plan to spend on child care, health care, and education; 54 percent said both plans were equally important, compared to 19 percent who said infrastructure was more important and 21 percent who said a plan to extend health care and child care was more important.

Rocha, the political strategist focusing on outreach to Latinos, says he’s advising Democrats to scrap the word “infrastructure” and focus with laser-like intensity on jobs.

“When talking to voters, you should always use the word ‘jobs,’” Rocha said. “Infrastructure is just something that sits out there that people don’t understand. What I am advising all Democrats is to talk about American jobs.”

Ultimately, some Democrats anticipate the most effective Republican attack may be about the overall price tag of Biden’s cumulative plans. The nearly $4 trillion in proposed spending, plus the $1.8 trillion already out the door, will likely be featured in GOP attack ads.

“Where we have to win in the debate is the pay-for,” said Democratic strategist Molly Murphy. “Republicans are basically just going to say it’s a lie, there’s no way to pay for this without raising middle-class taxes, you’ll just pay for it. They will talk about how expensive this is the whole way through.”

But Murphy noted Republicans will also have to navigate the fact that paying for these plans by raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy — the thing they dislike the most — is also popular with voters.

“Right now, Americans believe this can be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy, which they support,” Murphy said. “We need to keep it that way.”

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