White House Stimulus Math: Do 70 TV Hits, Ensure Zero Defections

Joe Biden’s White House is targeting key states in an appeal for public support for his $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief bill, an effort aimed at both solidifying crucial votes and test-running what’s set to be an even tougher sales job on his next stimulus package.

Biden and his lieutenants are pitching the giant bill to mayors, governors, state treasurers and tribal leaders, along with workers and the business community. The administration is focusing on roughly 13 key states -- including Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Arizona and Georgia.

The White House has already put senior administration officials on-air with more than 70 local news stations. Biden himself has visited Wisconsin and Michigan -- states he flipped from Donald Trump to win the presidency -- to directly make the case, and he’s headed Friday to Texas, which proved much more competitive last November than in previous elections.

White House Stimulus Math: Do 70 TV Hits, Ensure Zero Defections

Part of the idea is to ensure such broad support for the measure, which spans vaccine funding, unemployment aid, relief checks and money for schools, that all Democrats in the closely divided Senate vote in favor. That will be crucial, as no Republicans have offered support for a bill second only in size to the Cares Act passed in the initial depths of the Covid-19 crisis last March.

“Often, public opinion is in a different place than Congress’s willingness to move on things,” said Ben LaBolt, who served as national press secretary for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and advised the Biden transition team. “You can have grassroots pressure and pressure from local districts and states -- it is critically important, and will be a fixture moving forward.”

White House Stimulus Math: Do 70 TV Hits, Ensure Zero Defections

The Biden team’s outreach showcases continuing pain in a nation with about 10 million people still out of work compared with before the pandemic hit.

The president’s Friday trip to Houston, billed as a review of local efforts to recover from this month’s devastating storm, will serve as a fresh opportunity to make the case for a comprehensive rescue plan that includes $350 billion for state and local governments.

The House is poised to vote on the bill, Biden’s first signature legislation, as soon as Friday, shifting attention to the Senate, where it faces possible tweaks as moderate Democrats exert their influence amid the chamber’s 50-50 partisan split.

While garnering Republican support would make passage much easier, that’s almost certainly not going to happen. Moderate GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine said this week, “I would be surprised if there was support in the Republican caucus if the bill comes out at $1.9 trillion, even if we’re able to make some beneficial changes to the amendment process.”

Republicans point to signs that economic growth is already poised to boom, with retail sales having soared in January. Rising yields on Treasuries, driven in part by expectations of the aid bill’s passage, also risk undermining the administration’s argument that low borrowing costs mean it makes sense to go big on the package. Data on Thursday showing a bigger-than-expected drop in jobless claims added to signs of improvement.

Biden aides, however, are keeping in mind how compromising with Republicans backfired during negotiations on Obama’s stimulus and health-care legislation more than a decade ago. Revisions that were made proved insufficient to get substantial GOP support, and only diluted the initial Democratic approaches.

Next Initiative

White House officials believe their outreach beyond Congress could provide political protection for the president. The thinking is that if he can maintain and grow public backing for the bill, it will help with other priorities.

The president plans in coming weeks to unveil what’s likely to be a multi-trillion dollar economic rebuilding program as his longer-term follow-on to the aid bill. Keeping Democrats unified on that infrastructure, climate change and inequality initiative will be a much harder lift, say Biden allies, lobbyists and strategists.

Republicans are also already girding to oppose the tax increases that are likely to be needed to help pay for the second bill -- underscoring the need for a powerful public relations campaign.

The pandemic itself has deprived Biden and his team of many of the traditional tools used to build both grassroots support and the backing of lawmakers.

Pandemic Handicap

With the White House enforcing coronavirus protocols including social distancing, top officials have had to court lawmakers over the phone and in Zoom meetings. While Biden has made some domestic trips, other top officials haven’t been fanning out across the country to sell Americans on the president’s agenda, as was typical in the past. Key lawmakers aren’t being invited to travel on Air Force One, which provides a rarefied setting to woo votes.

Still, the administration is making efforts. Biden met with 10 Republican senators in the Oval Office after they proposed a much smaller aid bill. The legislative affairs team has met with seven GOP House members and 29 Republican staffers, according to a White House official.

Mayors and governors have been a key part of the outreach, and a source of GOP support. Republican Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami visited the White House earlier this month, and touted the benefits of the relief bill.

“I felt that it was a very bipartisan conversation,” he said. “The president is very interested in having a bipartisan solution.”

Not Amused

At least one component of the campaign might have backfired, however. After Vice President Kamala Harris appeared on West Virgina television stations to build support for the relief bill, the state’s senior senator, Joe Manchin -- a moderate Democrat who has argued for more targeted stimulus checks and opposes Biden’s proposed $15-an-hour minimum wage -- cried foul.

“That’s not a way of working together,” Manchin told WSAZ, one of the stations that hosted Harris.

At the same time, some in the administration think Republican lawmakers are hurting themselves by lining up against the bill.

Mike Donilon, a senior adviser to the president, wrote last week, in a memo obtained by Bloomberg, that the GOP’s stance has been quite damaging to the party, given that a majority of Americans support the Covid-19 relief bill, according to at least eight national polls. Donilon characterized the Republican opposition as politically isolating in his note to White House senior staff.

Some Republicans counter that Biden simply hasn’t done enough to court GOP members, and was too quick to endorse the Democrat-only legislative process congressional leaders are using for the aid bill.

“Seven Republican senators just voted to convict a president of their own party of impeachable offenses -- if you can’t get a single one of those Republicans, you are not trying,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster, referring to Trump’s impeachment trial this month. “They will need Republican support for future initiatives. Why stiff them coming out of the gate?”

The approaching battle over Biden’s second economic program is just one reason the public-relations effort isn’t over. With mid-term congressional elections next year, the White House will need to keep making the case it did the right thing with its giant $1.9 trillion emergency-spending bill, and build credit for the recovery.

“I don’t think the fact that you have got polling indicating American people are supportive of the relief is, in essence, the end of the story,” said John Podesta, former counselor to Obama and the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. “They will really have to sell the fact they are good stewards of the economy, and they are coming behind this with another big package of investment.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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