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Is Biden’s legislative agenda popular? Yes, but …

The complicated politics of Democrats’ reconciliation bill.

President Joe Biden sitting at a conference table with a window behind him.
President Joe Biden meeting with corporate executives and members of his Cabinet to discuss the federal debt limit on October 6, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

On the surface, this week’s new poll from Quinnipiac University had good news for Democrats about the big spending bill the party is trying to pass through Congress. Presented with a description of the bill’s $3.5 trillion price tag and some of its priorities, 57 percent of adults polled said they supported it, and only 40 percent were opposed — good numbers for this polarized country.

But that same poll had a more ominous finding for Democrats: A plurality of voters said they wanted Republicans to regain control of the House of Representatives. Just 43 percent of adults surveyed wanted to keep Democrats in charge of the chamber, compared to 46 percent who wanted the GOP to take over.

These are the unusual political dynamics around President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority, known as the Build Back Better Act. People think it sounds good. There’s not much of a backlash. But it doesn’t seem to be the key to Democrats’ future electoral success, either, if many swing voters want to vote for the party that opposes it in the next election.

This may be because many Americans simply don’t yet know what’s in the bill, so the stakes aren’t yet concrete for them. The bill has only recently started to dominate headlines, and the emphasis has often been on Democratic disarray and legislative drama rather than on what the bill proposes to do for people. I’ve written an extensive rundown of what may be included in the bill, and the information is out there for those who seek it out, but these details have often been absent from media coverage.

Another possibility is that there’s a disconnect between the forward-looking ambitions of the Build Back Better Act and the current situation in the country. As Matt Yglesias writes, this bill was largely crafted in a pre-delta-variant world. The administration expected it would be debated when the Covid-19 pandemic was all but defeated domestically and the economy was roaring back. The bill was meant to be a pivot from a successful crisis response to the Democratic coalition’s long-held priorities. But the crisis is largely still here, and voters know it.

How to think about the Build Back Better Act

It’s difficult to place the Build Back Better Act on the ideological spectrum. On the one hand, it spends trillions on progressive priorities, and Sen. Bernie Sanders is a big fan. On the other hand, it’s been carefully designed so it avoids hot-button social issues and doesn’t take anything away from anyone except rich people and corporations. The major beneficiaries include the poor and clean energy industries but also many seniors and parents. It’s a big and significant bill, but not really a radical one.

The bill is essentially a grab bag, combining the top priorities that President Biden campaigned on with those of congressional Democrats — at least, all the priorities that qualify for the Senate’s special filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process. Everything in the bill has to clearly affect the federal budget, so there’s nothing about voting rights, immigration provisions may be dropped, and its provisions are generally about spending money rather than changing regulations.

Still, the current version of the bill tries to tackle a great many things — fighting poverty, combating climate change, expanding health care benefits, helping with child-raising expenses, offering universal pre-K and free community college, housing policy, tax policy, and more. (Moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia may force some of these policies to be cut back or dropped in the final version.)

The pandemic crisis doesn’t necessarily make these issues less important. Indeed, some of them, like burdensome child care expenses and gaps in the safety net, are arguably more urgent. Other problems, like the climate, certainly aren’t just going away. And the bill extends some important measures first passed in the pandemic relief bill, like the expanded child tax credit.

But overall, this is a bill crafted to advance long-held priorities of the Democratic coalition — not, necessarily, one aimed at addressing issues that are top of mind for swing voters, or that will help the party most electorally. A bill like that might be more laser-focused on the pandemic or the economy.

The politics of Obamacare compared to those of Build Back Better

In that, there’s one major similarity to the first-year legislative agenda of President Barack Obama.

Elected in the midst of the Great Recession, Obama spent his first few months dealing with the economic crisis before pivoting to trying to pass his major health reform bill — a longtime Democratic priority.

The problem was that the economic crisis was not yet fixed — the unemployment rate remained stubbornly high. And though he passed the Affordable Care Act, his approval rating dropped, and Democrats were shellacked in the ensuing 2010 midterms.

History could be repeating itself. Currently, the pandemic, the economy, and “poor leadership” are the top problems American adults think are facing the country, according to a recent Gallup poll. Relatively few respondents named climate change, health care, or poverty as their top priority, but those are the top issues tackled in Biden’s bill.

Still, there are major differences with how the debate over the Build Back Better Act has played out so far.

Obamacare polled poorly by this point in 2009; Biden’s bill doesn’t. The intense backlash on the right that ensued over Obamacare has not materialized this time around — Republican politicians are opposing it, but the GOP base seems more energized by culture war issues and the pandemic.

Biden’s bill also hasn’t dominated public and media attention like the many-months-long Obamacare debate. This may be a consequence of crafting a bill that does so many things, but that is also designed to be unobjectionable: It lacks the central story and conflict that media outlets search for when they make programming choices. Often, more dramatic issues like the pandemic and the pullout of troops from Afghanistan have dominated headlines instead. And when the bill does come to the fore, the frame is usually about how Democrats are fighting over it and struggling to reach agreement, not about what the bill would do.

Perhaps, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi once famously said about Obamacare, Democrats have to pass the Build Back Better Act so the public can find what’s in it. That is, once members of the public start getting the benefits from this bill, it will become popular — as happened with Obamacare. That does not mean that this bill will become a vote-winner for Democrats, but it could ensure achievements stand the test of time or make it more likely that Republicans shy away from repealing it once they retake power.

Moderate Democrats, though, might point to the lack of evidence that the Build Back Better Act is helping the party electorally and suggest cutting it back or dropping it. That perhaps the party should just pass the infrastructure bill that has already won bipartisan Senate support through the House instead.

But that doesn’t necessarily follow. The lowest President Trump’s approval ever dropped was in December 2017, when it looked like congressional Republicans were about to botch tax reform and make his presidency a total failure. Even hardcore Republicans started to get fed up at that point. But the GOP soon got it together and passed its tax bill. Trump’s popularity rebounded a bit and never returned to that previous low point, even after his attempt to overturn the election result. Looking like a loser can be a political problem of its own.

The reality for Democrats is that the 2022 elections will be tremendously difficult regardless of whether this bill passes or fails. A new president’s party very often loses House seats in the midterms, and Democratic majorities in both chambers are very narrow. The reconciliation bill may not save them, but losing it could well sink them.