The Battle Over Democrats’ COVID-19 Relief Bill Is Just Beginning

The White House is ready for the fight, drawing lessons from Republicans’ successful campaign against the 2009 stimulus.

Democrats had just passed a law spending unprecedented amounts of government money to help Americans going through an equally unprecedented crisis. Republicans almostly unanimously opposed the legislation, but opinion surveys showed a strong majority of the public had favorable views of the plan.

The year was 2009, and things did not end well for the Democratic Party. The stimulus legislation grew steadily less popular over time as job growth sputtered. The midterm election a year later would wipe out their massive House majority, and usher in a wave of austerity that further hampered the country’s economic comeback.

This time, Democrats insist, will be different. The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, dubbed the “American Rescue Plan,” provides far more direct relief to Americans than the 2009 legislation. The White House, full of veterans of President Barack Obama’s administration, and Democratic outside groups are preparing to wage an extended political battle to make sure voters appreciate the aid they’re receiving.

“We’re eyes wide open to the fact that when it’s signed, we can’t just cease our communication efforts,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who helped lead communications efforts around the stimulus bill, told HuffPost in an interview. “I think it’ll be different than what we did with the [2009 stimulus].”

President Joe Biden is set to begin his own victory lap this week, first by signing the law in a ceremony on Thursday and then by delivering a prime-time speech on the anniversary of the nation’s COVID-19 shutdown. The White House is already promising Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and both of their spouses will hit the road to sell the plan nationally.

President Joe Biden speaks from the White House following the passage of the American Rescue Plan in the Senate on March 6. T
President Joe Biden speaks from the White House following the passage of the American Rescue Plan in the Senate on March 6. The bill passed the House on Wednesday and is expected to be signed by Biden on Thursday.

“We didn’t adequately explain what we had done,” Biden said during a conversation with House Democrats last week, reflecting on the passage of the 2009 law. “Barack was so modest, he didn’t want to take, as he said, a ‘victory lap.’ I kept saying, ‘Tell people what we did.’ He said, ‘We don’t have time. I’m not going to take a victory lap.’ And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility.”

Washington Republicans, meanwhile, predict a replay. They argue the legislation’s popularity will drop as voters are exposed to less popular aspects of the law, and suggest it won’t serve as the economic rocket ship Democrats are expecting.

The outcome of the fight won’t be determined solely by messaging: American families will determine if the $1,400 checks and expanded child tax credit included in the plan will help them or not; the schools Biden is promising will soon open will either begin allowing students to return or keep their doors shut; the inflation Republicans predict will either arrive or it won’t.

The battle over the soon-to-be law, however, could determine the political future for both parties. Democrats are all but certain to lose ground in Congress in a 2022 midterm, but limiting those losses could give Biden additional opportunities to push progressive policies. Republicans, meanwhile, need to pin down an anti-Biden message and see if fiscal conservatism resonates with their base and the broader electorate the same way it did a decade ago.

What Happened In 2009

The 2009 stimulus law started popular: A CNN poll conducted shortly before its passage found 54% of Americans supported the law, with 45% in opposition. But unemployment remained high ― it was 9.8% when voters went to the polls in November 2010 ― and Republicans ridiculed it as a waste of money, pointing to infrastructure projects that created few jobs and ridiculous-sounding scientific research it funded.

“People were led to expect an immediate and overwhelming impact of that legislation, and that as the recovery dragged on with year after year of very slow employment growth, the popularity of the bill just plummeted,” said Michael Steel, a Republican operative who worked as a spokesperson for then-House Minority Leader John Boehner at the time.

At the same time, the White House largely moved on to other things after passing the stimulus legislation. The conversation in Congress turned to the health care reform effort that would eventually become Obamacare. And while economists broadly came to realize that even the then-unprecedented $787 billion stimulus law wasn’t enough to jump-start the economy, unified Republican opposition and defections from conservative Democrats prevented the White House from passing a second piece of legislation aimed at creating jobs.

Steel noted that Biden’s assignment of implementing the Recovery Act was an implicit admission that job creation wasn’t Obama’s top focus.

“The most potent symbol of how they pivoted away from jobs was that they put then-Vice President Joe Biden in charge of it,” he said.

Democrats say they won’t make the same mistake again. While its legislative path remains uncertain, the White House is aiming to pass legislation built around Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan ― which could make some of the tax credits and health care subsidies included in Rescue Act permanent, and also include billions in infrastructure spending ― sometime this spring or summer.

In the end, exit polls found 89% of 2010 midterm voters said the economy was in bad shape, and 41% said their family’s financial situation was worse than it had been two years ago, compared to just 14% who said their financial situation had improved. Republicans gained six seats in the Senate and took control of the House, picking up a whopping 63 seats.

What’s Different This Time

Let’s start with one big difference: The American Rescue Plan is starting off a lot more popular than the 2009 stimulus. A CNN poll released Wednesday found 61% of Americans support the plan, including 58% of independents and 26% of Republicans. Only 37% of Americans were firmly opposed to the legislation. Other polls, including one from the Pew Research Center, have found even higher levels of support.

Even as some Democratic operatives privately concede Republican voters are likely to unite against the bill in the not-so-distant future, they have both messaging and policy reasons to be confident the bill will remain broadly popular.

“I think people are going to be very pleasantly surprised when they see the child tax credit and the fact that they will be getting essentially bonus checks to support their family based on how many children they have,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost. “So I think really aggressively messaging the specific tangible aspects of this bill that everyday people can see and feel is what’s most important.”

In comparison to the 2009 law, which contained a relatively paltry $25 boost to weekly unemployment checks, the COVID-19 relief bill offers a $300-a-week boost, along with $1,400 checks for most Americans and an expanded child tax credit that should regularly funnel money to poor and working class families soon.

The direct aid, along with additional funding to reopen schools and speed up vaccine distribution, is meant to quickly help Americans regardless of their employment status, while the stimulus’s extensive funding for state governments and spending on infrastructure projects was explicitly intended to create jobs.

“I just think there’s a higher, higher level of awareness of how multiple things in this bill can impact their lives,” said John Anzalone, who polled for Biden’s presidential campaign. “They’re going to remember how this sped up distribution of the vaccine and expedited getting kids back in school.”

Psaki said the White House will work to explain the provisions to Americans in the jargon-free way Biden prefers.

“Like stimulus ― what does that even mean to people?” Psaki said, reflecting on how Democrats sold the 2009 bill.

Other Democrats noted the stimulus was passed before the rise of super PACs and other well-funded outside groups with the capacity to spend millions promoting a law. Both House and Senate Democrats have affiliated nonprofits that can promote the Rescue Act in key states and districts, and Build Back Together ― a nonprofit aiming to boost Biden’s agenda ― is expected to come online soon.

The Lines Of Attack

Already, both sides are preparing their arguments. Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies, predicted the legislation would get less popular over time as the public learned more about its non-COVID-19 provisions.

“What Republicans have to do is turn it into midnight basketball,” he said, referring to a program Republicans attacked as frivolous in 1990s crime legislation. “You have to say you support the bits of this that go to COVID relief, but detail the pork that’s in there.” (In 2010, Republicans attacked a stimulus-funded study that tested how monkeys reacted to cocaine.)

Republicans have tried highlighting some specific projects ― they attacked a bridge in upstate New York and funding for a subway system in California as pet projects for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) before both items were stripped from the bill for parliamentary reasons ― but have generally made broader critiques, often arguing that only 9% of the bill’s spending goes toward COVID-19 relief. (That charge is overstated at best, since $1,400 checks make up more than one-fifth of the bill’s total spending.)

“This is by far one of the worst pieces of legislation I’ve seen in the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday. “The American people need to learn more about what’s in it.”

While Republicans won back the House in 2010 with a message focused, at least in part, on outrage over wasteful government spending, it’s unclear if that message will work as well with the party’s culture war-focused Trump-era coalition, which includes more voters without a college degree. (The Pew survey found lower-income Republicans were more likely to support the Rescue Act then their wealthier counterparts were.)

For instance, as the law steamed toward final passage on Wednesday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee ― which is partially under McConnell’s control ― pressured Democratic Senate candidates on whether transgender women should be eligible to play sports, not on whether they supported the COVID-19 relief bill.

The White House, meanwhile, began planning travel. Biden is set to visit Pennsylvania next week to sell the bill, while Vice President Harris will travel to Colorado. Over the next 10 days, the White House plans to highlight different key aspects of the bill, including halving child poverty and boosting rural health care.

“That will be the distillation of our message to the American people in the coming weeks, that help is here for them and their families,” Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, the White House deputy chief of staff who served as Biden’s campaign manager, wrote in a memo to staffers. “And we’re going to carry that message to every corner of our country through travel, local press, and direct engagement in communities with the President, the Vice President, the first lady, the Second Gentleman, Cabinet members, and top officials from throughout the administration.”

And Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC, launched the first ads of a multimillion-dollar campaign to promote “the Biden-Harris-Democratic agenda.” The digital ads, running in the swing states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, contrast the GOP support for the Trump-era tax cuts with the party’s unified opposition to the COVID-19 relief bill.

“Thanks to President Biden and Democrats, help is on the way,” a narrator declares in the ad.