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Biden got his infrastructure win, but political rewards are less clear

UniqueThis 50 November 7, 2021

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden, just under a year into his presidency, has delivered on a key campaign promise to work across the aisle in order to deliver the largest investment ever in restoring crumbling U.S. roads, bridges and other types of physical infrastructure.

But it's still not clear whether the bill will shore up the sagging political fortunes of president and his party.

Though Biden has not yet signed into law the $555 billion package, passed by the House overnight Friday months after it cleared the Senate with robust bipartisan support, he cast the legislative win as a turning point. The president and top surrogates planned to fan across the country soon to sell the virtues of the bill to voters, said a White House official.

"I truly believe that 50 years from now, folks are gonna look back and say this was the moment, this was the period in this year and the next couple years when Americans decided to win the competition of the 21st century, to get in the game, full bore," Biden said in remarks Saturday morning.

In a preview of the message the president plans to take to voters, he said Saturday that the bill would have a direct impact on people's daily lives by creating union jobs, expanding broadband internet access and helping communities withstand the effects of climate change. The bill also puts money toward clean water initiatives, at a time when studies have shown that millions are exposed to unsafe tap water or lack access to safe water.

But immediate political rewards for Biden and Democrats were less apparent. As Biden worked to get the infrastructure bill and the still-in-the-works $1.75 trillion social safety net package through Congress with slim Democratic majorities, confronting months of legislative logjam, his approval rating tumbled.

Americans are grappling with inflation, supply chain disruptions and a still-ongoing pandemic, and the promise of new bridges and lead pipe replacements in the years to come may not change the public sentiment anytime soon, pollsters and strategists say. Still, the midterm elections, typically a referendum on the party in power, are a year away.

“It does stop the bleeding for the administration, but there's still real work to be done to repair the damage that's been done over the past several months and how Americans overall feel about the president,” said Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster who co-conducts the NBC News poll. “This legislation matters, it’s really important, but the White House is still explaining what this means and trying to break through.”

White House officials blamed Democratic losses in Tuesday’s elections in Virginia — where Republicans won back the governor's mansion and the House of Delegates — on congressional slowness to act on Biden’s agenda. In reliably blue New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy was only narrowly re-elected.

"They want us to deliver," Biden said Saturday of voters. "Last night we proved we can. On one big item, we delivered."

Alongside Biden's plans to hit the road to promote the bill, the White House was looking to deploy cabinet members and senior administration officials to red and blue states, using national and local media coverage to "communicate what is in this plan and what it will mean for the American people," the official said. The White House also planned to specifically target their message to African American and Hispanic voters.

The road show appeared designed to avoid Democratic criticism directed at former President Barack Obama's administration for not effectively promoting the Affordable Care Act or the economic stimulus bill after they passed.

Democratic strategists have said they hope the success of the infrastructure bill, paired with the $1.75 trillion social safety net package Democrats advanced Friday night on a party-line basis, will give their party something to run on next year by showing voters what Democratic lawmakers can offer if they remain in power.

Though Biden has traveled across the country selling his plans, spent hundreds of hours on phone calls and meetings with lawmakers, and put the rest of his legislative agenda on the backburner, the impact of many of the measures in the bills, particularly around infrastructure, won’t become tangible to voters for years.

“They're not going to be felt for God knows how long, it's not like they're going to see it at the grocery store tomorrow or in the gas prices,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies. “It’s a pipe dream to believe that this is going to do anything to the president.”

Biden said some projects could break ground and hire workers in two to three months, but large-scale infrastructure projects can take a year or more of planning, including environmental impact studies, contract bidding, and approval by local governments. Smaller improvements, like new bus stations or refurbished rail cars, could be noticed by the public sooner.

Biden has struggled to get a sustained boost in his poll numbers, even from actions with more immediate apparent impact. Those numbers have declined since July — when the child tax credit included in the American Rescue Plan started being delivered in monthly checks to parents. He also saw little change in his approval rating amid efforts by his administration to vaccinate millions of Americans, with his numbers falling 7 points between April — when most Americans weren't eligible for the vaccine — and July, when 67 percent of adults had gotten at least their first dose.

Newhouse said the issues tackled in the bill are also largely out of line with those Americans are most concerned about.

A survey by Newhouse, along with Democratic pollster Joel Benenson of Benenson Strategy Group, found immigration, the economy, and the pandemic topped the list of issues that needed to be addressed — ahead of prescription drug prices, access to health care and childcare, the areas the social safety net would address.

While infrastructure wasn't high on voters' lists of concerns, a majority of respondents did believe the infrastructure bill should be passed, the survey found. A range of polls have suggested that specific aspects of the bill — such as improving broadband access, expanding mass transit and replacing old water infrastructure — are popular with the overwhelming majority of the public, results to which White House officials repeatedly pointed as they urged members of Congress to back the bill.

Still, Biden’s approval rating has fallen 7 more points since August, with just 42 percent of adults saying they approve of Biden’s overall job as president, according to a NBC News poll released last week. The survey found 40 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, also down 7 points since August, and 51 percent approve of how he’s handled the coronavirus, an area where he had strong support going into his presidency.

More broadly, just 37 percent of adults gave him high marks for being competent and effective as president. By contrast, 50 percent gave him low scores for being competent, and 51 percent gave him low scores for uniting the country.

But with one major bill passed and the other one step closer to becoming a law, the White House still has an opportunity to get the message off process and infighting and on to the content of the bills and the effect they could have, said Horwitt.

“The last thing people want to hear from Washington is deliberation, they want action and they want to know that their life is going to be better,” he said. “And that’s a lot of the frustrations that we’re hearing.”

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