Getting The Media Beyond The Number

[ Posted Tuesday, October 5th, 2021 – 14:33 UTC ]

President Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party have so far not had much notable success in getting their real message out on the "Build Back Better" budget reconciliation bill. This isn't entirely Biden's fault, of course, since a lot of the blame falls on the media as well. And the Democrats who truly want to see this historic legislation pass are also hamstrung by two realities -- the bill doesn't really exist yet, and the media has kept a singular focus on the overall amount of new spending the bill will contain.

That last one is the toughest one to overcome, but thankfully it should disappear once some sort of compromise figure is actually agreed to by the two Senate holdouts. The negotiation over this number is currently all the political press wants to focus on, and so we hear updates about Biden's bid of a range from $1.9 trillion to either $2.2 or $2.3 trillion (reports differ). Progressives, who already came down from their original $6 trillion to only $3.5 trillion, have counteroffered between $2.5 trillion and $2.9 trillion. The only safe bet at this point is that the final number will likely begin with a two.

But this negotiation is completely flooding the media's bandwidth, which means none of the pundits are really talking much at all about all the good things the bill might accomplish. Part of this problem is the vast scope of what Biden and the reasonable Democrats are trying to include. There isn't just one big idea, as there was with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"); there are instead a whole passel of big ideas -- tuition-free community college, free preschool, adding vision, dental, and hearing coverage to Medicare, fighting climate change, and a whole bunch of others. Each, on its own, would be hailed as historic. But taken together, it's a little overwhelming. Which is one possible valid reason why the political reporters don't even want to dive into the details -- at least, yet.

However, this is not completely the fault of the media. Because the two recalcitrant Senate Democrats have not agreed on a lot of these policy proposals, nobody really knows which will make it into the final bill and which will wind up on the cutting room floor. Why spend time covering a program that doesn't make the final cut?

Both Biden and the progressives have been doing their best to change this dynamic. They have mostly refused to engage in the numbers game the media insists on playing, instead returning the focus again and again to the programs themselves. "What would you cut? Which of these programs is not worthy?" they ask.

So far, Senator Joe Manchin hasn't been exactly eager to come out and say which programs he would axe. Instead, he's operating on the margins, trying to limit all the programs from going to people who either make too much money or not enough. He wants to means-test everything, and at a fairly low level (the most recent report was he doesn't want benefits to go to anyone making over $50,000). He also wants work requirements, which would severely limit the already-existing child tax credit program that is now sending $300 checks to parents on a monthly basis. But the only real ideological objection I've heard from Manchin is on the subject of coal and other fossil fuels. He doesn't want to "punish" the fossil fuel industry in any way, which makes sense since he personally profits from it (he is, in essence, his own lobbyist on the issue).

As for Senator Kyrsten Sinema, well, who knows what she wants? Other than (of course) a massive amount of ego-boosting attention. "Look at me!" seems to be her only guiding light in these negotiations.

Sooner or later, though, some sort of agreement will (hopefully) be struck. A number will be agreed to by the two holdout senators, and then the negotiations can begin in earnest. At that point, different agenda items will compete with each other for the agreed-upon amount of money. Some will be slightly scaled back, some will be drastically scaled back, and some will be left by the legislative wayside. But once the final number is agreed upon, the media will have nothing else to focus on but these negotiations.

This is the point where finally (finally!) the American people will begin hearing about the entire Build Back Better agenda. When it is one program versus another, it will be virtually impossible to talk about the negotiations without describing the programs being bargained over.

This will be the point when what Biden and the progressives have been talking about will break through. To his credit, Biden is giving a speech in Michigan today on the specifics of what the bill wants to accomplish. He's trying, but until the haggling over the number is finalized he's not going to effectively get his message out.

Democrats really need this conversation to shift. Each individual piece of the bill already polls extraordinarily well with the public. So the "sales job" is going to be an easy one -- the public is largely already on board. Hearing more about the details of each program will likely only increase support. Republicans are going to be left trying to demonize allowing seniors on Medicare to get new glasses or a new hearing aid. That is going to be a tough sell, to put it mildly. They can scream "Socialism!" or even (as some Republicans have moved on to) "Marxism!" or "Communism!" to their heart's content, but it's doubtful that many average American families are going to equate getting tuition-free community college or two years of free preschool with either Marx or Lenin.

This is why reaching an agreement on the number the media is currently obsessing over is critical, and really needs to happen as soon as possible. Because it will put that particular subject to rest, and the conversation can then move on to the actual substance of what Biden and the Democrats are trying to accomplish. Right now, the focus is centered on "confusion and disarray!" which is always a fun ride for the media to send us all on, at least as far as Democrats are concerned. But once we get over that hurdle, there will really be nothing left to talk about but what is in the bill itself. And this will be the crucial turning point in the public debate.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


19 Comments on “Getting The Media Beyond The Number”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    I'm none too happy that the Progressives are softening. It started at $6T, after all.

    I'm a huge proponent of not slashing a single program and simply scaling back the number of years that are funded. Let's say the magic number turns out to be $2.8T. That's 80% of $3.5T, so just put an eight year sunset on it. Or five years or whatever, just so long as each program is fully funded at $3.5T levels. Make it bold and transformative and the Repugs won't be able to take it away.

    Democrats can even claim that although fully funded by tax increases on the rich and corporations "out of respect for fiscal concerns they're shortening the program length to allow for a revaluation of these programs, when that time comes"

    here's no way the

  2. [2] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    Good point, more or less, that one reason there's been so little media coverage of the benefits of the soft-infrastructure bill is that it's not yet clear which elements of the portfolio are actually still going to be in the bill when the sausages finally come out of the machine and go on sale at the meat counter. I've been pretty angry about this, and I admit I hadn't thought of your explanation, which makes moderate sense.

    On the other hand, more discussion of the plain and popular benefits of the various sub-sections would seem to have been a good way to maintain pressure on the more conservative members and/or the two senators. And yes, the Dems are notoriously bad at selling the benefits of government programs that benefit most Americans.

    Another aspect of the story, which got just a little coverage in the NY Times today, is the incredible offensive push by lobbyists for corporate and/or wealthy America to beat this bill down, due to its relative downsides for them. This kind of thing doesn't take place in public, for obvious reasons, and it takes pretty dedicated reporters with a real nose for the money to bring out to the public just how hard some wealthy and resourceful agencies are fighting to defeat the soft-infrastructure bill in committee, before it emerges from the afore-mentioned greasy machine.

    It would be nice to think that the professional American media could see an upside to dedicated if difficult reporting about how lobbyists and influence-peddlers work to defeat popular and much-needed legislation on a regular basis. But if it ain't either sexy or really easy to explain, it doesn't get covered. That's the way it is.

    Nice piece today, thanks.

  3. [3] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    And I still say to Senate Democrats,

    Don't try to raise the debt limit via Reconciliation. Instead, March right up to the edge of the abyss and dare the Repugs to continue their Filibuster. Even better, if #MoscowMitch plays Chicken right up to impact, dare Manchin to not abolish the Filibuster.

    We Progs have been waiting for legislation like this since before Gore lost. This time it's somebody else's turn to fold. A pox on both Clinton's, a pox on Obama and a pox on DINOs everywhere.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Caddy [1],

    Very well reasoned - makes perfect sense to me.

  5. [5] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    I had you in mind when I chose the word"pox" instead of the f-bomb.

  6. [6] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Re "All the elements (of Biden's economic program) of which public polling indicates overwhelming approval."

    WOW! Whoda ever guessed, that if you poll people with the question "Would you like to be made much better off at somebody else's expense?", that most people would be all in favor???

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Okay, I'll bite ... at whose expense, exactly, CRS?

  8. [8] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    "Each, on it's own, would be hailed a historic."

    What a sad state of affairs that doing the basic minimum long after it should have been done could be hailed as historic.

    Anyone making this claim is spouting propaganda that has no relation to reality.



  9. [9] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    Don't you follow this stuff on the news? The standard answer to that would be "The rich and Corporations", wouldn't it? I've read that a dozen times or more, in Democratic's discourses.

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Surely you don't believe what you read in those discourses!

    Besides, Biden always says that nothing is going to change for "The rich and Corporations". :)

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Do you like the Blues?

  12. [12] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    C.R. Stucki wrote,

    WOW! Whoda ever guessed, that if you poll people with the question "Would you like to be made much better off at somebody else's expense?", that most people would be all in favor???

    But the rich have been "made better off at somebody else's [read us 90%-er'expense]" going back to Reagan's tax cuts. I would note that since Reagan the top 10% has blossomed while the bottom 90% has been treading water, flatlining. And flatlining in an environment of crumbling infrastructure, skyrocketing healthcare and college expenses and so on.

    Where does the money come from that makes the rich rich, Stuck? From the rest of us who use Facebook and Amazon and Google, of course. Rich people don't get richer off of other rich people. One reason the Middle class grew so historically strong in the 50s and 60s is that the top marginal rate remained at the wartime rate 91%.

    Concentrating wealth in the top 10% means that the other 90% has less to spend. And less to spend means less wealth for everybody, ultimately the fat cats, too.

  13. [13] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    I didn't mean to boldify all the text.

    This is the great fallacy of "Trickle Down." Far better to spend as much prosperity among all 100% of Americans so that people can buy ribs, which employees more people etc.

  14. [14] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    "...far better to SPREAD as much prosperity..."

  15. [15] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Hey, Caddy, I think your idea in [1] is going to be what happens!

  16. [16] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Cad [12]

    Please explain for me, What is the mechanism by which you believe 'the rich' ("Amazon, Facebook and Google") get rich at your expense? If you think Bezos is overcharging/cheating you when you buy from Amazon, why do you keep doing it? And you do not ever buy anything from Facebook or Google, right? So how do those two profit at your expense?

    Liz [11]

    What is/are "the Blues"? If you're asking me about what music I listen to, it would be ABBA and The Irish Rovers.

  17. [17] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    CRS, well, that's blusey enough so come on out this Sunday Night and play your favourite ABBA tunes!

  18. [18] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Okay,okay ... the Irish Rovers, too. At least, I know who they are! I even used to watch them on the TV. Heh.

  19. [19] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    "Could have been the whiskey. Might have been the gin, coulda been the ... "

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