WASHINGTON — Even as President Joe Biden gathers with senators and works the phones with Capitol Hill to push for a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, his team is increasingly focused on selling the plan directly to voters.
His administration has done 60-plus interviews with national TV and radio shows. There have been spots on local TV news and briefings last week with more than 50 groups including General Motors, Meals on Wheels America and Planned Parenthood. One of the main goals is to stop people from getting bogged down in the tangle of partisan deal-making and convince them that every penny of the "go big" package is needed.
"The public is not getting caught up in process — what they want is results," said Cedric Richmond, the White House director of public engagement. "People these days are not worried about the inside-the-beltway terminology. They're looking at who's doing what to help."
The president told House Democrats on Wednesday that he views the package's proposal for $1,400 in direct payments to individuals as a foundational promise to voters. It represents a strategic bet by the White House that voters will suspend their partisan beliefs to evaluate the plan and support its massive scope.
Biden has suggested he may be flexible on the $1.9 trillion topline figure for the plan and on ways to more narrowly target who gets direct payments. But the $1,400 amount — on top of $600 in payments approved in December — appears to be non-negotiable.
"I'm not going to start my administration by breaking a promise to the American people," he said.
The extensive package comes after $4 trillion in rescue spending that cushioned the financial blow from the pandemic but did little to stop the disease. It includes politically divisive provisions such as a $15 hourly minimum wage and $350 billion in aid for state and local governments. Ten Republican senators countered with a $618 billion package, a third of what Biden is offering.
Biden entered the presidency with Americans generally hopeful about his ability to fight the pandemic and guide the economy. About three-quarters said they have at least some confidence in his ability to handle the coronavirus, while roughly two-thirds had at least some confidence in his economic leadership, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Most Americans still see the need for government stimulus. A survey released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University found 68% of U.S. adults support Biden's stimulus package and 24% oppose it. But Republicans are divided on the measure, with 47% opposed and 37% favoring it. Nearly all Democrats backed the plan.
Based on his interactions, Richmond sees three elements of the package as the most popular: the direct payments, the $160 billion for widespread vaccinations — one of the only expenditures that also appears in the Republican proposal, food and nutrition assistance for struggling Americans, and the push to halve the child poverty rate through tax credits and other benefits.
But even Republicans who are supportive of some kind of aid are telling their voters Biden's plan is too expensive — and it's possible people could be turned off if they think stimulus dollars are being wasted.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told KUTV in Salt Lake City that aid to state and local governments, a particular sticking point for Republicans, should be based on "actual need, as opposed to a simple blanket payment of billions of dollars, which in many cases would represent a windfall."
Republicans are betting Biden will pay a price politically if he doesn't take a bipartisan tack. By contrast, Democrats hope Republicans will pay a price if voters don't see them engaging with the fullness of the crisis.
The White House can point to at least one Republican who considers Biden's plan essential: Jeff Williams, the mayor of Arlington, Texas. Williams knows there could be a partisan backlash to supporting Biden's plan. But, on the merits, the term-limited mayor sees no alternative.
The city is gearing up for property tax assessments, and estimates are that revenues could drop 10%, largely because commercial real estate has taken a severe hit as offices, restaurants and hotels have emptied. Williams said he believes Republicans ultimately want to help, too, even if they choke on the high price tag.
"It's the right thing to do," he said. "The gist of this is that you always have those extremists that are there, but most of our Republicans have been supportive of getting fiscal assistance to cities. They can't come up with that dollar amount."
The United States has lost roughly 10 million jobs because of the pandemic, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that without additional aid, the jobs won't return in full until 2024. The Census Bureau estimates 1 in 8 households with children lacks sufficient food.
But the picture is also complicated. The Penn Wharton Budget Model found in a report released Wednesday that 73% of the $1,400 stimulus checks would go into savings, meaning there would be limited growth in consumer spending, which helps propel the economy.
The report estimates that Biden's plan would spend the equivalent of roughly 8.6% of gross domestic product but only increase growth by 0.6%, since much of the economy — other than the restaurant, travel and leisure and hospitality sectors — shows signs of healing.
"When you shovel a lot of money into an economy that is doing pretty darn well, you might do harm," said Efraim Berkovich, director of computational dynamics for the Penn Wharton Budget Model.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Penn Wharton analysis was flawed because it assumes that the U.S. economy is running near full-capacity, "which would be news to the millions of Americans who are out of work or facing reduced hours and reduced paychecks."
The message from Republicans is that $1.9 trillion is a lot of money that could be better spent on other priorities such as an infrastructure program. Or, not spent at all.
"We've got to support Americans who are hurting," said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La. "But picking a number and saying you're going to spend that much just because it sounds right is not fair to the American taxpayer, is not fair to the future American taxpayer."