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Democrats are trying to sell Biden's infrastructure law and social safety net bill

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This was the week that Joe Biden started to campaign in earnest for his infrastructure law and for the social safety net bill that he hopes to get through Congress soon. NPR's Mara Liasson looks at how Democrats are trying to make the sale.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: When a party is in trouble, it often says the problem is the message, not the product. In the case of the Biden agenda, that's not completely spin. When the particulars of Biden's plans are described to voters, majorities approve. But polls also show voters don't know much about what the Democrats are passing. This week President Biden tried to change that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The bill I'm about to sign into law is proof that despite the cynics, Democrats and Republicans can come together and deliver results.

And how clean water, access to the internet, rebuilding bridges - look; this law is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America.

LIASSON: Democrats like pollster Celinda Lake are counting on Biden's sales job to turn around the party's dismal poll numbers.

CELINDA LAKE: Delivering on those promises and talking about the delivery, demonstrating the delivery, campaigning on the delivery are very, very important.

LIASSON: This is Biden's theory of the case - that if Democrats could just deliver policies that help middle-class Americans afford child care and prescription drugs, help them get a job or charge their electric car, they'll vote for Democrats next year. But until recently, what got the most attention was Democrats forming a circular firing squad, fighting among themselves over how to spend many trillions of dollars. Lake says that was a particular problem for white women without college degrees.

LAKE: They could care less about a negotiation process. They care, what is the price of steak for my Christmas Eve dinner? What is the price of gasoline for myself and my husband to get to work? What is the price of the insulin that we're buying for my mother-in-law?

LIASSON: This was a group of voters Democrats lost this year in Virginia, a state Biden won easily in 2020. Democrats are also facing something close to collapse among voters in rural areas. But Montana Senator Jon Tester told Punchbowl News this week that he believes the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better plan can help turn that around.

JON TESTER: I am in the process right now to talk to folks in Montana about explaining to them what's in this bill and how it can change our way of doing business in Montana for the better and actually lower costs for families and help small businesses expand. We can sell that to rural America, too. But you have to show up, and you have to talk about it.

LIASSON: For Guy Cecil, who runs Priorities USA, one of the biggest Democratic superPACs, the target voter is someone who couldn't stand Trump, voted for Biden but then drifted away. Cecil says without these voters, Democrats can't win next year. But they're hard to reach because they're simply exhausted by COVID and by Washington.

GUY CECIL: What Democrats have to do is, one, be clear about what is at stake. Without their vote, we wouldn't have gotten stimulus checks. We wouldn't have gotten the child tax credit. And second, we have to make clear what it would mean for them if Republicans got control.

LIASSON: For Cecil, making this partisan contrast is the only way Democrats can survive the midterms.

CECIL: For those of us who care about winning elections, we need the Democrats in Congress to stop fighting each other to pass this next piece of legislation so that the contest can be between Democrats and Republicans and not Democrats and Democrats.

LIASSON: Democrats deliver. Republicans stand in the way. That's how Democrats want to define the 2022 midterms. But it will be an uphill battle because this year Republicans started winning back swing suburban voters by framing the election around culture, not policy, focusing on issues like how race is taught in schools. Next year Republicans say they will run as the parents' party.

RO KHANNA: The issue for parents is, are they going to have a say in our education?

LIASSON: That's California Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna, who says his party needs to confront those cultural issues head-on. A member of the House Progressive Caucus and the son of Indian immigrants, Khanna says Democrats need a new message about education that's patriotic and aspirational.

KHANNA: Are kids going to grow up being proud of being American? And are we going to have a honest accounting of history? And I think all three things are possible because that's what great countries do. I just think we have to speak to that as opposed to not recognizing the fears or anxieties of parents.

LIASSON: It's less than a year from Election Day, and for Democrats, the headwinds are fierce. Biden's approval ratings are terrible. The Democrats took a worse-than-expected drubbing in the off-year elections. And there are structural obstacles, like the historic pattern of midterm voters rejecting the party in power and the Republicans' advantage in drawing new district lines. Add that to inflation and a pandemic that won't quit, and Democrats are in a very deep hole. But they believe that their agenda, once it's passed and communicated by the president, could help them climb out. Mara Liasson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANZ FERDINAND SONG, "40 FT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.