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Democrats launch a nationwide drive to sell the public on President Biden's plans

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Democrats in Washington say they have a PR problem. They say their policies and ideas that helped elect them to run the House, Senate and the White House are still popular today. The problem is that the polling does not seem to agree.

Here's the president's pitch yesterday in Woodstock, N.H.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Folks, when you see these projects starting in your hometowns, I want you to feel what I feel - pride - pride in what we can do together as the United States of America.

MARTINEZ: NPR Congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has been talking to Democrats about this new PR drive. She joins us now. Kelsey, why are Democrats going on this big sales tour?

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Well, they are a little bit defensive. They say polls are conflicting. They say they show support for individual policies - things like expanding health care or the child tax credit or even that infrastructure investment that Biden was talking about. But there is also polling that shows low approval ratings for Democrats as a whole, and for the Build Back Better bill, which is the thing they're still trying to pass. You know, the premise of their platform is that they're trying to fix an economy that was broken before the pandemic - one that favored wealthy people over the middle-class or lower-income people. And Democrats really promise to be the ones to solve all that. But so far, many people don't see or feel that impact in their daily lives.

You know, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who's the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told me yesterday that it is true that Democrats tend to struggle to send clear, you know, chantable, headline-style messages to voters.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES: Sometimes we tend to speak in fine print because we care about governing. And we care about governing because we care about getting things done for everyday Americans.

SNELL: So their solution is to go out and do a thousand events before the end of the year, on top of over a dozen White House stops before Thanksgiving.

MARTINEZ: A thousand.

SNELL: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: OK, wow. The election is almost a year away, though. So why do this now?

SNELL: You know, Democrats are trying to pass that Build Back Better bill this week. That's the $1.75 trillion social and climate spending bill. And, you know, almost a year is not really a very long time for a complete shift in public opinion. They need to drive voters to care about Democrats and to feel connected to them with enough urgency to vote in a world where they aren't running against Donald Trump. And that is the world they'll be in when they're trying to defend their majorities in the House and the Senate.

MARTINEZ: Now, OK, so if these ideas and policies are so central to who Democrats are, why do they think they've been struggling to connect with voters?

SNELL: Well, they say some of it is the current economy. You know, those immediate economic fears of the pandemic have started to shift into fears about price increases, fears about supply chain shortages and inflation. And that's all happening before the holidays. You know, plus the midterms after a party has full control in Washington are usually terrible for the party in control. And that's when they're all getting along and doing things, you know, in a harmonious way in Washington.

And Jeffries made another point. He said that Democrats are trying to fundamentally alter social programs in the federal government with historically narrow majorities. He ticked off this whole list of policies Democrats enacted in the past - things like Medicare and voting rights and civil rights and the Affordable Care Act. But few of those policies were immediate political victories at the polls when voters went to decide.

MARTINEZ: All right, so if Democrats are on the defensive, how are Republicans on the offensive?

SNELL: Well, Republicans have been very effective in messaging on inflation, and particularly on fears that the economy isn't improving fast enough. You know, they've also had really good success in turning the conversation away from economic equity that was really on display in the pandemic and focusing it back on conservative culture war issues. Democrats, though, say that Republicans are still the party of President Trump. And they say they still have members who are supportive of the January 6 insurrectionists, just to name a few problems. So what Democrats are banking on is that their, you know, long-term political fight won't be just about this spending, that going into the midterm elections, people's attentions will shift, that these bills may pass and that they'll be running on a different plane than they really are talking today.

MARTINEZ: NPR Congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell - Kelsey, thanks.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.