Media fail: Americans have no idea what’s in Biden’s Build Back Better bill

Media fail: Americans have no idea what’s in Biden’s Build Back Better bill

Obsessed with cost

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Leaning into the doomsday narrative that President Joe Biden’s agenda and presidency is slipping away as Democrats work to pass both a huge infrastructure bill and even bigger social spending bill, dubbed Build Back Better, the Beltway press continues to do a great job ignoring the contents of the historic effort. Focusing instead on its cost and obsessively documenting the vote-counting process, the press has walked away from its job of explaining legislation.

A new CBS poll confirms how little information voters are getting about the Democrats’ hallmark domestic bill, which has been in the news for most of this year. “The public is more likely to have heard about what it would cost than about the specific policies that would be in it,” according to the network. Worse for Democrats, “some of the very popular [programs] —expanded Medicare coverage, family leave, lowered prescription costs — are among the least heard about.”

The specifics from the poll:  Only 10% of Americans say they know a lot about what's in the Build Back Better plan, while a majority admit to either not knowing any specifics or anything at all about the bill. When respondents were asked specifically about potential elements of the bill, it was the $3.5 trillion price tag that most Americans had heard about. Not surprisingly, the overall bill is a lot more popular among people who know about the admired elements within Build Back Better.

Democrats are trying to pass a bill over GOP objections that contains hugely popular initiatives, but most voters don’t know that the good stuff might soon be voted on. Instead, all they keep hearing about is the cost. Because of that disconnect, there is not currently a majority of people who think Build Back Better would help them and their family or help the economy, according to the survey.

The irony is that CBS reported the polling results without ever acknowledging that Americans likely don’t know what’s in Build Back Better because news outlets like CBS have done such a poor job explaining it. Hyper-focused on the price tag, which is precisely where Republicans want the public attention to be, the press pays lip service to the historic contents of the bill.



CNN actually claimed there are too many popular items in the bill, thereby causing voter confusion: “None of those programs are dominant enough to create a clear public image that focuses popular and legislative support.” And yes, that pronouncement was made within a CNN piece that focused mostly on the cost.

On Monday afternoon, these were the top six news headlines Google retrieved when searching “Democrats spending bill”:

• “Budget Gimmicks Will Define Democrats’ Next Trillion-Dollar Spending Bill” (Washington Examiner)

• “Democrats Have a Numbers Problem” (CNN)

• “Democrats Begin to Narrow Their Differences on Biden’s Social Spending Bill” (Washington Post)

• “Dems Will Use These Tricks to Make the $3.5T Spending Bill Seem Smaller” (New York Post)

• “Democrats Aim to Pass Infrastructure, Social Spending Bills By the End of October, Schumer Says” (CNBC)

• “Biden, Lawmakers Work to Trim Budget Bill as GOP, Democrats Still at Odds Over Debt Ceiling” (USA Today)

All of the pieces skimmed over the contents of Build Back Better.

That’s not to say Democrats are blameless in all of this, especially the messaging. As E.J. Dionne noted in the Washington Post column, “Wanted: A Better Build Back Better Campaign,” the inter-party division over the cost of the bill, and the media coverage that split has created, “has left most Americans clueless about what Biden wants to do.”

Yet for the Beltway press, the process by which the bill might pass, and how much the legislation costs, far and away exceeds the importance of what’s in the bill itself. Even if the legislation is historic and potentially transforming:

• Creating a universal Pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

• Making sure low- and middle-income households pay no more than 7 percent of their annual income on child care for kids up to age 5.

• Funding the construction and remodeling of child care facilities as well as raising the wages of child care workers.

• Making community college tuition-free for two years.

• Providing federal paid and medical leave benefit for up to 12 weeks.

• Allowing families to receive a child tax credit totaling $3,600 for each child under the age of 6, and $3,000 for each one under age 18.

• Allocating $35 billion for child nutrition programs, which would allow nearly 9 million more children to receive free school meals.

• Adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare.

By turning away from the popular Build Back Better programs, the press continues to do Republicans a favor and focus overwhelmingly on the cost, leaving Americans in the dark.

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(Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images)


👍🏻 Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop yesterday covered similar ground as my column today, with his excellent piece, “The Siloed Media Narratives Around Biden and Trump”:

In recent weeks, media chatter about Democrats’ policy priorities has, to my mind, reinforced the latter critique: President Biden is working to push through an ambitious agenda, much of which, when disaggregated, is highly popular, and yet the policy detail has largely gotten lost as day-to-day coverage has focused on poorly contextualized topline price tags and supposed infighting among Congressional Democrats. A narrative has crystallized in some quarters that Biden is failing to sell his agenda to the public.

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