Where Does the Public Really Stand on ‘Build Back Better’?

No one knows for sure now because Democrats haven’t made the hard policy choices and the polling is inoperative.

Regardless of where one comes down on the Democratic drama over Biden’s domestic agenda in the past week, few seem to challenge the notion that the Build Back Better plan enjoys broad public support. Up until recently this has been true.

Now Biden has essentially cut the package in half to meet the political reality of the Senate—a step that surely would have been more useful several months ago—and shifted the contours of the bill to be either a handful of major priorities fully funded over a decade or a much wider array of policies funded over a much shorter time horizon.

Given this uncertainty, what can we say about public approval for a bill that no longer looks like the one tested in polls?

To start, existing public opinion research on the package shows two-thirds overall support for the entire Build Back Better agenda—paid leave, universal pre-K, expanded Medicare, prescription drug negotiations, clean energy, and support for families with children. This includes more than 6 in 10 Independents and nearly 4 in 10 Republicans. Not bad, right?

But the reality in this hypothetical legislation is that the expanded Medicare provisions for dental, vision, and hearing coverage plus the prescription drug negotiations carry the bulk of the weight in terms of public support. As seen on the right side of this chart from Simon Bazelon and David Shor for Slow Boring, testing on individual items featured in the bill shows these two health care elements to be the most popular and politically potent ideas in the entire Democratic policy arsenal.

Yet, House members inexplicably removed the prescription drug benefit provision already and the cost of expanded Medicare is quite high and may not make it into a final package. If you remove these health care items or scale them back to meet political reality, is the package still widely popular?

We don’t know obviously but it’s not hard to see how removing these items could make the bill less attractive to a whole range of voters. Given this potential situation, it is understandable why congressional progressives and Biden are pushing so hard for these items: these are good policy ideas that enjoy broad support even with a high price tag.

Alternatively, you could imagine a scenario where a more focused and less costly bill—perhaps centered on family support, paid leave, and some health care and climate investments—works better than the much larger grab bag of items with certain subsets of voters or in swing congressional districts and states. Particularly if the package is “rejoined” in public messaging with the very popular but unfortunately kicked to the side physical infrastructure bill that invests in roads and bridges, broadband, clean energy, public transportation, improved water and sewage, and other upgraded utilities.

Generally, it doesn’t work to try to sell people a car that hasn’t been built yet. In this case, Biden and Democrats are trying to sell one that hasn’t even been designed yet. Is it a souped-up fancy truck or luxury vehicle with all the expensive bells and whistles, or is it a sensible family car that is safe and easy to maintain? Both vehicles can be appealing to Americans for different reasons.

But because the Democrats have pushed off the policy design choices until the last minute, we don’t know for certain how wide the audience is for their legislation or how best to promote it. In the meantime, it would make sense for Democrats to get back to the original vision of Build Back Better: security for all families and an American economy that is best in the world.