President Biden and the White House shouldn’t cede an important opportunity to message to … [+]
The House passed the $1.9 trillion stimulus package, known as the American Rescue Plan, on Wednesday and President signed the relief package into law on Thursday. The stimulus bill will unleash a torrent of federal aid including $1,400 stimulus payments, an extension of unemployment aid, and a temporary increase of the child tax credit. While Biden signed the bill, there’s one place his signature won’t appear: on stimulus checks and their associated confirmation letters. This is a missed public relations opportunity, not for President Biden personally, but for Democrats more broadly. It is also one that could have been achieved without compromising the speed of stimulus check delivery.
The American Rescue Plan is undoubtedly the largest expansion of government support programs of the last half century. It will also delivery tangible relief to American’s bank accounts, in the form of stimulus checks and child tax credit payments, that will make the benefits feel more concrete. However, there is already a public relations battle between Democrats and Republicans to frame the bill to their constituents, especially with the not-so-distant 2022 midterm elections that could easily swing the House, the Senate, or both. “Biden’s presidency, aides say, relies not just on squeezing legislation through a narrowly divided Congress, but getting credit for its benefits in the face of a Republican opposition preparing to portray the bill as a liberal fantasy run amok,” The Washington Post reported. “Although the legislative battle is winding down, the political fight is only beginning.”
A resounding 70 percent of Americans support the relief bill, including over 40 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican, according to a recent poll by Pew Research. However, Republicans are already trying to undermine the legislation by framing it as a spending spree “that amounts to ‘a massive expansion of the entitlement system,’ and will be used to fund “a longstanding ‘list of liberal priorities.’” Democrats need to counter this narrative and ensure that they get credit for delivering aid to millions, especially given that not a single Republican voted for the bill.
Democrats have historically done a poor job of messaging, in many cases allowing Republicans to successfully dictate how public policy is debated. They have also tried to take the high road and not forcefully promote legislative wins. For example, many Democrats point to the Obama administration’s “disastrous mistake of not touting its early wins, particularly the 2009 stimulus” which “never received sufficient recognition for its role in saving the economy.” As a result, instead of getting credit for rescuing the country, Republicans were able to change the narrative to one of big-government overreach, which many credit as a key pillar of their win in the 2010 midterm elections. “We won’t let 2022 be a repeat of 2010,” Jessica Floyd, the president of American Bridge, a political action committee (PAC), told The Washington Post.
To its credit, the Biden administration appears to recognize the need to promote the stimulus package aggressively. Biden’s primetime address Thursday night was a strong opening salvo, but one that will need to reinforced. “It will really take a sustained drumbeat to make sure everyone understands what’s in that package,” one strategist close to the White House told The Post. “Everyone has to hear the message seven times to remember it. One event, one signing ceremony, is not going to cover it.”
This brings us to the stimulus checks and associated letters, which should be an important arrow in the White House’s public relations quiver.
In typical fashion, former President Trump shattered norms by insisting his name appear on the stimulus checks disbursed as part of the 2020 Cares Act. Experts believe it was the first time a president’s name was imprinted on a payment from the IRS. Branding the checks with Trump’s name likely slowed the delivery of stimulus checks by at least a few days, but helped Trump inflate his role in a direct communication to millions of Americans. “He doesn’t want to do what President Obama did, failing to promote his role in a recovery program and then failing to gain political credit,” Julian Zeliver, a historian at Princeton, had told ABC News.
Trump went further, not only branding checks, but also personalizing a letter that was sent to every American receiving a stimulus payment. The letter “prominently features a massive signature by the president that stands a full 2.25 inches long and about an inch high, looks to explain the reasoning for the direct payments while touting the government response to the crisis.”
Unlike Trump, Biden chose not to brand the checks with his signature. White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said that the checks would be signed by a career official at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to avoid any delays in sending out payments. “We are doing everything in our power to expedite the payments and not delay them, which is why the president’s name will not appear on the memo line of this round of stimulus checks,” Psaki said. “This is not about him.”
This appears to be an attempt by Biden to take the high road and differentiate himself from the shenanigans of his predecessor, but in reality, there is a simple way to avoid payment delays and still capitalize on an opportunity to communicate directly with voters: Biden could have stimulus checks signed by a career official, but ensure that a letter, with his signature, is mailed to each recipient confirming the payment and promoting its benefits.
Confirmation letters were an important part of the Cares Act and mailed to help individuals verify that they received the right stimulus payment. “The Cares Act requires that the federal government send out a notice of what benefits Americans are receiving to fulfill the requirement,” former President Trump stated at an April 2020 briefing.
There is additional precedence for branded letters too. George W. Bush included his name in letters that were sent about similar payments in 2001 and 2008 and Franklin D. Roosevelt made sure that “voters knew public works programs were part of the New Deal. You can see the placards today.” In other words, it would be appropriate for President Biden to include his name on at least stimulus confirmation letters. Signing the letters may be arguably more impactful than signing the actual checks given that the vast majority of eligible Americans will receive their stimulus payment via direct deposit.
“The checks were very popular, and Trump definitely got credit for them — both in terms of helping Americans’ well-being, and reinforcing his broader popularity on the economy,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. There is anecdotal evidence that Trump’s signature gambit had an impact at the polls. While Trump clearly (and unequivocally) lost the election, his message did resonate in many parts of the country that were crucial for Democrats in 2020 and will continue to be in 2022. For example, whereas Hillary Clinton won Starr County, Texas by a 60-point margin 2016, Joe Biden only won it by 5-points in 2020. Similarly, while Clinton handily won in Zapata County, Texas, claiming a 33-point margin in 2016, Biden lost the county to Trump by 6 points in 2020.
As Elizabeth Findell chronicled in The Wall Street Journal, “some voters [in these counties] said they had adored President Obama but didn’t know much about Mr. Biden. For better or worse, these voters said, they felt they knew Mr. Trump. Others said they appreciated getting a pandemic stimulus check bearing Mr. Trump’s signature, which showed he cared about them.”
While far from dispositive, given the narrow margin that Democrats currently have in the House and Senate, they need to use every opportunity to connect with voters and reinforce their accomplishments on behalf of Americans. Stimulus checks, or at least their confirmation letters, should be a meaningful lever in a multi-prong approach for President Biden and his administration.
President Biden and the White House shouldn’t cede an important opportunity to message to constituents in a way that doesn’t disrupt the timing of actual checks. As Representative Brendan Boyle said, “Why not? Trump did it twice. Given all of the ‘yes’ votes for this bill came from Democrats — and every single Republican voted against it — I think we need to hammer home to the American people that it is Democrats who delivered this popular relief to them.”
Shahar is the founder of Acing Your Finances (www.acingyourfinances.com), where he helps students and employees develop healthy financial habits. He co-founded a popular