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Come on, Joe, We Need to See More Fight in You!

Yes, the president has the barest majorities in Congress. But he could still be out there pushing Build Back Better a lot harder than he is.

A close up of a stern President Joe Biden.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden has a problem. His name is Senator Joe Manchin, who now seems to be the only senator holding up a December vote on the most bold and impactful social agenda since the New Dealthe Build Back Better Act. But let’s put Manchin aside for the moment. The Democratic Party is a big tent. Having Blue Dogs is nothing new.

What has changed is the stakes: the well-being of families and the midterm elections. With that in mind, the real issue may lie with Biden. Our compassionate president who cares about decorum and collaboration, things I find admirable, may not be pushing hard enough. We need him to channel President Lyndon Johnson and take a page from his strategy book on passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which involves both communications and mobilization.

The stakes require the political boldness that matches the history-making that BBB will achieve. The economy is rebounding largely because we put dollars in people’s pockets to pay rent, buy food, and take care of themselves and their families. Federal emergency-relief checks have ended, and the economic recovery has been uneven. Millions of workers no longer have unemployment checks, and service-sector jobs have not fully rebounded. Women of all races and communities of color were hardest hit during the pandemic. And the delta and omicron variants are raising questions about the future of recovery.

BBB focuses on investments families have long needed if we are to reduce income inequality, like childcare, paid leave, universal pre-kindergarten, and more affordable housing and prescription drugs. These have been among the highest costs for families, and their absence has been a driver of income inequality. But in this economy, BBB is also critical for productivity and workforce participation. And despite Manchin’s and Republicans’ fearmongering, economists believe BBB will start having a net positive impact on the deficit as early as 2027.

We all know West Virginia needs it. One out of every five children lives in poverty, and 10,000 schoolchildren were homeless in the 2019–2020 school year. Many counties don’t have a single childcare center, and it is one of the poorest states in the country, with a weak education system.

Manchin says he is worried about BBB contributing to inflation. Well, childcare costs have risen at twice the rate of inflation over the last 30 years. In Manchin’s home state, childcare runs a family about $200 a week. BBB would cut that in half. That’s huge, particularly in a state where women, particularly low-income women, were hit hardest by job loss and childcare responsibilities. West Virginia desperately needs paid family leave, too. Almost 60 percent of its workers have no paid family leave, and it drives people from the workforce, particularly women.

Biden could be hitting hard on these numbers and the stories of the real people behind them. The Vances, a West Virginia family who lost half their income because Mr. Vance couldn’t get two weeks’ paid leave for substance abuse treatment, represent just one such story. BBB isn’t just a “package.” Tell the story of the lifeline. West Virginians may not like big spending, but they do like much of what BBB buys. In one poll, 80 percent of 800 West Virginians surveyed want BBB. Manchin has been captured by elite Republicans, but the everyday Republicans who want to take care of children and families may be persuadable. Biden has to bring it, though.

Time is of the essence. Democrats must deliver what people need before the midterms. These measures are not only wildly popular; they are real lifelines that could help Democrats in critical Senate races from Florida to Pennsylvania. Remember—childcare tax credits are set to expire this month. Without BBB, not only do real people lose needed help, families lose current dollars in tax credits that have already reduced child poverty 28 percent. Finally, it matters because as the January 6 committee’s work progresses, it needs the concentrated attention of voters as it begins hearings on the violent attack on the Capitol.

President Johnson faced a similar problem on the Voting Rights Act. He had decided to be on the right side of history despite his own Southern, racist roots. His Dixiecrat compatriots were not playing ball. Johnson knew how to leverage the nation’s grief over the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and he did so in Congress. Forcefully. He seized it and owned it. This is Biden’s package, and it is also a moment of tremendous mourning and deep stress for many Americans. He can connect passionately with that grief and the looming fears of viral mutations to seize the moment. Instead, he has allowed himself to be captured by the deficit-inflation debate.

Johnson had some Republican support and a Democratic majority. Biden doesn’t. But that just means we should be feeling the fight in him all the more. Biden has to talk to Manchin, but it isn’t enough to have “productive” calls. Johnson dug in hard like he was a sitting senator, marshaling the civil rights, labor, and business communities and directing them to the right targets. He famously told a labor leader, “If we fail at this, we fail at everything.” It worked.

Like Johnson, Biden knows how to play the game. But as with complaints about Biden’s handling of voting rights legislation, we simply aren’t seeing the Johnson zeal, the public connection and willingness to energize and mobilize. From Wall Street to women’s groups, BBB has real support that can pressure Manchin. Johnson also personally pushed for a procedural vote that would take the Civil Rights Act out of the segregationist-controlled Ways and Means Committee. Biden has refused to discard the filibuster. Biden has become a target and concern for too many in the base of the party. With such a popular set of investments, he should not be the one advocates are targeting.

The question isn’t whether something will pass. I still believe something will. The question is whether the people who need it the most get what they need and will Biden get it done quickly enough to help his party at the polls? For that we need to feel the fire in his belly and see the leadership in action.