WASHINGTON — With President Joe Biden's approval sliding in recent months, Democrats are rallying around the sustained popularity of his signature economic plans to save them in the midterm elections, increasing the pressure on slim majorities in Congress to deliver after a stinging electoral defeat in blue Virginia.
The $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill is set for a White House signing ceremony Monday, the beginning of a victory lap after months of stalemate. And Democratic leaders hope to pass his safety net and climate bill through the House this week before it faces some hurdles in the Senate.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll illustrates the dichotomy: Just 41 percent of Americans approve of Biden's job performance, while 63 percent support his bipartisan infrastructure bill and 58 percent support his nearly $2 trillion social spending and climate package.
Other polls similarly show that the popularity of the Build Back Better bill is higher than Biden's, including among independent voters. Much of Biden's recent slide has come from core groups in his winning 2020 coalition, including Black voters and women.
Democratic strategists say that's evidence that voters want Congress to pass the economic programs. They argue that Biden and the party's sagging approval will recover once they deliver.
"Voters are deeply cynical about what politicians say they will do, so Democrats need to actually get it done," said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has worked on House and presidential campaigns. "This gap won't close by telling people what we will do. It will close by showing people what we are doing."
But to reap political gain, Democrats emphasize, they'll need Biden's megaphone to sell what they're doing.
"We're about to deliver universal pre-k and extend a game-changing middle-class tax cut. The job now is to go out and sell it. So I'm encouraged to see that Joe Biden's begun to tour the country connecting with Americans like only he can," said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., the chairman of House Democrats' campaign arm. "It will take dozens of events by the president to spread the message."
Republicans are skeptical.
Josh Holmes, a longtime political adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., suggested that the safety net bill is likelier to sink to Biden's level than it is to lift him and his party up.
"Signature legislative accomplishments are never any more popular than the president who signs it," he said.
The Post-ABC News poll carried a major warning for Democrats: They trailed Republicans by 10 points when voters were asked which party's candidate they'd prefer in the midterms.
Five centrist Democrats have said they want more information from the Congressional Budget Office before they vote for the Build Back Better legislation. If their conditions are met, the bill would go to the Senate, where pivotal centrists like Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., are likely to have the final word on what stays in and what must come out.
The urgency is high after elections early this month, when Democrats lost a governor's race in blue-trending Virginia and got a scare in New Jersey, a contest thought to be an easy win.
Republicans are divided over the infrastructure bill but unified against the safety net plan. They're lobbying Democrats to kill the latter, citing rising inflation, an issue Manchin has also raised alarms about. The White House has sought to address the concerns by emphasizing cost-cutting measures in the package, including policies to lower prescription drug prices and ease child care expenses.
Many Democrats see the Build Back Better legislation as the last train leaving the station that can boost their brand. The bill presents a once-a-year opportunity to bypass the filibuster on issues of spending and taxes, while the 60-vote threshold in the evenly split Senate appears likely to kill other Biden priorities, like immigration reform, voting rights, police reform and gun control.
"Passing as bold of an agenda as possible is critical to our chances. In fact, I believe it's the only chance we have to be successful in the midterms," said Tyler Law, a Democratic consultant, who is advising members to stop talking about Build Back Better through the prism of historical statistics and simply sell it as a bill that would cut costs for ordinary families.
He said: "We had better deliver on prescription drug prices. It would be an epic mistake for Democrats not to deliver. Just an inexcusable error."
And with an election year and congressional primaries fast approaching, lawmakers are likelier to become risk-averse next year as voters decide whether to preserve Democrats' wafer-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress or throw them out of power.
While the slim margins have caused infighting that has damaged Democrats' brand, Law said that's "not a sufficient excuse to voters" for failing to improve their finances.
"They have lives to live. They have food to put on the table," he said. "What they do want to see is that we are competent. ... We have to keep delivering, or voters are not going to keep us in power."