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Biden factory visit launches effort to show his bills actually work

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/6/2022 Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Toluse Olorunnipa
President Biden speaks Tuesday after touring a semiconductor factory in Phoenix. © Ross D. Franklin/AP President Biden speaks Tuesday after touring a semiconductor factory in Phoenix.

PHOENIX — President Biden on Tuesday lauded a pair of semiconductor factories taking shape in Phoenix, saying they’re a direct result of his economic policies — a prelude to what is likely to be two years of crisscrossing the country in an effort to persuade voters the bills he’s passed are making a difference in their lives.

As Biden heads into the slog of divided government, when legislative wins are likely to be much rarer, he faces pressure to remind voters that he made major gains when he had a freer hand, even as some Democrats complain privately that Biden has so far struggled to convey that his agenda is helping ordinary families.

Now Biden is setting out to change that, and his reelection may depend on whether he succeeds. On Tuesday, he visited Phoenix on the day the Taiwanese semiconductor company TSMC began installing equipment in its new factory there, a ceremonial milestone for a plant slated to begin producing microchips in 2024.

“People are starting to feel a sense of optimism as they see the impact of these achievements in their own lives,” Biden asserted. “It’s going to accelerate in the months ahead, and it’s part of the broad story about the economy we’re building that works for everyone.”

TSMC also announced Tuesday that it will build a second semiconductor plant in Arizona, ballooning its investment from $12 billion to $40 billion. By 2026, the company’s plants will produce about 600,000 silicon wafers a year, which White House officials said was enough to meet the entire demand for advanced chips in the United States.

The White House has stressed that the project will do much to streamline the supply chain and cut inflation. But Biden is also trying to cement in voters’ minds that the cranes and construction trucks — and the microchips that will roll off the assembly lines in two years — are possible only because of laws such as the Chips and Science Act, which passed last summer.

“Our approach to building up the economy of the future from the bottom up and the middle out is working,” he said, adding, “All the hard work is making a difference for people, including folks right here in Arizona.”

But Republicans wrested control of the House of Representatives in last month’s midterms, presenting a major roadblock to Biden’s agenda in Congress. That could mean the president spends a good chunk of the second half of his term touting the successes of the first half, a message that will carry additional importance if he announces a bid for reelection early next year as expected.

But the effort has a deeper resonance, as well: Democrats have long felt that while Republicans can easily attack their initiatives as bloated overspending, it has been far harder for them to showcase the measures’ benefits, in part because they can take years to materialize. Biden in particular has argued that President Barack Obama’s administration, in which he was a central player, made a big mistake by spending too little time promoting its achievements to the American public.

It’s a mistake he has vowed not to repeat.

“We didn’t adequately explain what we had done,” Biden said at a meeting of House Democrats last year, as he urged them to pass the American Rescue Plan. “Barack was so modest, he didn’t want to take, as he said, a ‘victory lap.’ I kept saying, ‘Tell people what we did.’ He said: ‘We don’t have time. I’m not going to take a victory lap.’ And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility.”

Another example seared into Democrats’ memory is the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Republican attacks on that law, decrying it as socialized medicine that would destroy the American health care system, arguably contributed to Democratic losses for several election cycles. But when the GOP gained power and actually tried to repeal the ACA in 2017, the effort failed in part because voters appeared not to want to lose the benefits it provided.

Republicans see things differently. Americans see Biden’s plans as bloated and ineffective not because they don’t understand them, GOP leaders contend, but because they understand them all too well.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the Senate floor in October to decry Democrats’ “reckless taxing and spending spree,” saying, “Wasting trillions and trillions of dollars on socialism would be a bad idea any day, but it is a uniquely bad idea at a time when American families are already being hammered by inflation and soaring costs.”

Biden’s determination to argue otherwise has led to a series of events that at times resemble a mayor’s appearances, as he travels the country to tout a factory opening or a new electric vehicle charging station. The pace of those events is only likely to ramp up as Biden makes the case for his reelection.

On Tuesday, Biden began talking up his achievements within minutes of ascending a stage backdropped by the semiconductor factory, mentioning the American Rescue Plan, which provided relief amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the bipartisan infrastructure law. He ticked off local projects that will be funded by federal dollars: a new pedestrian bridge in Phoenix, additional buses for the region, a planned taxiway at the airport.

Referring to the jobs that he says will be created by such projects, Biden added, “Thousands of Arizonans are going to be able to look their kids in the eye and say, ‘Honey, it’s going to be okay.’”

The White House dubbed Biden’s Tuesday stop an official White House event rather than a campaign appearance, but it marked the president’s second trip to a battleground state in as many weeks. He was in Michigan last week, touring a South Korean microchip plant.

The chips that TSMC will produce in Phoenix will be some of the most advanced, used in a vast array of everyday electronics, including cellphones, laptop computers and hybrid cars. Several of TSMC’s suppliers and customers attended Tuesday’s event, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Micron CEO Sanjay Mehrotra.

In a briefing for reporters Monday, White House officials said that the new plants would benefit anyone with an electronic device who wants it to perform better and last longer on a single charge. But the new factories will do more than give Americans better gadgets, the officials said — they will also give a boost to local communities.

A Phoenix-area community college, for example, has invested government funds in a “semiconductor technician boot camp” operated in partnership with two major semiconductor manufacturers. And the city of Phoenix is turning a long-vacant former Kmart building into a hub to train workers in the industry.

Despite facing a narrowly divided Congress, Biden’s first two years were marked by an unusual number of spending bills. In late 2021, Congress enacted a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law. Last July, lawmakers approved $52 billion for the semiconductor industry. A month later, the president signed a sweeping bill providing $370 billion for clean energy.

Brian Deese, Biden’s top economic adviser, said those measures will show benefits for years. “Whether it’s in electric vehicles or in consumer electronics, CEOs of major companies are making decisions about their plans 18, 24 months forward, and the build-out in the United States gives them more confidence to operate, as well,” Deese said.

White House aides see that message as central to Biden’s legacy. The president has long argued that despite widespread cynicism about Washington, the democratic process can help ordinary people. But he may face an uphill battle making that case.

A recent poll by the Economist and YouGov shows that Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy by 50 percent to 37 percent, as many voters are concerned about inflation and unpersuaded that his program will help them.

The president insists that will change as people see long-crumbling bridges and decrepit roads being repaired. “They don’t know it until you start to take them down and fix them,” Biden said. “And we’re just getting started, because we’ve now had only a portion of that money that has been released.”

He made a similar case about his efforts to rein in drug costs and impose a $35 cap on insulin prices — that it takes time for the impact to be felt.

“People are going to all of a sudden decide, ‘Oh my god, Biden was right,’” he predicted. “‘I mean, he actually said it’s only going to cost me 35 bucks.’ And they start paying it. And they’re going to go, ‘Whoa, I didn’t realize that was really true.’”

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