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Americans don't feel direct payments or child tax credits helped them, new poll finds

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Democrats say programs like stimulus checks and the new monthly child tax credit payments are proof that their party can deliver real benefits for all Americans. They also say President Biden's Build Back Better bill will do even more down the road. But a new NPR/Marist poll shows that most voters are skeptical of the party's plans, and few feel the existing programs help them.

NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has more.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Democrats say voters elected them to use their full control of Congress and the White House to transform the federal government. President Biden repeated that idea in October, when he announced the latest version of his Build Back Better legislation.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The agendas in these bills is what 81 million Americans voted for. More people voted than any time in American history.

SNELL: But as Democrats struggle to pass Biden's Build Back Better bill, which includes child care funding, universal pre-K and expanded coverage under Medicare and Medicaid, polls show waning support for that agenda. Just 42% of people surveyed said the bill would help people like them. While a majority of Democrats - 69% - say the policies would help them, fewer than 4 in 10 independents and less than 20% of Republicans agree. Democrats have been predicting this kind of gap.

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HAKEEM JEFFRIES: We're going to have to message, persuade and communicate in headlines.

SNELL: That's Hakeem Jeffries, one of the top Democrats in the House, speaking to reporters in the Capitol last month. He says the party needs to be better at messaging so they can get credit on Election Day for helping people.

But some voters, like John Fitzgerald (ph) of Florida, say it doesn't matter how great the promises are. The bills are taking forever, and it isn't Biden's fault.

JOHN FITZGERALD: He's trying to do big things. But, you know, the Congress is still going to stop him every chance they can. You can't do nothing right with Congress.

SNELL: A big part of the delay is that Democrats can't even agree among themselves about which policies should go in Biden's agenda or how much they should spend. And they need unanimous agreement in the Senate to get anything approved.

That is a huge frustration for people like Jennifer Merritt (ph), a Democrat from New York.

JENNIFER MERRITT: I'm like, dude, you have all the power right now. Use it while you can - you know? - before we lose it again.

SNELL: Her fears about Democrats losing aren't unfounded. Historically, the party that controls the White House loses seats in Congress in the next midterm election. In this case, that's less than a year away. Senate Democrats aim to pass the roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better bill by Christmas, but that doesn't give them much time to sell it to voters. The party faced this exact same challenge more than a decade ago with the Affordable Care Act.

BRENDAN NYHAN: I think Democrats should be cautious about assuming that the popularity of these bills will suddenly become known.

SNELL: That's Brendan Nyhan. He's a political scientist at Dartmouth University. Nyhan says the ACA wasn't popular when it passed, and it took about a decade and threats that Republicans would repeal the bill for Democrats to turn it into an electoral victory. A lot can change between now and Election Day. But Nyhan says one trend isn't likely to budge.

NYHAN: People these days vote very consistently up and down the ticket in a way that means that every Democrat is tied to Joe Biden's fortunes.

SNELL: NPR's latest poll shows Biden's approval remains at 42% - his lowest rating since he took office.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.