Sen. Joe Manchin III single-handedly controlled the fate of the Inflation Reduction Act, the giant budget-climate law Democrats rammed through Congress last year.
Despite the conservative West Virginia Democrat’s pivotal role, Mr. Manchin runs hot and cold on the law, some days threatening to repeal his signature accomplishment while other days singing its praises.
This week, as the law reached the one-year mark, the Democrat leaned toward the praise camp, calling it “one of the most historic pieces of legislation passed in decades for working and middle-class families.”
At the same time, however, Mr. Manchin said the Biden administration has hijacked the law to carry out a “radical climate agenda” that ill-serves his West Virginia constituents.
Mr. Manchin is emblematic of the complicated politics of the law, which President Biden insists is already paying dividends, though there’s little sense voters are giving Democrats much credit for it.
The law spanned 274 pages and included everything from $370 billion in green energy tax benefits to how the government pays for prescription drugs to corporate tax increases. The law also injected $80 billion into the IRS, which was ordered to audit more Americans.
Analysts said the law would end up saving the government money, which Democrats used to call it an inflation-fighting tool — thus its cumbersome name.
That’s also why it’s proved a tough sell.
“The words ‘Inflation Reduction Act’ don’t mean anything. It is provisions in the law that matter and making it relevant to groups Democrats need in particular states, especially where Senate challenges are real,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, whose past clients include former President Bill Clinton and former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “Good messaging makes a clear argument that’s emotionally driven and impossible to get past. Anything you have to explain, voters just don’t have time for it. Their brains are in other places.”
Republicans gleefully point to stubbornly high inflation numbers as evidence of the law’s failure.
“[Biden] claimed more spending would bring down prices. Once again, he was wrong,” said Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the No. 3 Senate Republican. “Prices are still going up. Americans are facing sky-high prices at the grocery store, at the gas pump, and while back-to-school shopping. They’re digging into their dwindling savings just to keep up.”
There’s been a reluctance among Democrats — particularly those in swing states — who voted for the law to campaign on the IRA and “Bidenomics.”
Top Democrats are aware of the headwinds.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer this week prodded fellow Democrats to aggressively embrace the law on the campaign trail, urging them to be “persistent.” He told reporters that voters will eventually warm to the law.
“It’s going to sink in. It’ll take a little while. We have to be persistent at it and do it week after week,” the New York Democrat said. “We’re going to keep doing it — especially in the battleground states — week after week.”
Weak polling and a lack of understanding among voters is fueling the administration’s cross-country PR campaign, which has featured Mr. Biden and officials traveling coast-to-coast to promote it. Those like John Podesta, a clean energy adviser to Mr. Biden, say the IRA will someday be like Obamacare — a GOP political punching bag that is too popular to repeal.
Mr. Biden marked the first anniversary with a speech from the East Room of the White House, tying the IRA to his broader “Bidenomics” approach.
“Guess what, it’s working,” Mr. Biden said in a hushed tone as he credited the law with combating climate change and simultaneously creating jobs. “When I think climate — not a joke — I think jobs. … I mean good-paying union jobs.”
For now, seven in 10 Americans in a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll said they’d heard little or nothing about the law. When prodded on specific policies like the green energy provisions in the IRA, they were supportive.
The survey also found that 57% disapproved of Mr. Biden’s handling of climate change, which he now says was the central thrust of the legislation.
Some of that dissatisfaction comes from liberal activists who say he’s not done enough.
Indeed, that was one of the criticisms the left had of the law, which they said fell far short of the stringent changes needed to head off a global climate catastrophe.
“It’s clear that the IRA is not enough,” Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said this week, pointing to record summer temperatures.
But Mr. Manchin, the linchpin in the legislative deal that allowed the bill to clear Congress, says the law in Mr. Biden’s hands has already been bent too far toward global warming and away from U.S. energy production.
“Going forward, I will push back on those who seek to undermine this significant legislation for their respective political agenda, and that begins with my unrelenting fight against the Biden administration’s efforts to implement the IRA as a radical climate agenda instead of implementing the IRA that was passed into law,” he said.
Mr. Manchin, who has not announced whether he will seek re-election next year, is seen as the most vulnerable senator, and Republicans are eagerly using the IRA against him.
One Nation, a non-profit linked to the Mitch McConnell-connected Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, unveiled a six-figure digital ad buy Wednesday against Mr. Manchin.
The 30-second spot calls on Mr. Manchin to “defend our coal jobs, not D.C. liberals’ climate policy.”