Build Back Better Was Always a God-awful Name

Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

When President — sorry, Senator — Joe Manchin put the kibosh on Build Back Better back in December, he may have done serious damage to the climate and deprived millions of lower-income Americans the chance at quality health care. But he has also inadvertently given Democrats a precious opportunity to replace the execrable name that has been attached to their domestic agenda. As the party tries to tug Manchin toward a more focused and cheaper version of their scuttled bill, they shouldn’t just ditch some of the measures that so offended the West Virginian, like giving poor kids too much money. They should also view this interregnum as a much-needed rebranding opportunity.

With Manchin having made it clear about 47 times that Build Back Better is well and truly dead, it looks like Democrats are starting to move in the right direction, moniker-wise. Last month, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, she of sound political instincts, said, “We may have to rename it.” Hawaii senator Brian Schatz went farther a couple of weeks later, telling NBC News, “That old name needs to go in the trash can.” This week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House would be fine with discarding it.

The sooner the better. As a name, Build Back Better has one thing and one thing only to recommend it: alliteration. Thanks to the three B’s that were surely integral to its selection, it is, to get linguistically technical, kind of fun to say. But the appeal stops there. Build Back Better is otherwise a dud — an anodyne, mealy-mouthed, focus-grouped feeling dud.

Build Back Better commits the cardinal sin of any political slogan: It’s unclear. What does the phrase mean in this context, when you think about it? What are we building back from? Trump’s reign of terror? The pandemic? The rise of “impact” as a verb? As horrific as COVID-19 has been, it’s not like we’re reconstructing society from the ashes with the power of musical theater, Station Eleven–style.

The best-named ambitious pieces of legislation tell a coherent story in a few syllables. The New Deal — now that was a name you could set your watch to. It didn’t require much explaining: The “old deal” was clearly working terribly for a huge portion of Americans. Now, FDR was clearly articulating, it was time for something completely different. LBJ’s the Great Society? Another winner. Yes, a little on the nebulous side, but also noble — a clarion call to Americans who wanted to live up the country’s lofty ideals. Hell, even the Affordable Care Act was pretty good, in retrospect (even if Republicans hijacked it with “Obamacare”).

Build Back Better doesn’t recall those two worthy forebears as much as it brings to mind a technocratic nothing of a slogan like “Winning the Future” (2010s kids will — okay, might — remember).

The other compelling reason for Build Back Better to go: its unsavory associations with our closest ally. None other than U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson is a promoter of the very same slogan, flogging it since last year to promote his shambolic attempts at “leveling up” the North of England with the South. (He even released videos of himself making butter and cod-themed puns on the name.) It’s a bit of a muddle as to whether BoJo or Biden began using it first, but the 46th president already has a storied history of lifting lines from British politicians, so the fact that there’s even a debate about who might have copied whom should have been a red flag. Besides, BoJo, who seems to have spent at least 70 percent of the pandemic attending verboten parties, is now on the political brink. Like the original bill itself, he carries with him the stench of failure.

The phrase Build Back Better, it turns out, first gained prominence as the umbrella term for disaster-relief efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. And that made perfect sense. Who wouldn’t want to build back better in the wake of that infrastructure-destroying catastrophe? The name experienced a revival after another natural disaster, the 2010 Haiti earthquake (though it did not meet as much success there). But adopting it for the political sphere was clearly a mistake.

So what should replace it? Manchin may or may not be yanking everyone’s chain, but he has indicated that he might — might! — agree to a bill that includes some climate provisions along with measures that would expand Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act, that is) and lower the cost of prescription drugs, among other things. Democrats are famously terrible at communicating concrete achievements to voters. So why not just cut right to the heart of the matter on this one? Rather than come up with some ideas myself, I turned to Twitter, that hive mind of wisdom and groupthink:

Not bad. But maybe it should get even more specific?

Or maybe best to honor our favorite lawmaker’s big condition for approving any major new legislation?

Or just the man himself:

There’s a lot to work with here, but the point is that all of these tossed-off ideas, even the joke ones, are instantly superior to the original. Now imagine what 50 Democratic senators could do if they put their heads together …actually, might be better to just stick with Twitter on this one.

Build Back Better Was Always a God-awful Name