RICHMOND, Va. — As Chris Frelke surveyed the Thomas B. Smith Community Center, he conceded that the beige-and-green cinder block structure was not much to look at. But Mr. Frelke, the parks director in Virginia’s capital, spoke with excitement describing the image in his mind’s eye: One day, there would be a pristine new complex capable of providing services from child care to community college classes.
That dream complex is not some remote fantasy. The city of Richmond intends to build it in the next few years using $20 million from the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s trillion-dollar coronavirus-relief law. Richmond will receive a total of $155 million, a cash infusion that its Democratic mayor, Levar Stoney, called “a once-in-a-lifetime sort of investment.”
“This is akin to our New Deal,” Mr. Stoney said.
Unlike the New Deal, however, this $1.9 trillion federal investment in American communities has barely registered with voters. Rather than a trophy for Mr. Biden and his party, the program has become a case study in how easily voters can overlook even a lavishly funded government initiative delivering benefits close to home.
Mr. Biden’s popularity has declined in polls over the past year, and voters are giving him less credit for the country’s economic recovery than his advisers had anticipated. In Virginia, Democrats got shellacked in the 2021 off-year elections amid the country’s halting emergence from the depths of the pandemic.
Gallup poll in March found that more Americans said they worried a great deal about inflation than any other issue. Crime and homelessness, both targets of rescue spending, were not far behind.
The American Rescue Plan, which also funded direct relief payments to voters and health programs like vaccine distribution, has been criticized by Republicans and some economists for pumping too much money into the economy and probably contributing to inflation.
Mr. Stoney said he had encouraged the White House to work with mayors and treat them as the “tip of the spear” in promoting its aid. Many Americans were still in a gloomy mood because of the pandemic, the mayor said, and Democrats had not done a very good job of communicating about the plan.
“Not just the president, but it’s difficult even for us sometimes to break through some of the noise that’s out there,” he said.