WASHINGTON (AP) – In more than five decades in Washington, Joe Biden knew the way to make an impact was to be in the room where it happens. But in the second year of his presidency, some of Biden’s most impressive and legacy-defining legislative victories have come by staying out of it.
A summer legislative flurry sent bipartisan bills to address gun violence and strengthening the country’s high-tech manufacturing sector in Biden’s office, and the president is now on the verge of securing what he called the “final piece” of his economic agenda with the sudden resurrection of a Democrat-only climate and prescription drug deal. And in a reversal for the president who has long touted his decades of experience on Capitol Hill, Biden aides attribute his victories to the fact that he publicly played the role of cheerleader rather than lawmaker.
“In a 50-50 Senate, it’s just true that when the White House takes ownership of an issue, it scares a lot of Republicans,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “I think this is all intentional. When you step back and let Congress lead and then apply pressure and help at the right times, it can be a much more effective strategy for getting things done.”
Democrats and the White House are hoping for a series of legislative victories, both bipartisan and nonpartisan, just four months before the November election it will help revive their political fortunes by showing voters what they can achieve with even the smallest of majorities.
Biden opened 2022 with his legislative agenda at a standstill, his poll numbers slipping and a frank admission that he had made a “mistake” in how he played himself in the role.
“The public doesn’t want me to be ‘President-Senator,'” he said. “They want me to be president and let senators be senators.”
Letting senators be senators was no easy feat for Biden, whose political and personal identities are rooted in the formative years he spent in that chamber.. He spent 36 years as a senator from Delaware and eight more as Senate president when he was valued for his connections and knowledge on Capitol Hill as Barack Obama’s vice president.
As Biden stepped back, he let aides do much of the direct negotiating. His legislative strategy, instead, has focused more on using his role as president to provide strategic leverage for his agenda with both lawmakers and voters.
In the estimation of many of his aides and advisers, leaving the Senate behind him was the key to his later success. Heightened expectations for Democrats, who hold precarious majorities in Congress but nonetheless have unified control of Washington, drew Biden to supporters who wanted more ambitious action.
The sometimes unpleasant horse-trading required to reach consensus often leaves the president deep in the weeds and uninspired. And the dramatic breakdowns of the negotiations on the way to the final deal proved all the more enticing because Biden himself was involved in the talks.
In the spring of 2021, Biden made a big show of negotiating directly with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, RW.Va., on an infrastructure bill, only to have talks break down over the scope of the package and how to finance it. At the same time, a separate bipartisan group was quietly meeting alone, discussing how to fix the nation’s transportation, water and broadband systems. After the White House gave its approval, this became the version that became law.
The president then tried to broker a deal on a sweeping social spending and climate package with Sen. Joe Manchin, going so far as to invite the West Virginia lawmaker to his home in Wilmington, Delaware.until the conservative Democrat abruptly pulled the plug about the conversations in a Fox News interview. Manchin would later resume negotiations, this time with only Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and the two would eventually reach an agreement which is now on the verge of Senate approval after more than a year of legislative wrangling.
In late 2021, White House aides persuaded the president to claim his talks with Hill as part of a deliberate shift to move negotiations on his legislative agenda out of the public eye. The West Wing, once quick with the news that Biden had called that lawmaker or invited that caucus to the White House for a meeting, fell silent.
The new approach drew criticism from the press, but the White House bet the public wasn’t invested in the details and would reward the results.
Biden and his team are “using the bully pulpit and working closely with Congress to fight for policies that lower costs for families and fight inflation, strengthen our competitiveness against China, act against gun violence” and help veterans, said White House spokesman Andrew Bates. . “He also asked his Cabinet, senior staff, and legislative team to engage continuously with key lawmakers as we work together to achieve what could soon be the most productive legislative record of any president” by Lyndon Johnson.
Some of the changes, White House aides said, also reflect the changing dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept Biden in Washington for most of 2021. His meetings with lawmakers were one of the few ways to to show that he was working. As the pandemic subsided and Biden was able to return to holding more in-person events with constituents and lobbyists, he was able to use those arrangements to get his message directly to the people.
The subtle transformation did not immediately pay dividends: Biden’s approval rating only continued to decline amid legislative inaction and soaring inflation.
But over time, Biden’s decision to embrace a facilitator role rather than chief negotiator — which had mixed success — began to pay off: the first meaningful gun restrictions in nearly three decades, a measure to strengthen domestically produced semiconductor computer chips. and care for veterans exposed to toxic burns.
White House officials believe Biden’s emotional speech after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, helping to mobilize lawmakers to act on gun violence — and even his push for more far-reaching measures than made it into the bill giving the GOP room to strike a compromise. And they point to a steady pace of speeches for months emphasizing the need to lower prescription drug costs or act on climate by keeping those issues in the national conversation amid legislative battles and starts.
In turn, both Democrats and GOP lawmakers say Biden’s removal directly from the negotiations has allowed senators to reach consensus among themselves without the distraction of a White House that can he has repeatedly pushed for something that would be unachievable with Republicans or could be seen as a compromise by some Democrats.
“The president kind of said we’re staying out,” said Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, referring to the gun talks earlier this year. “I think it was helpful.”
However, being hands off by no means meant that management was absent.
Instead of being in the room as the arms deal was finalized, White House aides stayed on the phone, explaining how the administration would likely interpret and regulate the law senators were working on. Murphy spoke with White House officials every day, and when the Connecticut senator met with Biden in person in early June to offer a briefing, the president never gave him an ultimatum about what he was or wasn’t willing to sign — continuing to defer to legislators.
Elsewhere during the arms negotiations, rumors swirled that the administration was considering barring the Pentagon from selling certain types of surplus ammunition to arms dealers, who then sell the ammunition commercially, according to two people familiar with the negotiations. discussions. But Republicans, notably Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, urged the White House to scrap those plans because they would run counter to the parameters of what negotiators had discussed on arms, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity. of anonymity to discuss details. private negotiations.
The White House eventually did, issuing a statement to a conservative publication that no such ammunition executive order was under consideration.
On the semiconductor package that Biden plans to sign into law on Tuesday, the administration held classified briefings for lawmakers that focused on how China is gaining influence in the computer chip sector and national security implications. Republicans have been in regular contact with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, a Biden Cabinet official who has developed a warm relationship across the aisle.
And on the Democrats’ climate and health care package, Manchin stressed that it was impossible to craft legislation of this size without input from the White House, though he did not directly engage with Biden until the end, when the president called inform Manchin that the White House would support his deal with Schumer, according to an official familiar with the call.
Biden was also left out of last-minute deliberations involving Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. and she and the president did not speak even after Democrats worked out a deal that satisfied her demands.
“At heart, Joe is a U.S. senator,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the lead Democratic author of the burn legislation who also helped hammer out the infrastructure law last year. “So he understands that letting it work is the way you do it.”