WASHINGTON (AP) — For more than five decades in Washington, Joe Biden knew the way to exert influence was to be in the room where it’s happening. But in the second year of his presidency, some of Biden’s most notable legacy-defining legislative victories came about by staying out of it.
A summer legislative blitz has sent bipartisan bills to tackle gun violence and boosting the country’s high-tech manufacturing sector to Biden’s desk, and the president is now poised to secure what he called the “last piece” of his economic agenda with the sudden resurrection of a Democrats-only deal on climate and prescription drugs. And in a counterintuitive twist for the president who has long promoted his decades-long Capitol Hill experience, Biden’s aides attribute his wins to his publicly playing the role of cheerleader rather than legislative quarterback.
“In a 50-50 Senate, it’s just true that when the White House takes ownership of a subject, it puts off a lot of Republicans,” said D-Conn Senator Chris Murphy. “I think this is all purposeful. If 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 string of legislative victories, both bipartisan and not, just four months before November’s election will help revive their political fortunes by showing voters what they can achieve with even the smallest majorities.
Biden opened 2022 with a halt to his legislative agenda, dwindling polls and a candid admission that: he had made a “mistake” in how he carried himself in the role.
“The public doesn’t want me to be the ‘President-Senator’,” he said. “They want me to be president and let senators be senators.”
Letting the senators be senators was no easy task for Biden, whose political and personal identity is rooted in his formative years spent in that room.. He was a Delaware senator for 36 years, and eight more years as Senate president, when he was valued for his relationships and insights on Capitol Hill as Vice President to Barack Obama.
When Biden stepped back, he left it to aides to do much of the direct negotiations. In contrast, his legislative strategy was more focused on using his role as president to deliver strategic shocks of urgency to his agenda, among lawmakers and voters alike.
In the estimation of many of his aides and advisers, leaving the Senate behind was the key to his later success. The heightened expectations of Democrats, who have an uncertain majority in Congress but nevertheless have unified control of Washington, dragged Biden down among his supporters who wanted more ambitious action.
The sometimes unsavory horse-trading required to reach consensus often left the president in deep weeds and lack of inspiration. And the dramatic failures towards a final deal proved all the more tempting because Biden himself was a party to the talks.
In the spring of 2021, Biden made a big splash to negotiate an infrastructure bill directly with Senator Shelley Moore Capito, RW.Va., but talks collapsed over the package’s scope and how to fund it. At the same time, a separate bipartisan group had gathered in silence to discuss how to overhaul the country’s transportation, water and broadband systems. After the White House gave its approval, that became the version that was passed into law.
The president then attempted a deal on a sweeping social spending and climate package with Senator Joe Manchin, going as far as inviting the West Virginia legislature 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 Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., and the two would eventually reach an agreement. that is now on the cusp of Senate approval after more than a year of legislative wrangling.
In late 2021, White House aides persuaded the president to shut up about his talks with the Hill, as part of a deliberate shift to take negotiations on his legislative agenda out of the public eye. The West Wing, once quick with the news that Biden had called this lawmaker or invited that caucus to a meeting at the White House, remained silent.
The new approach received criticism from the press, but the White House bet the public was not invested in the details and would reward the results.
Biden and his team “use the bully’s pulpit and work 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 instructed his cabinet, senior staff and legislative team to continue to work with key lawmakers as we work together to achieve what could soon be the most prolific legislative record by a president” since Lyndon Johnson.
Part of the shift, White House officials said, also reflected the changing dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept Biden in Washington for most of 2021; his meetings with lawmakers were one of the few ways to show he was working. As the pandemic eased and Biden was able to return to holding more personal events with voters and advocacy groups, he was able to use those institutions to get his message straight to people.
The subtle transformation didn’t immediately pay off: Biden’s approval rating continued to decline amid legislative sluggishness and rising inflation.
But over time, Biden’s decision to play a facilitating role rather than chief negotiator — who had met with varying degrees of success — began to bear fruit: the first substantial arms restrictions in nearly three decades, a measure to limit domestic production of to boost semiconductor computer chips, and care for veterans exposed to toxic burns.
White House officials credit Biden’s Emotional Speech After the School Shooting in Uvalde, Texas, helping lawmakers act against gun violence — and even pushing for more comprehensive action than it made in law by giving the GOP room to compromise. And they point to a steady cadence of speeches over months emphasizing the need to lower the cost of prescription drugs or respond to climate change by keeping these issues in the national conversation amid the legal hurdles. and punches.
In turn, both Democratic and GOP lawmakers say Biden removed himself directly from the negotiations, allowing senators to reach consensus among themselves, without the distraction of a White House that has repeatedly pushed for something that would be out of reach for Republicans or that as compromises made by some Democrats.
“The president had more or less said we’re staying away,” said R-Ohio Senator Rob Portman, referring to the weapons talks earlier this year. “I think that was helpful.”
However, being absent in no way meant that the administration was absent.
Rather than being in the room while an arms deal was underway, White House aides stayed on the phone explaining how the administration would likely interpret and regulate the law senators were drafting. Murphy spoke to White House officials every day, and when the Connecticut senator met in person with Biden in early June to offer an update, the president never gave him an ultimatum on what he would or wouldn’t sign — the continued procrastination of legislators.
At another time during the arms negotiations, rumors circulated that the government was considering banning 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 deliberations. But Republicans, primarily Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, urged the White House to scrap those plans because it would violate the parameters of what the arms negotiators had discussed, the people said, who, on condition of spoke anonymity to discuss details of private negotiations.
The White House eventually did so by issuing a statement to a conservative publication that such an executive order over ammunition was not under consideration.
About the semiconductor package Biden plans to sign into law on Tuesday, the government held secret briefings for lawmakers highlighting how China is gaining leverage in the computer chip sector. and the implications for national security. Republicans were in regular contact with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, a Biden cabinet official who has established warm relations in the aisle.
And on the Democrats’ partisan climate and health care package, Manchin has emphasized that it is impossible to pass legislation of this magnitude without input from the White House, though he did not speak to Biden directly until the very end, when the president Manchin said the White House would support his agreement with Schumer, according to an official with knowledge of the call.
Biden also stayed out of the last minute deliberations with Senator Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and she and the president didn’t speak even when the Democrats reached an agreement that met her demands.
“At heart, Joe is a U.S. Senator,” said Senator Jon Tester, D-Mont., the lead Democratic author of the combustion well legislation, who also helped draft the infrastructure bill last year. “So he understands that making this work is how you get it done.”