Biden the negotiator faces the Capitol Hill traffic jam
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WASHINGTON — President Biden entered the White House promising to engage with Congress in a way few presidents have ever had, thanks to his three decades as a senator. A year later, with much of his agenda mired in congressional gridlock, Mr. Biden is changing his tack — a stark admission that his approach to governance so far has failed.
Mr. Biden will step back from the tangle of day-to-day negotiations with members of his own party that have rendered him powerless to advance key priorities, senior White House advisers say. The change is part of an intentional reset of the way he spends his time, aimed at emphasizing his power to govern as president, rather than getting trapped in a series of battles in Congress.
Four internal strategy memos drafted by White House advisers this week lay out the change ahead of Mr. Biden’s first State of the Union address to Congress on March 1: The president will step up his attacks on Republicans before the midterm election campaigns to help Democratic candidates. He will travel further across the country and engage with voters. And he will focus more on what he has already achieved than on the legislative victories he hopes to achieve.
The president also plans to use his executive power to help former inmates reintegrate into society and reform policing, after legislation on the latter issue failed last year, according to several aides. from the White House and someone familiar with the plans, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.
“If I made a mistake, I’m used to negotiating to get things done, and I’ve done relatively well in the U.S. Senate in the past, even as vice president,” said Mr. Biden in a press conference on Wednesday. “But I think this role of president is a different role.”
“The public doesn’t want me to be the ‘senator-president,'” Mr Biden said. “They want me to be the president and senators to be senators.”
It was a stark public admission for a politician who has been in public life, first as a senator from Delaware and later as a vice president, for nearly half a century. For much of his first year as president, Mr Biden preferred to talk about politics as “the art of the possible”, citing his history of negotiating in the Senate. (On Wednesday, he still couldn’t help but remind reporters that he had successfully coaxed Strom Thurmond, the late Republican and segregationist senator, into signing a new Voting Rights Act authorization in 1982.)
Mr Biden and his advisers say they are not giving up on passing a scaled-down version of his $2.2 trillion social spending bill, which has been stalled by fierce opposition from Republicans and of two senators from his own party. At Wednesday’s press conference, Mr Biden said he was confident he would be able to pass a package including some of his energy and environment provisions, but said he would needed to focus more on engagement with constituents.
A memo to Mr. Biden from Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, promised a renewed focus on amplifying the president’s accomplishments, such as passing the coronavirus stimulus package, the law infrastructure and the distribution of millions of vaccines. The White House must also focus on accomplishments that make a difference in people’s lives, such as jobs created through stimulus and infrastructure plans, according to the memo.
The president’s advisers are skeptical of recent suggestions from some progressive lawmakers that Biden should issue a series of far-reaching executive orders and actions to simply implement his stalled social policy legislation through administrative means. . White House officials have said the president lacks the authority for those arrangements, several said.
But they said the new strategy contemplates the use of executive actions where possible to show Mr Biden is addressing the issues facing the United States. They cited his recent purchase of a billion Covid tests in response to shortages as an example of the kind of presidential actions that will be central to his efforts.
“You are going to see President Biden remind Americans in the weeks to come why they voted for him, for his decency, his humility and his empathy,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and close confidant of Mr. Biden. . He said Mr Biden needed to get away from Washington, where he’s been bogged down with a handful of lawmakers, and meet real Americans to show he understands their struggles.
The reset is a response to growing anxiety inside and outside the White House about the administration’s political trajectory and the perception that Mr. Biden’s presidency has been hijacked by moderate Democratic senators like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona as well as progressives. like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, and Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont.
These factions remain deeply divided among themselves on a number of policy areas, but most agree that something needs to change.
“The strategy of the last five months has obviously failed – and that strategy was to beg, cajole and have endless conversations with Manchin and Sinema,” Mr. Sanders said. “Our job now is to show the American people what we stand for and what the Republicans stand for.”
Privately, some of the president’s allies have also raised questions about Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, who is deeply involved in crafting strategy and messaging for Mr Biden, particularly on domestic politics. , the pandemic and the economy. But Mr Biden insisted on Wednesday that he did not foresee any immediate staff reshuffles.
Despite wafer-thin congressional majorities and a deeply polarized country, Mr. Biden had early success pushing through pandemic relief and a bipartisan plan to invest in infrastructure.
But much of his agenda — the trillion-dollar social spending bill, police reform, voting rights protections, climate action — is all but dead, stalled by outright opposition. and simple of the Republicans and the deep disagreements between the Democrats.
The president’s inability to break through either of those dynamics was on full display last week when Mr. Biden made a failed last-ditch effort to contest votes for changes to Senate rules on the right of voting.
At the meeting on Capitol Hill, Mr. Biden expressed his desire to see the type of Senate he remembers serving in, when lawmakers from different parties gathered in the Senate cafeteria to eat together, according to a person in the room during his remarks. Mr Biden said today’s empty dining room was evidence of the bedroom’s current dysfunction.
The president also urged senators to pass a filibuster exemption to pass voting rights legislation. But Ms. Sinema undermined Mr. Biden moments before he arrived on Capitol Hill, when she declared her opposition to such a plan. Without his vote, Democrats don’t have enough votes to make those changes.
At the end of the meeting, the president had to admit that he had failed.
“The honest answer to God is: I don’t know if we can do it,” Biden told reporters.
Still, Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third Democrat in the House and the longest-serving black lawmaker in Congress, said he told the president in a lengthy phone call Saturday night to “maintain the cape, you are doing exactly what needs to be done.”
Mr. Clyburn said Mr. Biden’s task was to acknowledge racial inequality, income inequality and the damage wrought by four years under Donald J. Trump.
“I don’t know why it is that people tend to want to dismiss the last four or five years,” Mr Clyburn said.
There will be far fewer public meetings between Mr Biden and lawmakers in the future, aides say, and more private phone calls.
Sen. Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said he has no doubt that Democrats need to rethink their all-or-nothing strategy on giant bills.
“A lot of people are struggling right now, and what they’re looking for from their government is help in stabilizing their lives,” Schatz said. “When they see the unstable government, they get frustrated.”
Jonathan Weismann and Emily Cochrane contributed report.
Biden the negotiator faces the Capitol Hill traffic jam
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