WASHINGTON (AP) — For more than five decades in Washington, Joe Biden knew the way to influence was to be in the room where it happens. But in the second year of his presidency, some of Biden’s most striking, formative legislative victories came by staying out.
A summer legislative blitz has sent bipartisan bills to be addressed armed force and the advancement of the nation high-tech manufacturing sector at Biden’s desk, and the president is now on the verge of securing what he called the “final piece” of his economic agenda sudden resurgence of a deal on climate and prescription drugs reserved only for Democrats. And in a counterintuitive twist for the president, who has long promoted his decades of experience on Capitol Hill, Biden’s aides attribute his victories to the fact that he’s publicly played 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 an issue, it turns a lot of Republicans off,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “I think it’s all purposeful. If you step back and let Congress take the lead, and then push and help at the right time, it can be a much more effective strategy to get things done.
Democrats and the White House are hoping for a string of legislative victories, both bipartisan and non-partisan, with just four months to go November elections will help revitalize their political destiny by showing voters what they can achieve with even the smallest majority.
Biden entered 2022 with his legislative agenda at a standstill, poll numbers in decline and an open acknowledgment of it he had made a “mistake” in how he acted 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 identities run deep he spent his formative years in this chamber. He spent 36 years as a Delaware Senator and eight more as Senate President, during which time he was valued for his ties to Capitol Hill and his insights as Barack Obama’s vice president.
When Biden stepped back, he left the advisers to handle much of the direct negotiation. His legislative strategy instead focused more on using his role as president to bring strategic nudges to his agenda with both lawmakers and voters.
According to many of his aides and advisers, leaving the Senate was key to his later success. Heightened expectations of Democrats, who hold precarious majorities in Congress but still have unified control of Washington, dragged Biden down among his supporters who wanted more ambitious measures.
The sometimes unsavory horse-trading required to reach consensus often left the president deep in the weeds and under-inspired. And the dramatic breakdowns in negotiations en route to a 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 derail talks about the size of the package and how to fund it. At the same time, a separate cross-party group had been quietly meeting and discussing how the country’s transport, water and broadband systems could be overhauled. After the White House gave initial approval and then settled the final details with the senators, this became the version that was led to the law.
Next, the president tried to reach an agreement with Sen on a comprehensive social spending and climate package. Joe Manchin and went so far as to invite the West Virginia legislature to his home Home in Wilmington, Delawareuntil the conservative Democrat abruptly pulled the plug about the talks in a Fox News interview. Manchin would later resume negotiations, this time only with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., and the two would do it eventually reach an agreement that is now close to Senate approval after more than a year of legislative wrangling.
In late 2021, White House officials persuaded the president to remain silent about his discussions with The Hill, as part of a deliberate shift to keep negotiations on his legislative agenda out of the public eye. The west wing, which once rushed in with the news that Biden had called that legislature or invited that caucus to a meeting at the White House, was 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 have “used the mob pulpit and worked closely with Congress to fight for policies that lower family costs and fight inflation, make us more competitive with China, clamp down on gun violence,” and help veterans, he said White House spokesman Andrew Bates. “He has also directed his Cabinet, senior staff and legislative team to engage constantly with key lawmakers as we work together to achieve what may soon be the most productive legislative record of any president” since Lyndon Johnson.
Some of the shifts, White House staffers 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 hold more in-person events with voters and advocacy groups again, he was able to use those settings to get his message straight to the people.
The subtle transformation didn’t pay off immediately: Biden’s approval rating only continued to fall in the face of legislative inertia and rising inflation.
But over time, Biden’s decision to take on a supporting role rather than being a negotiator — which had met with mixed results — began to pay off: the first significant arms restrictions in nearly three decades, a measure to boost domestic production of semiconductor computer chips, and care for Veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
White House officials credit Biden’s emotional speech after Uvalde, Texas shooting, by helping to push lawmakers to act on gun violence — and even his push for broader action when it was included in the bill by giving the GOP room to reach a compromise. And they point to a constant cadence of speeches over months emphasizing the need to cut prescription drug costs or respond to the climate by keeping these issues in the national conversation amid legislative spasms and beginnings.
In turn, both Democratic and GOP lawmakers say Biden is withdrawing directly from negotiations that have empowered senators to reach a consensus among themselves without the distraction of a White House that may have repeatedly pushed for something Republicans can’t would be or could be considered compromising by some Democrats.
“The President kind of said we stay out,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said, referring to the gun talks earlier this year. “I think that was helpful.”
Being hands off, however, in no way meant the administration was absent.
Rather than being in the room while a gun deal was being struck, White House officials stayed on the phone, explaining how the government was likely to interpret and regulate the bill the senators were drafting. Murphy spoke to White House officials every day, and when the Connecticut senator met with Biden in person in early June to offer an update, the president never gave him an ultimatum as to what he was willing or unwilling to sign — and continued to do subject to the legislature.
At another point during the arms talks, rumors swirled that the administration was considering blocking the Pentagon from selling certain types of surplus ammunition to arms dealers, who would then sell the ammunition commercially, according to two people familiar with the deliberations. But Republicans, primarily Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, urged the White House to scrap those plans because it would contradict parameters the arms negotiators had discussed, the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said to discuss details of private negotiations.
The White House eventually did so, issuing a statement to a Conservative publication that no such executive order on munitions was being considered.
On the semiconductor package that Biden plans to sign on Tuesday, the administration organized secret briefings for lawmakers that highlighted how China is gaining influence computer chip sector and the implications for national security. Republicans have been in regular contact with Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, a Biden cabinet official who has forged warm ties across the aisle.
And on the Democrat-line climate and health package, Manchin has stressed that it is impossible to draft legislation of this magnitude without input from the White House, although he only addressed Biden directly towards the end when the president called for Manchin to know that the White House would support its agreement with Schumer, according to an official with knowledge of the call.
Biden also stayed out of last-minute deliberations Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and she and the President did not even speak as Democrats struck an agreement that met their demands.
“At his heart, Joe is a US senator,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the Democratic lead writer on the burn pits legislation, who also helped draft the infrastructure bill last year. “So he understands that if you let it work, it works.”