WASHINGTON — President Biden entered the White House and pledged to deal with Congress in a way few presidents ever did, thanks to his three decades as a senator. A year later, with much of his agenda bogged down in a congressional freeze, Mr. Biden changes his approach — a stark admission that his approach to governing has thus far been flawed.
According to senior White House advisers, Biden will withdraw from the maze of daily negotiations with members of his own party, leaving him powerless to set important priorities. The change is part of a deliberate reset in how he spends his time focused on emphasizing his power to rule as president, rather than getting caught up in a series of congressional battles.
Four internal strategy memos prepared this week by White House advisers outline the shift 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 ahead of Mr. the midterm election campaigns to help the Democrats candidates. He will travel more around the country and interact with voters. And he will focus more on what he has already achieved than on legislative victories he hopes to achieve.
The president also plans to use his executive power to help former inmates return to society and reform police forces after legislation on the latter issue was not passed last year, according to several White House officials and a person familiar with the plans. who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the strategy.
“If I’ve made a mistake, I’m used to negotiating to get things done, and I’ve been relatively successful in that in the United States Senate in the past, even as vice president,” said Mr. Biden in a statement. press conference on Wednesday. “But I think that role as president is a different role.”
“The public doesn’t want me to be the ‘presidential senator,'” Biden said. “They want me to be president and let senators be senators.”
It was a striking public admission for a politician who has stood in public life for nearly half a century, first as a Delaware senator and later as vice president. For much of his first year as president, Mr. Biden preferred to say that politics was “the art of the possible,” citing his history of negotiating in the Senate. (On Wednesday, he still couldn’t help reminding reporters that he successfully urged Strom Thurmond, the late Republican senator and segregationist, to re-enable the Voting Rights Act in 1982.)
Mr. Biden and his advisers say they are not abandoning approval of a scaled-down version of his $2.2 trillion social spending bill, which has been thwarted by fierce opposition from Republicans and two senators in his own party. At Wednesday’s press conference, Mr Biden said he was confident he could approve a package that includes some provisions on energy and the environment, but said he needed to focus more on outreach to voters.
A memo to Mr Biden from White House communications director Kate Bedingfield promised a renewed focus on bolstering the president’s achievements, such as the approval of the coronavirus stimulus package, the infrastructure bill and the distribution of millions of vaccines. The White House should also focus on achievements that make a difference in people’s lives, such as jobs created by the stimulus and infrastructure packages, according to the memo.
The president’s advisers are skeptical of recent suggestions from some progressive lawmakers that Biden should issue a series of sweeping executive orders and actions to simply enact his stalled social policy legislation through administrative means. White House officials have said the president does not have the authority over those provisions, several said.
But they said the new strategy foresees the use of executive actions where possible to demonstrate that Mr. Biden is facing the United States’ problems. They pointed to his recent purchase of 1 billion Covid tests in response to shortages as an example of the kind of presidential actions that will be a key part of his efforts.
“You’ll see President Biden in the coming weeks reminding Americans why they voted for him, for his decency, humility and empathy,” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and close confidant of Mr. Biden. He said Biden needs to get out of Washington, where he’s stuck with a handful of lawmakers, and meet real Americans to show he understands their struggle.
The reset is in response to growing concerns 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 such as Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. , as well as by progressives. such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, and Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont.
Those factions remain deeply divided over a number of policy areas, but most agree that something needs to change.
“The strategy of the past five months has clearly failed – and that strategy has been to beg and flatter and have endless conversations with Manchin and Sinema,” said Mr Sanders. “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 White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who is deeply involved in developing strategy and messaging for Mr. Biden, particularly on domestic policy, the pandemic and the economy. But Mr Biden insisted on Wednesday that he is not planning any immediate personnel changes.
Despite a wafer-thin Congressional majority and a highly polarized country, Biden had early successes pushing through pandemic relief and a two-pronged plan to invest in infrastructure.
But much of its agenda — the trillion-dollar social spending bill, police reform, voting rights protection, climate action — is nearly dead, blocked by outright opposition from Republicans and deep disagreements among Democrats.
The president’s inability to break through any of those dynamics was met with great relief last week when Mr. Biden made a failed, last-ditch attempt to wrangle votes for changes to Senate voting rules.
During the meeting on Capitol Hill, Mr. Biden expressed his desire for the kind of senate he remembers serving when lawmakers from different parties met in the Senate canteen to eat together, according to a person in the room during his remarks. Mr Biden said today’s empty dining room is evidence of the current dysfunction in the room.
The president also urged senators to embrace an exemption for the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. But Ms. Sinema undermined Mr. Biden just before he arrived at the Capitol when she declared her opposition to such a plan. Without her vote, Democrats won’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 is, I don’t know if we can pull this off,” Biden told reporters.
Still, Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-largest Democrat in the House of Representatives and the highest-ranking black legislator in Congress, said he told the president in a lengthy phone call Saturday night to “stay on track, you do exactly what needs to be done.”
Mr. Clyburn said Mr. Biden’s job is to recognize racial inequality, income inequality and the damage done under Donald J. Trump four years ago.
“I don’t know why people tend to want to fire in the last four or five years,” said Mr. Clyburn.
There will be far fewer public meetings between Mr Biden and lawmakers in the future, aides say, and more private phone calls.
Hawaii Democrat Senator Brian Schatz said he had no doubts that Democrats needed to rethink their all-or-nothing strategy on massive pieces of legislation.
“A lot of people are going through a hard time right now, and what they want from their government is help to stabilize their lives,” Mr Schatz said. “When they see that the government is unstable, they get frustrated.”
Jonathan Weisman and Emily Cochrane reporting contributed.