Biden the Negotiator Confronts the Cold Reality of Capitol Hill Gridlock

WASHINGTON — President Biden entered the White House promising to engage with Congress in a way that few presidents ever had, thanks to his three decades as a senator. A year in, with much of his agenda mired in congressional gridlock, Mr. Biden is changing his approach — a stark admission that his approach to governing so far has fallen short.

Mr. Biden will retreat from the tangle of day-to-day negotiations with members of his own party that have made him seem powerless to advance key priorities, according to senior White House advisers. The change is part of an intentional reset in how he spends his time, aimed at emphasizing his power to govern as president, rather than getting trapped in a series of congressional battles.

Four internal strategy memos drafted by White House advisers this week lay out the shift ahead of Mr. Biden’s first State of the Union address to Congress on March 1: The president will ramp up his attacks on Republicans ahead of the midterm election campaigns to help Democratic candidates. He will travel the nation more and engage with voters. And he will focus more on what he has already accomplished than on legislative victories he hopes to achieve.

The president is also planning to use his executive power to help former inmates return to society and reform police departments, after legislation on the latter issue failed to pass last year, according to several White House aides and a person 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 been, in the past, relatively successful at it in the United States Senate, even as vice president,” Mr. Biden said in a news conference on Wednesday. “But I think that role as president — is a different role.”

“The public doesn’t want me to be the ‘president-senator,’” Mr. Biden said. “They want me to be the president and let senators be senators.”

It was a striking public admission for a politician who has been in public life, first as a senator of Delaware and later as vice president, for nearly half a century. For much of his first year as president, Mr. Biden preferred to wax about politics being “the art of the possible,” citing his history of negotiating in the Senate. (On Wednesday, he still could not resist reminding reporters that he had successfully prodded Strom Thurmond, the late Republican senator and segregationist, to sign onto a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 1982.)

Mr. Biden and his advisers say they are not giving up on passage of a scaled-back version of his $2.2 trillion social spending bill, which has been stymied by fierce opposition from Republicans and two senators in his own party. During the news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Biden said he was confident he would be able to pass a package that includes some of its provisions on energy and the environment, but said he needed to focus more on engaging with voters.

One memo to Mr. Biden from Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, promised a revamped focus on amplifying the president’s accomplishments, such as the passage of the coronavirus stimulus package, the infrastructure law and the distribution of millions of vaccines. The White House must also focus on achievements that make a difference in people’s lives, like jobs created through the stimulus and infrastructure packages, according to the memo.

The president’s advisers are skeptical of recent suggestions from some progressive lawmakers that Mr. Biden should issue a series of sweeping executive orders and actions to simply put in place his stalled social policy legislation through administrative means. White House officials have said that the president does not have the authority for those provisions, several said.

But they said the new strategy envisions the use of executive actions when possible to show that Mr. Biden is confronting issues facing the United States. 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 centerpiece of his efforts.

“You’re going to see President Biden remind Americans in the coming weeks why they voted for him, for his decency, humility, and empathy,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and a close confidant of Mr. Biden’s. He said Mr. Biden needs to get away from Washington, where he has been bogged down with a handful of lawmakers, and meet with 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 Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, and Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont.

Those 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 and 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 allies of the president have also raised questions about Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, who is deeply involved in developing strategy and messaging for Mr. Biden, especially on domestic policy, the pandemic and the economy. But Mr. Biden on Wednesday insisted he is not planning any immediate staff shake-ups.

Despite razor-thin majorities in Congress and a deeply polarized country, Mr. Biden had early successes 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 measures — is all but dead, blocked by outright opposition from Republicans and deep disagreements among Democrats.

The president’s inability to break through either of those dynamics was captured in stark relief last week when Mr. Biden made a failed, last-ditch effort to wrangle votes for Senate rules changes on voting rights.

During the meeting on Capitol Hill, Mr. Biden expressed a longing for the kind of Senate he remembers serving in, when lawmakers from different parties met 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 current dysfunction in the chamber.

The president also urged senators to embrace an exemption to the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. But Ms. Sinema undercut Mr. Biden just moments before he arrived at the Capitol, when she declared her opposition to such a plan. Without her vote, Democrats do not have enough votes to make those changes.

By the end of the meeting, the president was left to admit that he had failed.

“The honest to God answer is: I don’t know whether we can get this done,” Mr. Biden told reporters.

Still, Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat and the most senior Black lawmaker in Congress, said he told the president in a lengthy phone call on Saturday night to “stay the course, you are doing exactly what needs to be done.”

Mr. Clyburn said Mr. Biden’s task has been to recognize racial inequality, income inequality and the damage done 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 going forward, aides say, and more private phone calls.

Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said he had no doubt that Democrats had to rethink their all-or-nothing strategy on giant pieces of legislation.

“Lots of people are struggling right now, and what they want from their government is help stabilizing their lives,” Mr. Schatz said. “When they see the government unstable, they get frustrated.”

Jonathan Weisman and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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