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Aug. 7, 2022, 8:25 p.m. EDT

By taking a strategic step back, Biden finds legacy-defining victories

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By Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Over five decades in Washington, Joe Biden knew that 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, legacy-defining legislative victories came about by staying out of it.

A summer lawmaking blitz has sent bipartisan bills addressing  gun violence  and boosting the nation’s  high-tech manufacturing sector  to Biden’s desk, and the president is now on the cusp of securing what he called the “final piece” of his economic agenda with  Senate passage of a Democrats-only climate and prescription drug deal once thought dead.  And in a counterintuitive turn for the president who has long promoted his decades of Capitol Hill experience, Biden’s aides chalk up his victories to the fact that he’s been 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 over a topic, it scares off a lot of Republicans,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “I think all of this is purposeful. When 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 to get things done.”

Democrats and the White House hope the run of legislative victories, both bipartisan and not, just four months before the  November elections  will help resuscitate their political fortunes by showing voters what they can accomplish with even the slimmest of majorities.

Biden opened 2022 with his legislative agenda at a standstill, poll numbers on the decline 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 the president and let senators be senators.”

Letting the senators be senators was no easy task for Biden, whose political and personal identities are rooted in  his formative years spent in that chamber . He spent 36 years as a senator from Delaware, and eight more as the Senate’s president when he was valued for his Capitol Hill relationships and insights as Barack Obama’s vice president.

As Biden took a step back, he left it to aides to do much of the direct negotiating. His legislative strategy, instead, focused more on using his role as president to provide strategic jolts of urgency for his agenda both with lawmakers and voters.

In the estimation of many of his aides and advisers, leaving the Senate behind was key to his subsequent success. The heightened expectations for Democrats, who hold precarious majorities in Congress but nonetheless have unified control of Washington, were dragging Biden down among his supporters who wanted more ambitious action.

The sometimes unsavory horse-trading required to win consensus often put the president deep in the weeds and short on inspiration. And the dramatic negotiating breakdowns on the way to an ultimate deal proved to be all the more tantalizing because Biden himself was a party to the talks.

In the spring of 2021, Biden made a big show of negotiating directly with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., on an infrastructure bill, only to have the talks collapse over the scope of the package and how to finance it. At the same time, a separate bipartisan group had been quietly meeting on its own, discussing how to overhaul the nation’s transportation, water and broadband systems. After the White House gave initial approval and then settled the final details with senators, that became the version that was  shepherded into law.

The president next tried to strike a deal on a sweeping social spending and climate package with Sen. Joe Manchin, going as far as inviting the West Virginia lawmaker to his  home in Wilmington, Delaware , until the conservative Democrat abruptly  pulled the plug  on the talks in a Fox News interview. Manchin would later pick up the negotiations again, this time with just Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and the two would  eventually reach an agreement  that the Senate approved Sunday after more than a year of legislative wrangling.

In late 2021, White House aides persuaded the president to clam up about his conversations with the Hill, as part of a deliberate shift to move negotiations on his legislative agenda out of the public eye. The West Wing, once swift with the news that Biden had called this lawmaker or invited that caucus to the White House for a meeting, kept silent.

The new approach drew criticism from the press, but the White House wagered that the public was not invested in the details and would reward the outcomes.

Biden and his team “have been using the bully pulpit and closely working with Congress to fight for policies that lower costs for families and fight inflation, strengthen our competitiveness versus China, act against gun violence” and help veterans, said White House spokesman Andrew Bates. “He also directed his Cabinet, senior staff and legislative team to engage constantly with key lawmakers as we work together to achieve what could soon be the most productive legislative record of any president” since Lyndon Johnson.

Some of the shift, White House aides said, also reflected the changing dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept Biden in Washington for most of 2021; his meetings with lawmakers amounted to one of the few ways to show he was working. As the pandemic eased and Biden was able to return to holding more in-person events with voters and interest groups, he was able to use those settings to drive his message directly to people.

The subtle transformation did not immediately pay dividends: Biden’s approval rating only continued to slide amid legislative inertia and soaring inflation.

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