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Biden looks to recapture his political momentum with a full-court press on his domestic agenda

It’s all part of an effort to put himself more at the center of the legislative process, a place the longtime Delaware senator feels very comfortable. Acutely aware of the stakes, Biden has begun more directly involving himself in the strategy to see his priorities passed this autumn. He meets daily in the Oval Office with senior advisers for updates on legislative process and messaging strategy, repeatedly asking them to find ways to better explain the complicated and wide-ranging proposals in ways Americans can understand.

Biden’s weekend trip to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, is slated to include a heavy focus with his senior advisers on the critical weeks ahead — not just on his agenda, but also on looming, and equally high-stakes, battles to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling to avoid a catastrophic default, according to two officials.

He is planning to invite lawmakers to the White House next week to press on the economic package, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“Let’s not squander this moment,” Biden implored during a speech from the White House.

Now at the lowest approval rating of his nearly eight-month term — putting him, according to some polls, above only former Presidents Donald Trump and Gerald Ford at similar points in their tenures — Biden is pressing Democrats to put aside their ideological differences and pass what could become his lasting legislative legacy and a political lifeline. The bills have the potential to overhaul the nation’s physical infrastructure and the American social safety net for decades to come and would likely make Biden one of the most consequential Democratic presidents in decades.

The summertime slide in his popularity among Americans has frustrated the President and his team, who believe he is receiving little credit for a rapidly improving economy. Despite setbacks related to the Delta variant surge, the unemployment rate is down, wages are up and retail sales are improving — tied, in part, to the emergency measures Biden pushed through at the start of his term.

Yet the pandemic is still simmering, delaying a full return to workplaces and complicating the start of the school year for children. A CNN poll conducted by SSRS found 62% of Americans say economic conditions in the US are poor, up from 45% in April and nearly as high as the pandemic-era peak of 65% reached in May 2020.

Biden’s attention turns toward Capitol Hill

As a part of his recalibration to his domestic agenda, Biden has spent much more time speaking with Democrats on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, both on the phone and in person.

He spoke by telephone Thursday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to confer on a path forward on his massive legislative agenda.

“The three are in regular touch and engaging daily on bringing Build Back Better to the finish line,” the White House said afterward.

In conversations with other Democrats during periodic “congressional call time” blocked off on his daily schedule, Biden has repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping intact the tangible benefits in the bills that can be easily sold to the American people, according to people familiar with the talks. He has stressed that items like free community college and subsidized child care are clear political winners he says Democrats can campaign on for months or years to come.

Polling and messaging memos sent to congressional Democrats and outside allies have sought to double down on this point, while also pushing lawmakers to focus on a bigger — and more populist — picture, rather than get bogged down in the policy disputes that are raging on both sides of the Capitol.

“He’s been actively engaged over the last couple of months in helping members of Congress who are more centrists or who are progressive understand and embrace his agenda,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who is close to the President.

“President Biden is very persuasive,” Coons said, “and I think he’s making the case and making it well.”

Implicit in Biden’s message, as well as those coming from his senior team, is also the clear reality of the moment, according to people familiar with the discussions: For Democrats, there is no alternative path at this point. The specific policy proposals may shift or shrink in scale or duration, but there is no turning back or a broad shift in course in the cards.

If Democrats — particularly those who are skittish about the political repercussions of enacting such sweeping changes to the role of government in the US economy — can’t unify now, they will likely be left with nothing.

White House tries to keep a level head

It is impossible to know whether Biden’s current political predicament will last, and some of his aides are confident that improvements in the pandemic and distance from the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal will help reverse the fall in approval. They note it is still more than a year before the 2022 midterm elections, when historically the sitting President’s party suffers.

A positive result for California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, for whom Biden campaigned on the eve of his recall vote this week, has also led to renewed confidence in the administration’s fights over mask-wearing, vaccines and more.

“California won’t end the Covid debate,” a White House adviser told CNN, “but it could be a tremendous boost for what Democrats are trying to do.”

Biden’s team, during last year’s presidential campaign, prided itself on avoiding overly reactive steps when negative polls emerged. Officials stress there is no sense of panic in the West Wing, largely pointing to clear opportunities in the high-stakes weeks ahead as clear and tangible opportunities to shift the dynamics that overtook Biden’s first summer in office.

But like any political operation, advisers remain highly attuned to shifts in public sentiment, studying focus groups and surveys from top Democratic pollsters who work on behalf of the White House and the Democratic Party.

To be sure, any comparisons in approval ratings between Biden and his predecessors are filled with caveats, given the acrid political climate and the remarkable changes in the presidency over the decades.

The chaos that surrounded the Afghanistan withdrawal has led some advisers to recognize there is less room for error going forward. The drop in Biden’s approval ratings has prompted what one adviser called a “hardening” of the President’s mission to see his sweeping agenda passed.

The White House softens on a $3.5 trillion price tag

That will require all of Biden’s remaining political capital to regain the initiative and see that plan realized. After containing the Covid pandemic — which is proving to be a prolonged struggle — aides view passage of the two bills as the single most critical element to Biden’s overall political recovery. Yet Democrats are divided over the size and scope of the plan, and the President can afford to lose almost none of them if he hopes to see his vision enacted.

This week, before leaving for his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Biden began meeting in-person with moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, hearing out their concerns about the amount of spending. With Manchin, he listened patiently to a proposal that would more than halve the size of the final bill. Biden has not endorsed that plan, but also hasn’t yet had luck in convincing the skeptical Democrat to come along with his.

In public, Biden has begun signaling the final bill could come in below $3.5 trillion, the figure proposed in an initial blueprint. White House officials acknowledge that’s a near certainty at this point in order to secure the votes of Manchin and Sinema. The ever-present balancing act between moderates and progressives has become even more acute as a result.

But Biden is pressuring Democrats to avoid stripping out what he believes will prove to be the bill’s most salient selling points.

“I think the important thing is to make sure we meet the moment on the key items. Maybe they have to be cut down in size — maybe. Maybe they have to be shortened in duration — maybe,” said Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, in an appearance this week at the annual SALT conference organized by Anthony Scaramucci, the financier who briefly served in Trump’s White House.

“This is what we’re going to do over the next few weeks with the House and Senate,” Klain said, listing items like childcare and climate change as essential factors to a final bill. “You can go down the line. We think about this as an investment not just in people and spending but in economic growth, job creation, and doing the things we really need to do to build long-term growth.”

Progressives warned Biden that greater risk exists in significantly reducing his package than in passing something too large. They said his engagement with moderates like Manchin and Sinema is worthwhile, but that eroding the bill’s safety net provisions would prove damaging in the long run.

“I think he’s doing the right thing — to use the full weight of his presidency, and the people expect no less and deserve no less,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat. “They have delivered a House, a Senate, and a White House with the decisive majority and a mandate. I know that there are some who fear that if we are too bold, we risk the majority. I would argue that by playing small, that that is what will risk the majority.”

The world is not waiting

The singular importance of passing the economic agenda does not mean other issues are not looming. Biden is about to enter an intensive week of global diplomacy — annual United Nations meetings in New York, bilateral meetings on the sidelines, a virtual Covid summit and in-person talks with foreign leaders at the White House — as allies are still smarting over the Afghanistan withdrawal.

At least two other western allies, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, have reshuffled their foreign ministers as a result of the withdrawal. Biden has shown no similar willingness to fire or replace Secretary of State Antony Blinken or his national security adviser Jake Sullivan. But a series of congressional oversight hearings have ensured the issue remains in the news cycle.

Officials also say they are keenly aware that the American citizens who remain on the ground in Afghanistan, even if comprised mostly of dual citizens who have wavered on whether to leave the country and their extended families, create no shortage of potential issues that could immediately thrust Afghanistan right back to center stage, regardless of the fact that Biden and his team have pointedly shifted away from the issue in the last few weeks.

At the same time, the President’s Covid strategy is being tested as the government rushes to enact sweeping new vaccine mandates the President unveiled last week. Officials said additional steps, like requiring vaccines for air travel, haven’t been ruled out. For now, however, the focus is ensuring the new rules are rolled out smoothly.

Biden, amid the competing issues, is still preparing to scale up his engagement with members of Congress as they finalize the massive social safety net bill while also working to avoid a government shutdown or default.

The President and his aides have spent the past several days engaged in negotiations with lawmakers and their staffs over how to fund the contents of Biden’s proposals. In a speech added to Biden’s schedule on Thursday, he turned up pressure on Democrats to coalesce around plans to increase taxes on the wealthy.

“I believe we’re at an inflection point in this country,” Biden said from the White House East Room, delivering a 22-minute speech that hit on nearly everything he wants included in Democrats’ upcoming bill. “One of those moments where the decisions we’re about to make can change — literally change — the trajectory of our nation for years and possibly decades to come.”

The outcome of the bill could also change the trajectory of Biden’s presidency.

If successful, the package would become a centerpiece of Biden’s political argument heading into next year’s midterms. Yet if the plan flounders, there are questionable prospects for any other pieces of major legislation — on voting rights, immigration or women’s health — that comprise the rest of Biden’s list of priorities.

Biden’s allies say they are trying to shift focus from the topline number of the package to its contents.

“I have been saying to people: We ought not be talking about these numbers. Let’s talk about what needs to be done, and let’s put forth our proposals to address those needs, and then let’s look at what the number may or may not be, and then we can make some informed decision,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a top Biden ally. “Right now, we are just talking about a number, and nobody is talking about what we’re trying to do.”

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