Year 2: Biden plans more public relations, less legislation

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WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden has begun his second year in office with a new focus on making weary Americans believe they are better off under his leadership as he adopts a low-key agenda ahead of the midterm elections.

The persistence of the coronavirus, rising inflation and the deadlock in Congress have weighed bitterly on Biden’s approval rating and threaten his party’s medium-term routing, but the president sees no need for a major change in direction.

Instead, Biden told members of the Democratic National Committee during a virtual grassroots event Thursday that, by and large, Democrats need to offer a clearer contrast to Republicans going forward. He said the contrast he hopes to paint is between the Democrats’ agenda and the lack of it from the Republican Party, which he says was “completely controlled by a man focused on reprocessing the past ‘ – a veiled reference to former President Donald Trump and his ongoing false claims that he won the 2020 election.

“That’s the choice we have to present to voters: between the plans we have to improve the lives of the American people and no plan at all,” Biden said.

White House staffers have also held out the prospect of more subtle changes in how Biden spends his time, with a greater focus on speaking directly to Americans and less time in the weeds with lawmakers making laws .

“He wants to spend more time in the country and less time behind closed doors negotiating,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday. She said Biden would rely more on his aides to get involved in legislative negotiations, aiming to buy more time to travel and sell his policies.

The White House’s understated response to a parade of bad headlines reflects the administration’s internal confidence that its predicament will lessen in the coming months as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 recedes and its policies have time to take effect . Administration officials believe they have until the summer to shore up Biden’s approval rating in a bid to salvage as many Democratic congressional seats as possible.

“The public doesn’t want me to be the ‘president of the senator,'” Biden said in a rare news conference on Wednesday. “They want me to be president and let senators be senators.” Biden acknowledged “there’s a lot of frustration and fatigue in this country” and blamed it squarely on the pandemic, “the new enemy.”

A video released Thursday by Biden’s founding committee at the end of his first year in office offered a preview of what’s to come. The ad highlights advances in the economy and against the virus, but acknowledges the work is not done yet.

“It’s not quite back yet, but it’s getting stronger,” says narrator Tom Hanks of the economy. “We may be entering the third year of a pandemic that none of us wanted or expected, but we are moving.”

“I can feel the change,” says Sandra Lindsay, the New York City nurse who became the first person in the United States to receive an approved COVID-19 vaccine, in the video.

Getting Americans to acknowledge this change is a priority for the White House.

The pandemic and its aftermath changed how voters judge Biden’s performance. His $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package nudged the economy toward a quick recovery but also pushed inflation to a 7% rate that spooked voters. The result is an unusual schism in which voters, while financially content, are deeply skeptical about the health of the national economy.

While 64% of Americans described their financial situation as good, only 35% said they were positive about the overall economy, according to a December poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Biden spent part of Thursday meeting with his Infrastructure Implementation Task Force, tasked with quickly turning last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill into shovels in the ground and creating new jobs. Billions of dollars have already been allocated, and Biden wants to make sure he gets the credit.

While the White House didn’t immediately announce travel plans for Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to California and Wisconsin this week to highlight how money from the law is being used to fight wildfires and replace lead-water pipes.

Biden insists he won’t abandon his bill for nearly $2 trillion on domestic priorities, but said Wednesday he hoped “blocks” would be passed ahead of the midterms. It would probably need to slim down the bill to win over Democratic holdout Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she doesn’t want the legislation to lose its ambition to address climate change and cut costs for working-class families.

“I hope that what the president is calling ‘chunks’ will be an important piece of legislation going forward,” she said.

Eric Schultz, a former spokesman for President Barack Obama, said the administration has gotten too bogged down in the minutiae of legislative negotiations. He suggested course correcting by sending Biden from Washington to talk more about how his agenda has helped average Americans.

“Joe Biden is at his best when he’s speaking directly to the American people about what’s important to them,” he said.

He also argued that Democrats needed to be more opposed to Republicans.

“People have to understand that he has their backs,” Schultz said. “And the Republicans don’t. And when he brings this case up, it reinforces who is working for them in Washington.”

Ben LaBolt, another former Obama spokesman, hinted that the legislative difficulties in Biden’s first year had a silver lining: “moderate expectations” of what’s possible, as well as a “sense of urgency” on the part of Democrats, in the Congress to do something before the midterms if they could lose control of one or both houses.

“The achievements of the past year have yet to fully sink in with the average American,” he said. “And it takes time for them to learn about the legislation once it’s passed,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Josh Boak contributed.

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