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Biden seeks help adjusting course as he navigates rough midterm waters

The perennial campaigner finds himself this election year with the highest position in his own Democratic Party and the lowest approval rating of his half-century in politics.

PITTSBURGH — Soon after they boarded Air Force One last fall to join President Joe Biden for an event in her district, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster and New Hampshire’s three other congressional Democrats — Rep. Chris Pappas and Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen — were summoned to join him in the plane’s conference room and given an assignment: helping make edits and additions to the draft of the speech he planned to deliver.

“Jeannie and Maggie were weighing in with examples about flooding in the Seacoast, and Chris had examples of the bridge down in Manchester,” Kuster recalled, adding that many of their specifics made it into the address. “Then when he gives the speech, he [sounded] more connected.”

A similar scene has played out on subsequent presidential visits to key swing districts and battleground states, and more invitations are in the works for events like the one Biden plans to hold Friday in Pittsburgh about reviving American manufacturing and repairing roads and bridges.

The grassroots edits have come as a majority of the country, 54 percent of adults, disapproved of Biden’s job performance in the NBC News poll released last week, with his approval rating sliding by double digits among Democrats and independents since April. And just 5 percent of adults in the poll said Biden’s first year went better than expected.

The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has provided the White House with an important opportunity to rally the Democratic base, especially Black voters, as Biden is poised to deliver on a major campaign promise by nominating the first Black woman to the high court.

But even as the White House and Senate Democrats aim for a speedy confirmation process, the party’s efforts to keep control of Congress may hinge more on their ability to show that Biden has delivered on economic issues like reducing inflation and tackling Covid-19.

And so the emerging White House strategy aims to find ways for Democrats to lock arms with an increasingly unpopular president on what they contend is a popular agenda. In the process, Biden is applying his longtime adage — “I’ll campaign for you or against you, whatever helps most” — finding ways to note when fellow Democrats have challenged him sometimes as much as they’ve backed him.

At a construction training center in Michigan last fall, Biden made sure his audience knew about the earful of advice he’d received from Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., during the motorcade ride from the airport. At a community college south of Minneapolis, Biden told his audience how Rep. Angie Craig would “constantly” remind his administration about the importance of technical skills training for rural counties.

In advance of the trips, the White House’s Office of Legislative Affairs has reached out to the local representative or senator to gather input on the key issues Biden should spotlight. But if lawmakers have accepted the invitation to join Biden en route from Washington on Air Force One, White House officials say, he will find them in their seats on board or invite them into his conference room, handing them a draft of his speech and seeking input on the best ways to explain how the law would deliver for their constituents and their roles in making it happen.

Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., said she spent 40 minutes with Biden on the presidential aircraft discussing the complex needs of her district and ways the new law would help fuel further expansion of its inland port, freight rail and a new airport terminal in neighboring Kansas City, Missouri.

“There’s no stronger advocate for infrastructure investment in the United States Congress — that I’ve ever met, anyway,” Biden said of Davids later in Kansas City.

Even as the White House hopes to replicate those dynamics, it’s still unclear just how many other Democrats are willing to stand side by side with Biden.

Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., who has represented a battleground seat in the House and is now running for the Senate, will join Biden on Friday along with Sen. Bob Casey. But one of Lamb’s primary opponents, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and gubernatorial front-runner Josh Shapiro both said scheduling conflicts prevented them from joining Biden.

Since November, the White House says, administration officials have had nearly three dozen events about infrastructure across the country involving 70 lawmakers, although just five at which Biden appeared with seven Democrats gearing up for tough re-election races.

Still, officials insist that despite an approval rating hovering around the 40 percent range, Biden is in demand this election year. The president said last week that “scores” of lawmakers have asked him to campaign for them as he argued that Democrats need to both aggressively tout their legislative successes and press Republicans to spell out their alternative agenda.

In 2010 and 2014, then-Vice President Biden campaigned more often in key midterm races than President Barack Obama when his approval rating dipped, often pressing voters not to “judge us against the Almighty — judge us against the alternative.”

It was in Pittsburgh in 2018 when Biden, weighing a potential 2020 bid, launched a two-month campaign blitz on behalf of Democratic candidates in some of the most competitive House, Senate and governor’s races in the country. His aides at the time made a point of emphasizing how Biden was one of the few national Democrats being invited to stand with vulnerable incumbents and moderate candidates. He ultimately traveled to 22 states in behalf of 65 candidates.

The experience became a key part of his argument in the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, when some of those same “front-line” Democrats returned the favor and endorsed Biden, arguing that he was the best candidate to lead the party to victory up and down the ballot. Now, however, he’s seen as a potential drag on the Democratic ticket, and some of the Democrats he endorsed in 2018, such as Reps. Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Stephanie Murphy of Florida, are among those lawmakers in tough races who have decided not to seek re-election at all.

Both a White House official and the lawmakers traveling with Biden said the face time with lawmakers on Air Force One has served another purpose, as he has publicly lamented how the pandemic and his busy agenda in Washington have kept him from traveling the country as much as he’d like.

“He clearly enjoyed that connection,” Kuster said. “I think Covid has exacerbated the isolation and the bubble that American presidents experience. And Joe Biden in particular benefits from direct contact with the American people. ... We each had the opportunity to talk about legislation that we're working on and projects that we're working on, so it was a smart use of his time all the way around.”

Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, who represents what was once a swing district that was made safer by redistricting, said Democrats gearing up for tough races increasingly understand that they will never fully separate themselves from the president. The goal is to run not on the “national mood” but “on accomplishments,” Allred said.

He said that in midterm elections when Obama was in office, it had been a mistake for Democrats to buy into "this idea that you're going to get out the president's base by not talking about the president.”

"He’s the head of the party. Everybody knows that,” Allred said. “There may be some disappointment that's set in from us still dealing with Covid and things that are outside of really anyone's control. But I think through effective campaigning we may be able to overcome some of that. And some of the accomplishments will speak for themselves.”