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White House plots public reset as Biden's agenda flails

The president’s advisers are looking at a variety of ways for him to engage more with Americans, officials said.

With President Joe Biden rounding out his first year in office amid a sinking approval rating and multiple setbacks to his agenda, the White House is planning a new communications strategy, senior administration officials say.

Biden’s reset plan, senior administration officials said, is to make his conversations with members of Congress less of a public priority and to emphasize spending more time communicating directly with Americans. The officials said that the White House will continue negotiations with Congress over Biden’s legislative priorities but that it would stop releasing details of the talks to the public.

“There is a recognition that we need to change that dynamic,” a senior administration official said, adding that Biden has told aides and lawmakers that he intends to make the shift.

Part of the goal is to shed the growing image that Biden is approaching the presidency like a member of the Senate, where he spent more than three decades. “He’s mindful that he doesn’t want to send the message that his role is to be legislator-in-chief,” another senior administration official said.

Biden’s advisers are looking at a variety of ways for him to engage more with Americans, officials said, but there is no agreement yet about what the alternatives might entail. And while there is unity among advisers about having Biden “talk to more people directly,” another official said, there is no agreement about whether the effort will work.

Changing a White House strategy to engage more directly with Americans is an evergreen reset plan that has been activated by previous presidents who have found themselves in politically precarious moments. For Biden, that moment has arrived earlier than his team expected, after early momentum from his sweeping safety net bill.

“Oftentimes in modern history when a president has frustrations and drops in the polls, the president will say, ‘It's now time for me to talk over the heads of the elites and talk directly to the people to convince them that what I'm trying to do is right,’” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said.

Biden has struggled to gain his footing on the coronavirus pandemic, which he promised to get under control and ultimately defeat, with mixed messages from his administration, testing shortages and a new variant that has swept through the country. He also has been hampered by the collapse of his Build Back Better legislation after discussions with moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., failed and his public push for voting rights legislation lacked enough support in the Senate.

What some of Biden’s aides have expressed concern about most is the impression that he is seemingly bogged down at the White House, giving too many “one-dimensional” speeches from Washington instead of showcasing what they see as his greatest political strength: empathy and an ability to connect with ordinary Americans.

But finding the time and the best venues outside Washington has been a challenge, both because of how much time Biden has invested in congressional negotiations and because the pandemic has made such travel outside the capital more complicated and time-consuming.