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White House seeks to deflect blame for Election Day disappointments onto Congress

People close to the White House blamed the results on voter frustration over Washington infighting and warned that congressional Democrats could suffer the same fate.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's party took a political shellacking in elections Tuesday, but White House officials are looking for ways to deflect blame away from his low approval ratings.

The target White House advisers are eyeing is congressional Democrats, who have spent months haggling over the huge social safety net and infrastructure packages Biden proposed but have yet to pass.

The swift insistence by White House allies that the results should not be read as a reflection of public sentiment about Biden was evidence that the results won't spur soul-searching or a course correction. Instead, the White House sought to quickly admonish Democrats that they needed to get on board with their agenda or risk the same fate as defeated Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

However, Biden showed little interest in hewing to that response himself, at least in public, saying Wednesday when asked about the results in Virginia that he wasn't sure passing his agenda would have made a difference.

But behind the scenes, sources close to the White House who are familiar with internal discussions say Biden's aides will seek to attribute the loss in Virginia and disappointing results in New Jersey to public frustration over Washington infighting and inaction.

“We need to put some points on the board,” Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod said. “That is what Joe Biden has been saying. This is by no means a White House issue, I think it is the fact that Congress has not acted and we need to pass some legislation.”

White House officials are hoping to leverage the losses to motivate Democrats in Congress into passing a $550 billion infrastructure bill and a proposed $1.75 trillion social spending plan.

Historically, the party that holds the presidency has struggled in off-year elections. But White House officials had been hopeful earlier in the year that they could buck the trend after passing a Covid-19 stimulus bill, ramping up vaccine distribution and seeing infections drop during the summer.

But Democrats' fortunes took a turn in recent months as Covid cases surged again, the economic recovery showed signs of slowing, supply chain disruptions drove up prices, and Biden struggled to get his spending plans through Congress.

Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points last year. But on Tuesday, Glenn Youngkin became the first Republican to win the governorship since 2009. Democrats lost control of the state's House of Delegates. In solidly blue New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, was locked in a tight race with his Republican opponent.

Even before the votes had been tallied, some administration officials had already started finger-pointing. One person close to the White House argued McAuliffe focused too heavily on former President Donald Trump and needed a positive message.

Another person close to the White House cited exit polls that showed 28 percent of voters attributed their vote to negative feelings about Biden.

Democratic strategists were also reluctant to blame the economy, inflation or the national debate about teaching race in public schools — issues Republicans said drove their base to the polls and that they plan to run on again in 2022.

"There are many factors that go into state races," one of the people close to the White House said. "But an important takeaway is that while the president has achieved major progress in terms of moving the economic recovery and beating back the pandemic, voters want to see Democrats in Congress stop the back-and-forth and pass" the pair of spending bills.