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White House tries to tamp down Democratic jitters about midterm messaging

A top Biden aide recently told donors of plans for the president to spend more time outside D.C. promoting accomplishments and less time bogged down in legislative negotiations.
Image: President Joe Biden during a meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House on Jan. 20, 2022.
President Joe Biden during a meeting in Washington on Jan. 20.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — By most measures, President Joe Biden enters his second year in office in a woeful place. 

Biden’s poll numbers are slumping amid a pandemic he has been unable to quash, and his party faces a wipeout in the midterm elections that could doom his legislative agenda for the rest of his term. 

Yet the White House is privately telling its most loyal supporters that it sees a way for Biden to reverse course: by focusing more on what he has achieved thus far, rather than on what remains unfinished.

A recurring complaint from Biden fundraisers is that the White House has failed to properly showcase and capitalize on successes, such as the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was signed into law in November, which directs billions of dollars toward new construction of roads, bridges, airports and seaports, and the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package that was enacted just months after he took office. 

In a Zoom meeting with campaign donors last week, White House counselor Steve Ricchetti described plans for Biden to spend more time on the trail promoting accomplishments and less time in Washington bogged down in negotiations with Congress. 

The meeting, which was arranged by the Democratic National Committee, had been in the works for some weeks. Although it’s not unusual for senior White House officials to talk directly to influential interest groups, donors included, the call comes at an especially fraught time as Biden’s political operation works to devise a strategy that would not only improve his political fortunes but also bolster Democrats on the ballot. 

In a recorded snippet of the call that was shared with NBC News, Ricchetti described the early pandemic relief package as “a bridge so that many, many people in this country could get by, sustained through this very, very tough economic time.” 

It would be a mistake for Democrats, he said, to let such a financial lifeline to struggling families and small businesses be forgotten in "the kind of daily Twitter traffic of 'What have you done for me, not lately, but in the last 30 minutes?'"

Going forward, Ricchetti indicated, Biden will also spend more time highlighting separate pieces of the infrastructure package in hope of demonstrating how it would improve peoples’ daily lives, rather than simply pointing to the price tag — $500 billion in new spending — as a measure of success. 

Biden may hold more events outside Washington devoted to the funds that have been set aside to extend high-speed internet, build more electric vehicle charging stations and improve roadways, Ricchetti said.

A person on the call said Ricchetti’s view is that “they really do have big accomplishments, so they have something to talk about,” adding: “And he’s right. The attitude in Washington is ‘Sure you cured cancer yesterday, but what about Lou Gehrig’s disease?’”

Like other donors, this person spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely about private discussions with the White House. Another person on the call also said Ricchetti made it a point to thank the donors. Reached for comment, the White House didn’t dispute the account of the call.

Some of the party’s major fundraisers worry that it’s already too late, and they foresee midterm losses that would weaken Biden ahead of a potential rematch with former President Donald Trump in 2024. 

“I think they [Democrats] will lose the House and the Senate,” a Democratic fundraiser said in an interview. “And the minute that happens, Trump runs again.”

Biden, for much of his first year in office, made a public show of his meetings with lawmakers and cast himself as the seasoned deal-maker who could forge a consensus. But the negotiations kept him in Washington, with events largely held at the White House, and exposed rifts within the party as Democratic leaders contended with narrow majorities in Congress. After months of haggling between Biden and lawmakers in his own party, his nearly $2 trillion social spending and climate package collapsed in December in the face of opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. When neither Manchin or Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., would agree to lift the Senate filibuster rule even temporarily, Biden lost his bid to pass federal voting legislation, another key priority. 

Ricchetti, speaking with NBC News this month, acknowledged that Biden’s focus on advancing legislation may have contributed to his current political troubles

“So, in evaluating how we’ve been doing things and thinking about how we might want to fine-tune what we’re doing, we’ve thought we need the president’s voice out in the country more,” he said.

Some of the approach Ricchetti outlined to donors is already being pursued, although it’s uncertain whether a new message and more frequent presidential travel will be enough to revive Biden’s fortunes. Donors offered a mixed outlook in interviews.

Biden traveled to Pittsburgh on Friday for an already-planned event to promote the infrastructure package and took a detour to visit the site of a bridge that had happened to collapse just that morning

“We’re going to rebuild that bridge,” he said in a speech. “There are another 3,300 bridges here in Pennsylvania, some of which are just as old and just as in decrepit a condition as that one was.”

Plans to remind voters of the Covid relief package, meanwhile, come with the risk of reminding them that one of its most popular components is already gone. An expanded child tax credit that was paid directly to eligible families every month, which experts considered an important tool to fight poverty, expired this month. Biden was unable to forge a consensus within his own party around his Build Back Better Act to extend it for another year, and the future of the policy remains uncertain in Congress.

Another point Ricchetti made to donors about Biden’s infrastructure law was that it takes time for the money to flow into states. 

When it does and people see work begin on roads and bridges, they may be more apt to credit Democratic efforts to pass the legislation, Biden loyalists argue.

“So they’ll have the opportunity not to talk about ‘Oh, look at this bill we passed’ but ‘Oh, look at this guy who hired these people to solve this problem,’” the first person on the call said. “And ‘Look at the asphalt that’s getting laid on the freeway.’” 

Still, public works projects also take time, which other donors said makes the message a difficult sell. 

There are no guarantees that voters will be driving over sturdy new bridges by the 2024 presidential campaign, much less by the midterm elections, which are only 10 months away.

President Barack Obama passed a nearly $800 billion stimulus package in his first year in office. In selling the bill, Democrats promised that part of the money would pay for “shovel-ready” projects that would quickly lift the economy. Later, Obama acknowledged that “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects,” adding that “spending it out takes a long time.”

By the 2022 elections, another fundraiser who is in contact with the White House said, there won’t be a single finished project “where you’ll be able to get on a road and say the road was better than it was before.”