The new House GOP majority is giving President Biden several opportunities to triangulate on high-profile issues — following the model set by former Presidents Clinton and Obama before their successful reelections.
Democratic strategists say Biden has an opportunity over the next year to strike deals with Republicans in Congress on border security and immigration reform, energy permitting reform and fiscal reforms to address the federal deficit.
The president has already signaled his willingness to find common ground with Republicans by announcing new border enforcement actions and striking a deal with centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) last year on permitting reform.
Democratic strategists say Biden could improve his chances of winning a second term by negotiating deals with Republicans to address two of his biggest vulnerabilities: the huge influx of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border and the high cost of energy, which is expected to remain a tough issue for Democrats because of the war in Ukraine.
The biggest question mark, however, is whether Biden can get any bipartisan legislation through the Republican-controlled House, where many lawmakers are closely allied with former President Trump and are gearing up for two years of partisan warfare.
“He does certainly have a strategic challenge. He has to worry that governmental crises could end up being blamed on him and the Democrats, so the obvious strategy is to be reasonable from the start, to advocate for moderate policy proposals and to demand timely action on legislation,” said Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. “This is largely a public relations challenge for him.”
Striking bipartisan deals with Republicans could also help Manchin and other Democrats facing tough Senate races.
“Joe Biden has tremendous opportunities to reach for the center, and he’s taking them. Border security is certainly one of those areas. There’s a vast ground in the middle where people want to compromise on immigration,” said Jim Kessler, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) who now serves as executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
Kessler said many voters want “a secure and humane border” as well as some sort of compromise to provide so-called Dreamers, immigrants who came to the country illegally at a young age, a path to citizenship.
There’s growing momentum in the Senate for an immigration deal after negotiations between Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) fell short in last year’s lame-duck Congress.
Sinema and Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), a leading Senate Republican voice on immigration policy, led a bipartisan delegation to the southern border this week, bringing along Tillis and Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
Sinema and Tillis circulated a draft proposal last month to provide $25 billion to improve border security, a pathway to citizenship for 2 million Dreamers and an extension of the Title 42 health policy, which has expedited the deportation of migrants making asylum claims.
A deal on border security and immigration reform would be a major boost for Sinema, who left the Democratic Party to register as an Independent and is also up for reelection next year.
Permitting reform is another area where Biden could strike a deal, as many Democrats believe it will be needed to implement the green energy investments made by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.
Biden, Schumer and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pledged last year to support Manchin’s bill in exchange for his vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, but Senate Republicans blocked the legislation, angered that Manchin had agreed to vote for the Democrats’ reconciliation package.
“One of the ways Biden’s successes from the last Congress get implemented is through permitting reform so that stuff gets built, and it seems that’s what they’re doing,” Kessler said, citing conversations with stakeholders such as labor and environmental groups.
Jonathan Kott, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Manchin, said Biden “absolutely has the opportunity” to add new bipartisan legislative accomplishments to his résumé.
“Biden’s a legislator at heart, he’s reached out to moderates and progressives and gotten things done,” he said. “I would argue there’s probably a better chance to get stuff done this time than in previous presidencies because of who the players are.”
Kott cited permitting reform along with legislation to improve U.S. competitiveness with China, Federal Aviation Administration reform and the farm bill.
Biden has a long track record of cutting major deals with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), with whom he appeared at an event in Covington, Ky., last week to tout new money for the Brent Spence Bridge, a key piece of infrastructure supporting a busy freight route into Ohio.
Biden and McConnell cut three major deals during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president. One was to temporarily extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts after the midterm elections; the second was to raise the debt ceiling in 2011 and enact new fiscal reforms; and the third was to make many of the Bush tax cuts permanent and avoid a year-end fiscal cliff in late 2012.
Democratic strategists predict Biden, 80, will lean hard on his record of working with Republicans if he runs for a second term, which he is widely expected to do. He offered a glimpse of his future campaign themes during recent trips to Arizona and Michigan to tout his bipartisan accomplishments, particularly passage of the $280 billion Chips and Science Act, which helped create thousands of new jobs in those battleground states.
Obama and Clinton both pivoted toward the center during their second two years in office after Democrats lost control of the House in midterm elections.
Obama agreed to sign the Budget Control Act of 2011 as part of a deal to raise the debt limit. The deal set new caps on discretionary spending and established automatic cuts to defense and nondefense programs over a period of nine years.
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Clinton signed welfare reform into law a few months before the 1996 presidential election after negotiations with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Clinton criticized what he called “serious flaws” in the bill, but he decided to sign it anyway because he saw it as a chance to fulfill his promise in the 1992 presidential campaign to “end welfare as we know it.”
The legislative breakthrough helped seal his victory over Republican challenger Bob Dole three months later, while Obama won reelection in 2012 over Republican Mitt Romney — now a senator from Utah.