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Wake Up To Politics - January 24, 2022

Wake Up To Politics: How to reset a presidency
Wake Up To Politics - January 24, 2022

by Gabe Fleisher

Good morning! It’s Monday, January 24, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 288 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,016 days away.

How to reset a presidency

Washington’s hottest new buzzword is “reset.”

White House aides are (anonymously) leaking to reporters on how they plan to guide President Biden in second-year changes to his presidency, while just about every columnist or pundit seems to have an idea on what the “reset” should look like.

This is a time-honored tradition in DC: plenty of past presidents, confronted with legislative losses or lagging economies or brutal political environments, have looked for ways to pivot their administrations to safer ground. Even Warren Harding probably had to go through the ritual at one point.

How have some of Biden’s predecessors tried to “reset”? And how is Biden trying to emulate them (or not)? Here are three “reset” strategies that were deployed by the three most recent Democratic presidents, each of whom Biden knew and worked with closely:

Strategy #1: The “pen and phone” reset. President Barack Obama may not have had control of Congress heading into 2014, but as the new year kicked off, he began to sound frequent reminders of what he did have. “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” Obama grew fond of saying.

The “pen” referred to his ability to sign executive orders; the “phone” meant his ability to rally supporters and outside groups through the presidential “bully pulpit.”

There are already signs that Biden is looking towards a “pen and phone” strategy to bolster his 2022 reset. Some progressives are urging the president to use executive action to implement his “Build Back Better” agenda; according to the New York Times, Biden aides are skeptical of the legality of that idea, but they are still eying a pivot from focusing on legislation to churning out new executive actions, including orders to “help former inmates return to society and reform police departments.” Per Bloomberg, a directive that would put the White House “at the center of Washington’s efforts to deal with cryptocurrencies” is also coming soon.

Biden is also itching to implement the “bully pulpit” part of the strategy: as I wrote last week, his recent press conference revealed a president itching to get out of the Washington bubble. “I’m going to get out of this place more often,” Biden said. “I’m going to go out and talk to the public.” In Year Two, watch for Biden to focus less on closed-door legislative machinations and more on ways to directly engage with Americans

Barack Obama and Joe Biden campaigning together in 2008. Daniel Schwen

Strategy #2: The “triangulation” reset. When Democrats lost the House in 1994 for the first time in a generation, President Bill Clinton responded with “triangulation,” seeking to occupy a middle ground between both left- and right-wing ideologies. The strategy (engineered by Republican consultant and future Trump adviser Dick Morris) was much-maligned among Democrats, but some analysts credited the move to moderation with boosting Clinton’s 1996 re-election.

I wrote recently about the possibility that Biden could move to the center this year, which in some ways would be a return to his more natural political home. Biden is currently trying to revive “chunks” of “Build Back Better,” but (if he gets any package at all) Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) will likely push it to more moderate ground. According to the Wall Street Journal, Democrats are now eyeing a package that would commit about $500 billion in “incentives for reducing carbon emissions,” while also including popular proposals “aimed at lowering health care costs and expanded child care programs.”

After his voting rights push sputtered last week, Biden is also expected to have an opportunity soon to embrace a bipartisan election reform bill. Per NBC News, a group of Democratic and Republican senators are planning to meet on Zoom again today and throughout this week to discuss reforms to the 1887 Electoral Count Act and protections for election workers.

As I mentioned, both more centrist legislative efforts are expected to feature less Biden until the end; if I had to guess, he’ll only move to the foreground if the negotiations work out, to ensure that he is only linked to successes (and to the kind of successes that unify the party and the country). “The public doesn’t want me to be the president-senator,” Biden said last week by way of explanation.

Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. Bob McNeely

Strategy #3: The “staff shakeup” reset. When the going gets tough, many presidents have sought to shake up their administrations, firing a few advisers and promoting a few others. One of the most notorious examples of this tactic came in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter sought to rescue his presidency from its “malaise” by purging five members of his Cabinet in the span of 72 hours.

As others have noted, Biden (who was the first U.S. senator to endorse Carter) is facing some of the same problems as his oldest living Democratic predecessor, from inflation to tensions with Russia.

And some pundits have urged Biden to shake up his team as well. As coronavirus cases surge, his public health team — including CDC director Rochelle Walensky and Covid czar Jeff Zients — has especially come under fire. There has also been a round of news stories (including from NBC News and Politico) raising questions about White House chief of staff Ron Klain’s leadership. (Many of those criticisms charge that Klain has steered Biden too far to the left, overlapping with the calls for Biden to essentially triangulate.)

But Biden (whose inner circle has been historically stable) has so far shied away from any shakeup. “I’m satisfied with the team,” he said last week (and that seemed also to apply to Vice President Kamala Harris, who Biden affirmed would be remaining on the ticket).

In resisting this particular strategy, Biden might be relying on his memories from the Carter era. His dramatic Cabinet shakeup did nothing to change Carter’s political fate: unlike Clinton and Obama, Carter was still defeated in his quest for a second term, continuing on to a 44-state beating in 1980, the likes of which Biden would surely prefer to avoid in 2024.

Jimmy Carter steps off Air Force One with his wife Rosalynn. National Archives

What else you should know

— Ukraine. Now boasting 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border, questions continue to fly about whether Russia will invade its neighbor to the west. The State Department ordered family members of staffers at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine to evacuate on Sunday, while also encouraging other Americans in the country to leave immediately.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, Biden is considering deploying “several thousand U.S. troops, as well as warships and aircraft, to NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe,” which would constitute a “major pivot” from his more “restrained stance on Ukraine” so far.

— Covid. As many states and cities appear to have reached their peak of Omicron infections, the level of new Covid cases are dropping across the country — although many hospitals are still full and deaths (a lagging indicator) continue to rise. The 7-day average of new cases is now around 693,00 (down from 806,000 one week ago), while the average of deaths is now around 2,200 (up from 2,000 one week ago). Read more

— January 6 investigation. After a victory at the Supreme Court last week, the House committee investigating the January 6 attack has now obtained reams of White House documents that former President Donald Trump sought to shield from the panel. One of them is a draft executive order from December 2020 that would have directed the defense secretary to seize voting machines across the country in an effort to advance Trump’s bogus claims of election fraud. Read more

A Trump supporter promoting his debunked election fraud claims. Stock photo


All times Eastern.

White House: President Biden spent the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. At 10:30 a.m., he will return to the White House. At 11:30 a.m., he will receive his daily intelligence briefing. At 5 p.m., he will meet with administration officials to discuss efforts to lower prices.

-- Vice President Kamala Harris spent the weekend in Los Angeles, California. At 10:05 a.m., she will travel from there to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At 2:20 p.m., she will receive a tour of the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/Building Industry Group Skilled Trades Employment Program building. At 3 p.m., she will deliver remarks highlighting the funding in the bipartisan infrastructure law to remove and replace every lead pipe in the U.S. by 2030. Then, at 5:15 p.m, Harris will depart from Milwaukee for Washington, D.C.

-- Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will travel from Los Angeles to Milwaukee with Harris. At 2:20 p.m., he will watch a performance at a performing arts center and have a conversation with students from two Milwaukee youth organizations that benefited from federal Covid-19 relief grants. At 3:15 p.m., he will participate in a conversation with leaders from Milwaukee’s Jewish unity. Then, he will join Harris on her return trip to Washington, D.C.
-- White House press secretary Jen Psaki will hold her daily press briefing at 1:30 p.m.
Congress: The House and Senate are both on recess for the week. The Senate will briefly convene at 1 p.m. for a pro forma session — a quick meeting where one member comes to gavel the chamber in, and then promptly gavels it out. No business is conducted during such sessions, which are only held to fulfill the chamber’s constitutional requirements of meeting ev three days.

Courts: The Supreme Court will release orders (announcing which cases it plans to hear it which it doesn’t) at 9:30 a.m. and then opinions (announcing its decisions in cases it has already heard) at 10 a.m.
-- Jury selection will kick off today in a defamation trial between former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, and the New York Times. Palin has sued the Times over a since-corrected 2017 editorial that erroneously blamed advertising materials from her political action committee (PAC) for inciting the 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords.
Under the landmark 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan, a public figure like Palin must meet the high bar of proving a newspaper acted with “actual malice” to establish defamation. However, Palin has signaled that she would challenge Sullivan on appeal if she loses at trial; some conservative Supreme Court justices have previously called for the precedent to be reconsidered. The trial, which is taking place in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, is expected to last five days.