Joe Biden has played little direct role in negotiations over a possible deal on gun control, a sign of how a president who often boasted of his victories over the National Rifle Association and decades of Senate experience while campaigning is now staying away from day-to-day congressional action on some of the biggest issues of his presidency.
“He wants to give it some space,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during Thursday’s press briefing, referring to the president’s approach to bipartisan talks in the Senate on gun control and school safety following a racist massacre at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket and the murders of 19 children in Uvalde, Texas.
The president himself, speaking to reporters on Friday morning in Delaware, made his role as a bystander to negotiations clear.
“My staff is dealing and have been dealing constantly with every member of the House and Senate who is wanting to talk about guns,” he said. “It’s been a constant interchange. And I’ve been constantly briefed.”
Biden’s absence from congressional discussions on key issues has occasionally frustrated and baffled advocates, who question his strategy of allowing Congress to determine the fate of even issues central to his political identity and standing.
“For someone who talked so much on the campaign trail about 30 years of experience in bringing Republicans and Democrats together, it’s striking that he has not been using those years of experience, relationships and skills to encourage lawmakers to get a deal,” Igor Volsky, the executive director of Guns Down America, told HuffPost. “This president does not appear to be inclined to invest real political capital to reach a deal.”
Biden’s allies, however, insist keeping the president a few steps away is necessary to give senators in both parties the political freedom to cut a deal, and that Biden’s time and capital is best used to keep Congress focused on an issue that can easily fade from the headlines.
“I support the bipartisan efforts that include a small group of Democrats and Republican senators trying to find a way,” Biden said during his speech Thursday night, which aired on every major broadcast network and drove substantial coverage. “But my God, the fact that the majority of the Senate Republicans don’t want any of these proposals even to be debated or come up for a vote, I find unconscionable.”
The Senate talks, which have encouraged negotiators in both parties, are likely to result in a final deal that falls far short of what Biden has achieved in the past ― a ban on assault weapons in the 1990s ― or what he laid out in a Thursday-night speech calling for a host of gun control measures. Much of what Biden asked for in that speech, including a ban on assault weapons and the repeal of a liability shield for gunmakers, is off the table due to unified Republican opposition.
Biden’s hands-off approach to congressional action isn’t limited to gun control. The president has largely removed himself from negotiations over a reconciliation package that would become his signature policy achievement if it passes, leaving its fate in the hands of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). And Biden and the White House are not deeply involved in major antitrust legislation developed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the party’s lead negotiator on the gun control legislation, told CNN he approved of the president’s approach: “They know we need our space ― so we are in regular touch with the White House, but they know that this ultimately has to be a deal in the Senate.”
On the campaign trail, Biden portrayed himself as uniquely positioned to reach bipartisan deals with Republicans. Breaking from most other leading contenders for the Democratic nomination, he defended the Senate’s 60-vote requirement, and said his 36 years in the Senate meant he alone could bring the parties together on major issues.
Again and again, in television ads and in stump speeches, Biden cited the passage of the assault weapons ban in 1994 as evidence of his bona fides, an example of persuading key Republicans to defeat a liberal nemesis in the form of the gun lobby.
“As president, he will beat the NRA again and restore the soul of this nation,” a narrator promised in a Biden campaign ad that aired ahead of Nevada caucuses, the results of which provided the first glimmer of hope for the former vice president’s eventual comeback in the presidential primaries.
Earlier in his time in office, Biden regularly took meetings with lawmakers in both parties as he tried to craft major legislation. Most of those efforts proved fruitless: Work with moderate Republicans, including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, to craft a bipartisan version of the American Rescue Plan went nowhere. Biden’s attempts to negotiate a version of the bipartisan infrastructure law with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) also fell short, even if a group of moderate senators later reached a deal.
Most notably, Biden constantly met with nearly every stripe of Democrat while attempting to negotiate his Build Back Better package, which Manchin ultimately knifed in December. Some Biden allies believe the ultra-public nature of those negotiations ― Manchin was constantly bombarded with questions in the halls of the Senate ― made a deal more difficult to reach.
The politically fraught nature of these negotiations only adds to the challenges. Friday’s decision from Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.) to retire just a week after endorsing a ban on assault weapons shows how Republican base voters, egged on by the gun lobby, will revolt against anything they see as restricting Second Amendment rights.
Biden’s direct involvement could only further polarize the issue, adding to the political risk for GOP senators involved in the talks, including Collins, John Cornyn of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. (All three were just reelected in 2020.)
Public surveys continue to show stricter gun laws, especially the types of strengthened background checks and red flag laws under discussion, are popular with the public. That’s led some advocates, including Volsky, to suggest Biden should begin traveling to put pressure on critical senators.
“At the very least, what the White House should consider is traveling to those parts of the country and meeting with affected populations to build support and create political pressure on those lawmakers to vote the right way,” Volsky said. “This is the bare minimum that we would expect on any issue.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.