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Politics chat: Facing blockers in Congress, Biden goes directly to the people

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

This past week, President Biden marked one year in office, and he said he's planning to do at least a few things differently in year two. While he managed to get a big COVID relief package and a bipartisan infrastructure bill passed, the president remains at loggerheads with states and courts over his vaccine-or-test mandate with a few lawmakers in his own party on key issues and with Republicans on pretty much everything. We are joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith to talk about all of it.

Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: OK, so let's talk about one of those Democrats who seems to disagree with President Biden, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema. She, along with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, tanked President Biden's efforts to carve out an exception to the filibuster to get voting rights legislation passed. There were reports that this angered some donors, and yesterday Arizona Democrats voted to formally censure Sinema. Now, that's a move that's pretty symbolic, isn't it?

KEITH: Entirely. There are no practical consequences of such a move, but what it reflects is that Sinema is not perfectly aligned with her party. She supports the voting rights legislation but not the rules change. And there's a lot of frustration. Many Democrats, including those in the leadership of the Arizona Democratic Party, see passing voting rights legislation as existential, as key to preserving American democracy. I do have to add here that Sinema getting censured for a policy - is getting censured for a policy disagreement, but she is not the only member of Congress getting censured. Republicans have been censuring their own members who have voted to impeach former President Trump. Those are symbolic, too. But let's just say the real censure for elected officials comes with primaries. That's how voters express their feelings.

Back to Sinema and Democrats, the challenge here is that with a 50-50 Senate, if any one Democratic senator chooses not to vote with their party, the agenda gets stuck. So Manchin and Sinema have been taking unpopular stands recently. But as President Biden keeps pointing out, with this dynamic, every senator is a president. You know, they have big ambitions, but they're hanging on to their majority by basically a piece of dental floss.

MCCAMMON: All right. So if the president can't rely on lawmakers, including some Democratic lawmakers, can't get his policies pushed through, what can he do?

KEITH: Well, we see President Biden now attempting a shift in his approach. We won't call it a pivot, but he says that he intends to spend less time focusing on negotiating with Congress and more time getting out in the country and speaking directly with the American people. For the past several months, there has been so much focus on negotiations, on passing the Build Back Better bill, which hasn't passed, and then voting rights. And he kept having Manchin and Sinema over to the White House, and that gave them power and attention, and the White House appears intent on scaling that back. Of course, there will still be negotiations. President Biden will certainly pick up the phone but may just not be so public about it.

MCCAMMON: And Tam, is speaking with the American public at such a divisive time - is that an effective political tactic?

KEITH: Well, it is a tactic that presidents have turned to over and over again, though they tend to overestimate their ability to persuade the public because even really, really good speeches are rarely enough to move public opinion or to break congressional gridlock. But part of what President Biden is getting at in speaking to the American people is that he'll be interacting directly with them about the things that they care about. And you know what people don't actually care that much about? Negotiations over legislation. What they care about is inflation and the pandemic. And so we have seen the president and his administration try to move more focus to their efforts to work on those things, like shipping free COVID tests to people's homes when they request them.

MCCAMMON: And really quickly, Tam, what is the strategy for Democrats in this critical election year?

KEITH: Right, Republicans have it easy. They can say no, no, no, criticize Democrats and move right into the midterms. Meanwhile, Democrats, who are narrowly in power, need a narrative to tell voters headed into the midterms about what they've done and what they will do next, and I think it's safe to say that that is still a work in progress.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Tamara Keith, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.