Why Biden is taking a hands-off approach to the looming shutdown

The last time the U.S. was facing a fiscal crisis, President Joe Biden cut short an overseas trip and swiftly met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to try to avert a debt default two weeks before the deadline. This time, two days before the federal government appears all but certain to shut down, the president was out West raising money for his re-election campaign and delivering a speech about American democracy.

Biden’s hands-off approach to the looming shutdown is intended to project an image of him out in the country executing on what he considers key accomplishments as House Republicans fight over how to fund the government, White House officials say.

But a shutdown could scramble Biden’s strategy by grinding his travels to a halt.

The White House has been planning an aggressive travel schedule for Biden in October to tout his economic agenda, including a long-teased trip to the Georgia district of one of his loudest House Republican critics — Marjorie Taylor Greene. Vice President Kamala Harris and other top administration officials are also set to crisscross the country next month amplifying his message.

But White House officials say they’re now looking at other ways to execute what they’ve dubbed a “split-screen” strategy, acknowledging that one of the impacts of a shutdown would be to curtail Biden’s ability to hit the road. Events that have already been scheduled for the coming weeks, such as Harris’ tour of college campuses, are expected to be postponed, an administration official said.

The contrasting White House approaches to a potential shutdown and the debt limit crisis in May are by design. While White House officials were deeply concerned about the political and economic fallout from a debt default, they say Republicans alone are responsible for the latest round of brinkmanship.

“I think that the speaker is making a choice between his speakership and American interests,” Biden told supporters Wednesday at a campaign event in San Francisco, trying to pin the blame on McCarthy, R-Calif.

McCarthy, the White House argues, is walking away from the budget deal they reached to avoid a default. McCarthy countered Thursday on CNBC that the debt ceiling agreement on the budget was meant only to kick off further negotiations about specific spending bills.

“I say get off the fundraising trail, care about your nation, let’s get together,” McCarthy said of Biden’s West Coast trip. “We’ve been able to do it before when we sat down. We can solve this problem.”

Achieving that deal four months ago involved marathon negotiations between Biden’s and McCarthy’s aides, and the White House provided regular updates on the talks. This week, the White House instead trotted out a series of Cabinet officials to outline how disruptive a government shutdown could be, citing impacts to airline travel and food assistance programs.

A White House economic analysis of a shutdown released this week also paled in comparison to its grim warnings of the consequences of a debt default. Administration officials said a shutdown could also reduce overall economic growth forecasts by 0.1 or 0.2 percentage points per week as long as it goes on, whereas, they said, a short-term default would have reduced growth by 0.6 points and had global ripple effects.

White House officials say that of course they’d rather not see a shutdown. But some of Biden’s allies see a clear political upside for him.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked with Biden’s 2020 campaign, said people would be likely to blame Republicans and then Congress more broadly for a shutdown.

“Joe Biden is perceived to be more willing than anybody else to work across the aisle, and so they know Joe Biden wouldn’t shut down the government,” Lake said.

If the government ultimately does shut down, Lake said, anything the Biden administration can do by executive order “always tests very well,” even if such orders ultimately get thrown out in court.

“People are like, ‘Well, I’m glad he tried,’” she added.

The political impact on Republicans would fall hardest on swing-district lawmakers who are most vocal in calling for a quick resolution and criticizing their party’s right flank.

Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., who represents a battleground district Biden visited this year, said the White House shouldn’t view it as an opportunity to revive the president’s political standing.

“I don’t think there’s any question they [the administration] would like to shift the narrative and the coverage, and so I think they would use every opportunity here to make any shutdown as painful as possible,” he said.

Lawler called for Biden to meet with McCarthy, as he did during the debt crisis.

“Why wouldn’t the president want to meet on something that is going to have to pass the House and Senate and be signed by the White House?” he asked.

Administration officials counter that while the deal cut in May ahead of the debt default deadline came down to a direct negotiation between Biden and McCarthy, the current appropriations fight involves far more stakeholders in congressional leadership — including, notably, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is loath to see another prolonged shutdown that could affect GOP hopes of winning back control of the Senate.

“In May, President Biden, House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and Senate Democrats made a bipartisan budget deal, shaking hands and making a commitment to the American people that would ensure their government remained open,” deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates said in a memo to reporters Thursday. “Only one group out of the five that made an unequivocal, public, mutual agreement is now unilaterally breaking their promise and threatening a needless, extreme shutdown: House Republicans.”

Indeed, rather than a fight between one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and the other, it could come down to a showdown between the House and the Senate, freeing up the White House to focus on selling Biden’s agenda to voters.

“Why would you help save them?” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist, referring to House Republicans. “In this case, the Republicans are, you know, literally drowning themselves.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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