Biden Watches Republican Dysfunction From a Distance

Just a week ago, President Biden vowed never to “hide from history” as he tries to defend American democracy, arguing in a major address that the best way to challenge extremist elements in the Republican Party is to “make clear where we stand.”

But the president is taking a step back from view during the latest challenge to the country’s democratic norms and institutions — an ideological succession battle in the House after a handful of rogue Republicans ousted Representative Kevin McCarthy of California from his speaker post.

Mr. Biden promised to bring less drama to the White House after four years of turmoil under his predecessor, and he seems happy to let his rivals eat themselves alive. Still, choosing not to seize the spotlight in a dysfunctional moment for democracy is a striking decision for a president who often struggles to find ways to command the public’s attention.

In brief remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Biden emphasized the power of normalcy and stability, urging politicians to “stop seeing each other as enemies.” But he and his top aides have chosen not to weigh in on who should be the next speaker, much less pin the blame for the chaos on the political forces stoked by his predecessor and aspiring successor, Donald J. Trump.

Instead, the president has tried to contrast his administration’s achievements with what his spokeswoman on Wednesday called the “shambolic behavior” of his rivals.

While Republicans scrambled to find a new leader this week, Mr. Biden held events on his efforts to lower drug prices and forgive student debt. His few comments about the House turmoil were mostly asides during events about completely different subjects, and when he was asked if he had any advice for the next speaker, Mr. Biden demurred.

“That’s above my pay grade,” he told reporters, laughing as he left the room.

White House officials said the silence is in keeping with their practice of respecting the divisions between the executive and legislative branches of government. Mr. Biden has stayed out of past leadership contests in the House and Senate. They also are happy to stand back as Republicans struggle to show they can govern.

But more important, White House officials and their allies on Capitol Hill said, the president’s involvement would likely just further inflame — not temper — the congressional chaos, and would almost certainly backfire on Mr. Biden and Democrats in an era of peak polarization in American politics.

“If he were to inject himself in the debate by laying out a policy agenda or a set of demands or even the set of expectations that’s too specific, he risks immediately influencing the outcome and getting a result that is very undesirable,” Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, said of the president.

Mr. Connolly and other Democrats said that Mr. Biden’s endorsing a Republican lawmaker to be speaker could doom that person’s chances by making them toxic among more conservative colleagues. After all, the suggestion that a potential speaker might be open to working with Mr. Biden and Democrats was a key reason for Mr. McCarthy’s political demise after he cut a deal with Democrats to keep the government open.

But that logic means that the presidential megaphone will remain largely muted as one of the country’s leading institutions faces historic upheaval that stems in large part from the burn-it-down sentiment toward Washington ignited and fanned by Mr. Trump.

“The American people deserve leadership that puts the issues affecting their lives front and center, like President Biden is doing,” said Andrew Bates, a deputy press secretary in the White House. He contrasted that work with “the needless political chaos the House Republicans are miring themselves in as extreme members demand policies that are wildly at odds with the country.”

The debate over whether to authorize billions of dollars in additional aid for Ukraine may be an early test of Mr. Biden’s restraint.

Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of the two announced G.O.P. candidates for speaker, has expressed serious reservations about the Biden administration’s request for more Ukraine aid, in part reflecting growing unease among other Republicans about the war with Russia. Administration officials have said that even a brief pause in that funding could be devastating for Ukraine on the battlefield.

The president’s instinct is clearly to weigh in forcefully on the issue. In brief comments to reporters on Wednesday, Mr. Biden said he would soon be giving a major address to the nation on the need for the Ukraine funding.

President Biden with General Charles Q. Brown, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday. Mr. Biden is planning a major address on additional funding for Ukraine, though the timing is unclear.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

But supporters of Ukraine worry that delivering that speech in the middle of the Republican fight over the speakership could do the opposite of what Mr. Biden hopes. Focusing public attention on the president’s desire could strengthen Mr. Jordan or other Republicans opposed to Ukraine aid, who would argue that they should not cave to demands from a Democrat.

They are counseling the White House to wait until after the election of a new speaker to have Mr. Biden deliver the speech.

“The better part of wisdom might be to wait until a new speaker is elected,” Mr. Connolly said. “Let the turmoil subside. Let the election happen. And then, absolutely, help remind Americans why this is important and why it’s got to be on the agenda. Now is not the time to do that.”

White House officials have not said when a Ukraine speech might be scheduled. And it was unclear how long the Republicans would take to settle on a successor for Mr. McCarthy. Lawmakers were not scheduled to return to work until the middle of next week, and their internal divisions were unlikely to be resolved by then.

In his remarks to reporters this week, Mr. Biden said he worried that the infighting among House Republicans could once again lead the country to the brink of a government shutdown, as it did last week.

“We cannot and should not again be faced with an 11th-hour decision of brinkmanship,” he said.

But some of Mr. Biden’s allies are not exactly upset by the idea of an extended period of attention on Republican struggles. Kate Bedingfield, who served as the White House communications director for the first two years of Mr. Biden’s administration, said the president benefits from the axiom “show, don’t tell.”

“What you have this week is the Republican Party showing the country that they are chaotic, that they’re disorganized, that they’re not able to govern and move things forward,” she said. “So it’s absolutely in President Biden’s interest to step back and allow the Republicans to put themselves on display.”

It also might be hard for the president’s message to break through between wall-to-wall coverage of the Republican meltdown in the House and extensive reporting on Mr. Trump’s legal troubles.

Asked what was on Mr. Biden’s schedule earlier this week, one White House aide gestured to four television screens — all with scenes of Mr. Trump sitting at the defendant’s table in his New York fraud trial — and asked: Would it matter?

Still, Ms. Bedingfield said the president was right to try to position himself above the Republican fray.

“What he’s choosing to do,” she said, “is show the American people that he’s focused on their priorities, on making life better for them while Republicans can’t organize a — what’s the phrase? — can’t organize a two-car funeral.”

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