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Biden aims for more achievements despite the bane of lame-duck presidents: diminished relevance

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. (AP) — President Joe Biden says he’s “determined to get as much done” as he possibly can in his final six months in the White House as he tries to beat back a defining force that his lame-duck predecessors struggled to vanquish: diminished relevance.

July 23, 2024

By Aamer Madhani The Associated Press


REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. (AP) — President Joe Biden says he’s “determined to get as much done” as he possibly can in his final six months in the White House as he tries to beat back a defining force that his lame-duck predecessors struggled to vanquish: diminished relevance.

Biden hopes to keep the spigot flowing with hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding from a series of major legislative wins early in his term — signature policy victories that could be undone should Republican Donald Trump return to the White House.

He also badly wants Israel and Hamas to agree to his proposed three-phase cease-fire deal to bring home remaining Israeli hostages and potentially pave the way for an end to the nine-month-old war in Gaza. That would require no small measure of risk by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas leadership.

Biden also will press to quickly fill federal judiciary vacancies — currently there are 48 openings — and make other federal agency appointments, but he will undoubtedly face pushback from Senate Republicans who want to keep Biden from notching any end-of-term wins.

Biden, in short, is rallying his team to help him defy political gravity.

“I’m still going to be fully fully engaged,” a gravelly voiced Biden, who is recovering from COVID-19 at his beach home in Delaware, promised staffers during a Monday call-in to his former campaign headquarters.

At the White House, staff are waiting for Biden’s expected return on Tuesday after he spent the last six days convalescing.

White House chief of staff Jeff Zients on Monday urged aides to keep their heads down and remain focused on the work that remains. He listed lowering housing and health care costs, implementing the administration’s key legislative achievements, and safeguarding democracy as among Biden’s top priorities for the final months of the administration.

The message is being echoed throughout the administration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told senior State Department officials that Biden wants his team to remain laser focused on carrying out his foreign policy agenda. Blinken noted that there is still “one-eighth” of Biden’s term to go, according to State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

Biden, who is scheduled to meet with Israel’s Netanyahu later this week, said during his call to campaign staff that he was focused on getting a cease-fire agreement and expressed optimism that a deal was close. His standing with some in his liberal base has plummeted as the death toll in Gaza has mounted. More than 39,000 people have died, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

“I’ll be working really closely with the Israelis and with the Palestinians to try to work out how we can get the Gaza war to end and Middle East peace and get all those hostages home,” Biden told campaign staff. “I think we’re on the verge of being able to do that.”

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator, said that a cease-fire deal appears closer than it has been through the conflict.

Netanyahu has faced pressure from the far-right members of his coalition to resist any deal that stops Israel from eliminating Hamas in Gaza. But the Israeli prime minister may have some wiggle room when the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, begins a three-month recess July 28. Far-right members of his coalition would be unable to hold a no-confidence vote during that period.

Biden’s leverage on Netanyahu, who is set to address Congress on Wednesday as part of his Washington visit, remains limited. And ramping up rhetorical pressure on Netanyahu, who wants to demonstrate to an Israeli audience that he remains popular on Capitol Hill and can withstand any pressure from the White House, is perilous, Miller said.

“You might get a cease-fire no matter what Biden does or doesn’t do,” added Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Biden and Kamala Harris have to be careful with respect to how Republicans may interpret, exploit and use anything that is seen as pressure on Israel.”

Lame-duck presidents have used the waning days of their presidencies to take big shots at weighty policy.

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law a $700 billion bailout of the financial services industry weeks before Barack Obama defeated Republican John McCain. Bush also signed off on more than $17 billion to keep America’s auto industry afloat in the final weeks of his presidency as the economy tanked.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton launched negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David, Maryland, in one last — and ultimately unsuccessful — effort at winning Middle East peace at the end of his presidency.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts to end the war in Vietnam in the final months of his presidency flamed out in 1968. Historians have pointed to evidence that Democrat Johnson’s successor, Republican Richard Nixon, covertly sought to slow the effort out of fear that an agreement could hurt his election chances.

The foreign policy space — particularly helping seal an Israel-Hamas cease-fire agreement — might be Biden’s best hope for a final legacy-defining moment.

“Between Ukraine and Gaza, the Biden national security team has been stretched. They have more than enough on their plate,” said Gordon Gray, a former U.S. ambassador to Tunisia who is now a professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. “Realistically, there might not be enough time for big breakthroughs.”

William Howell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said lame-duck status does inevitably constrain a presidency but it doesn’t necessarily have to make one inert.

Howell said that Biden, who has vowed to help propel Harris’ White House bid, may be able to turn himself into a juggernaut on the campaign trail now that he’s acceded to pressure from the deep-pocketed donors who threatened to withhold cash if he didn’t exit the campaign.

“His most important job over the new few months is setting the conditions to make Kamala Harris successful,” Howell said.


Associated Press writers Chris Megerian in Wilmington, Delaware, and Seung Min Kim, Matthew Lee and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.