When President Joe Biden visited Pennsylvania on Thursday, he touted infrastructure investments that helped rebuild a collapsed bridge and raised campaign cash away from cameras with the state’s Democratic Senate candidate.
Where he didn’t appear was a campaign rally stage.
Three weeks before November’s elections, Biden’s visit to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia neatly demonstrated a political strategy focused on promoting his agenda and talking with donors rather than headlining stump speeches alongside vulnerable Democrats.
He has been a frequent visitor to Pennsylvania, where Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman holds a narrow lead in his race against Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz in the US Senate race. Trading his trademark sweatshirt and basketball shorts for a dark suit and tie, Fetterman greeted Biden at the airport alongside his wife.
“You’re gonna win!” Biden said as he shook the candidate’s hand.
Biden has visited the commonwealth nine times this year, including Thursday’s visit, and 18 times since he became president.
“I’m a proud Delawarean, but Pennsylvania’s my native state. It’s in my heart. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to be part of rebuilding this beautiful state,” Biden said. “My Grandfather Finnegan from Scranton would really be proud of me now.”
Still, despite the fondness, Biden’s visit was relatively low-key for a presidential stop weeks ahead of a critical midterm contest. He did not hold a rollicking campaign rally, opting for a smaller profile event with several dozen officials and workers from the bridge project.
Biden’s approach borne out of political reality: While many of Biden’s accomplishments have been well-received by voters – and, in some cases, embraced by Republicans who voted against them – Biden himself remains unpopular and some Democrats continue to keep their distance as the midterm contests grow near.
Departing the White House on Thursday, Biden bristled when asked why more Democrats weren’t joining him for political events.
“That’s not true,” Biden said. “There have been 15. Count, kid, count.”
Later, as he and Fetterman dropped by a Primanti Bros. sandwich shop near Pittsburgh, he told reporters he’d been requested to visit Nevada and Georgia, two states with tight Senate races.
“We’re trying to work it out now,” he said. “I don’t know where I’m going. I’ve got about 16, 18 requests around the country.”
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Over the past weeks, Biden has worked to expand his list of achievements using executive power, including pardoning low-level marijuana offenders, canceling some student loan debt, reducing the cost of hearing aids and declaring a World War II training site a national monument.
This week alone, he promised to sign a bill enshrining abortion rights into law if Democrats gain seats, outlined billions of dollars to invest in domestic battery manufacturing and released another 15 million barrels of oil from the nation’s strategic reserves as he works to bring down gas prices.
“I’ve been doing this for how long now? It’s not politically motivated at all,” he said. “It’s motivated to make sure that I continue to push on what I’ve been pushing on.”
Yet the timing of the release nonetheless came as Biden’s party looks with growing concern at the prospect of losing its congressional majorities next year, and the White House searches for steps to appeal to Americans.
In Pittsburgh, the President spoke at the Fern Hollow Bridge, a four-lane steel span that collapsed into a snowy ravine in January. Biden happened to be visiting the city that day to speak about infrastructure, and the presidential motorcade made a detour to view the damage.
“A complete catastrophe was avoided but it never should have come to this,” Biden said on Thursday. The President noted how quickly the bridge was bring rebuilt and said that while it wasn’t funded by his bipartisan infrastructure law, it was completely funded by the federal government.
Biden said that “God willing” the bridge will be completely open in December, telling the audience: “I’m coming back to walk over this sucker.”
Biden was joined by a slew of top Pennsylvania elected officials, most notably Fetterman, who is locked in one of the most closely watched midterm contests. Biden is also scheduled to join Fetterman later on Thursday for a fundraiser in Philadelphia.
While the bridge’s reconstruction wasn’t directly funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law, a White House official said funding from the law allowed Pennsylvania’s Transportation Department “to move funds quickly to support this project, without having to slow down or interfere with other projects in the pipeline.”
The rebuilding was funded through $25.3 million in federal funding appropriated to Pennsylvania in Fiscal Year 2021, the White House official said.
The law allocated $40 billion toward bridge projects over five years. Since last October, repairs or replacements have begun on more than 2,400 bridges through funding from the infrastructure law, according to the White House.
That measure has emerged as a central talking point for Biden during this year’s midterms. Candidates who might think twice about holding a political rally with Biden have seemed eager to appear alongside him at official events heralding improvements on rail lines, airport terminals or bridges. The President has hammered Republicans who voted against the bill but have nonetheless taken credit for projects made possible by the $1.2 trillion law.
In planning Biden’s recent travel, including political events and official White House duties, his advisers have taken into account the sensitive political reality that some Democratic candidates in tough races would prefer he not visit their district or state in the final stretch to the midterms.
But one Democratic official familiar with the White House’s thinking said an important overarching dynamic is that even the candidates who would rather not appear alongside Biden are still eager to run on his legislative accomplishments, describing it as a “halfsies” situation.
“There are some campaigns that don’t want him to physically campaign in his state,” the official said. “But – people are running on his agenda.”
Given the string of legislative victories that Biden’s party scored in the first half of the Biden administration – including the bipartisan infrastructure bill – even the events that are technically billed official White House business are effectively no different from political events these days, that official noted.
“Every event is political now,” they said.
Biden remains eager to visit key battlegrounds, according to his aides. Earlier this year, he voiced some frustration that more Democrats weren’t lining up to use him on the campaign trail.
Now, Biden has settled into a midterm push that has him traveling mostly to states he won in 2020 while avoiding certain marquee races where his presence could be a drag on Democratic candidates.
Other Democrats appear more welcome. Former President Barack Obama will hold campaign rallies for Democrats in Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee in the days before the elections. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont democratic socialist, will visit battleground states on a tour targeted to younger voters.
The White House is working closely with the Senate and House campaign committees and will send the President where he could be helpful, aides said, and will avoid traveling to areas where nationalizing the race would be seen as a detriment to candidates.
The logistics of presidential travel also complicate some travel, aides said, because campaigns must help foot the expensive costs of Air Force One.
Still, at similar stages in their terms, Obama and former President Donald Trump were engaging in more traditional campaign-style events for candidates ahead of midterm elections, despite questions about dragging down candidates.
Both saw their party lose unified control of Congress in their first midterm elections, a historical precedent Biden hopes to break – even as he avoids big political events.
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said Thursday that President Joe Biden not participating in large rallies ahead of the midterms is a strategic choice, not a reflection of the President’s approval ratings.
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The White House has defended Biden’s travel plans, insisting he is traveling “nonstop” and intends to visit states “where he is needed” in the run-up to the vote.
“Both President Obama – I was here, I’ll share responsibility for it – and President Trump got walloped in the midterms,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on “AC360” Thursday evening.
“So I don’t think it should surprise anyone that we’re not using the strategy that failed in 2010, and the strategy that failed in 2018. Instead, what you’re seeing is that the President is traveling the country with Democratic elected officials … and he’s talking about the issues that really impact people,” he said.
Klain added: “I don’t think rallies have proved effective for candidates in the midterms, and so we’re trying something different.”
Still, in the weeks ahead of the midterms, Biden continues to spend most weekends at his homes in Delaware, including last weekend in Wilmington and this weekend in Rehoboth Beach.
On Friday, he’ll stop at Delaware State University to tout his efforts at student debt forgiveness, before heading to his beach house. This week, the debt relief program Biden announced earlier this year went online, with millions applying to have some or all of their loans forgiven.
In one of his previous trips to campaign in Pennsylvania, on Labor Day, Biden appeared before a small crowd with Fetterman at a union picnic in Pittsburgh. When the two men emerged from the union hall together, Fetterman raised his arms and pumped his fists.
But when Fetterman spoke ahead of Biden, he used the opportunity to lambast his Republican opponent for owning multiple homes – without mentioning the President at all.
During a 15-minute private meeting beforehand, Fetterman pushed Biden to begin the process of rescheduling marijuana, one of his top issues.
A few weeks later, the White House said Biden would issue pardons for federal simple marijuana possession offenses and task members of his administration to “expeditiously” review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law, the first step toward potentially easing a federal classification that currently places marijuana in the same category as heroin and LSD.
Biden himself has only mentioned the decision in passing. But Fetterman hailed the move and was quick to cite his conversation with Biden after the White House made the announcement.
This story has been updated with additional information Thursday.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.