WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden called Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on her iPhone hours after she toured the site of a tornado that killed a 14-year-old boy in her state. Biden almost instantly signed disaster declarations sought by Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma. He invited Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to the White House to discuss the coronavirus pandemic.
All are Republicans. None are from states Biden came close to winning.
In his first five weeks in office, Biden is spending as much time - if not more - courting Republican governors as he is wooing the senators he needs to pass legislation. It is part of a strategy that lays the groundwork to make something of an end-run around Republicans in Congress, who may be resistant to his ideas, as he looks for outside-the-Beltway allies who might help him make good on his promises of bipartisanship.
In some cases, Biden and his administration have leaned on state Republican officials to support his policies, including a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that includes $350 billion in funding for cities and states. In other instances, he has opened a more general dialogue, picking up the phone to offer help after a disaster or to engage longtime friends.
Governors may be more pragmatic than senators, the White House believes, their desire for funding and other help from Washington making them more open to cooperation.
“They’ve reached out to us early on, even before the president took office, to just listen: ‘How do you see it in Ohio? What are you confronting?’ " said the state’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine. “That’s helpful. It’s always helpful when people listen.”
In addition, the coronavirus vaccination effort is creating natural channels for the two sides to talk. “Now what overrides everything else is the covid problem and how we get vaccine out,” DeWine said. “You find governors are very, very focused on this, and the White House is very focused on this. It’s an area where ideological differences are virtually insignificant.”
On Thursday, Biden will deliver virtual remarks to the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, continuing an outreach that in some cases includes Republican governors who resisted declaring Biden the winner of the presidential election.
Still, some GOP governors are aggravated that Biden’s White House has not given them a heads-up on energy or immigration policies that have a big impact on their states, and they bristle at the lack of personal outreach they have gotten so far. But Biden receives higher marks from many for his handling of the coronavirus response.
“There’s not a more bipartisan issue than vaccine distribution,” Hutchinson said from Arkansas, a state Biden lost by nearly 28 percentage points. “The dialogue has been consistent, it has been helpful, it has been all working together on the same team to get this project done and covid behind us.”
Hutchinson, who is vice chairman of the National Governors Association, was among a small group of governors and mayors who met with Biden at the White House this month. Although the Arkansas governor argued that Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan was far too costly, he said he recognizes that Biden has concluded “he wants to go big on it.”
“He does have a friendly tone with all the governors,” Hutchinson said. “It’s been impressive in the meetings I’ve had. He’s a good listener, and his team is a good listener. Now, they don’t always follow our advice. But they hear us.”
Biden also benefits from longtime relationships with some of the governors. DeWine served with him in the Senate for 12 years, and he recounted a call shortly before Biden took office. “I started the call, ‘Mr. President-,’ " DeWine said. “He said, ‘Just call me Joe.’ I said, ‘Mr. President, I’m not going to call you Joe.’ "
Biden aides say that almost from the moment they got their government-issued phones, they began calling governors about the coronavirus relief package.
“We’ve seen real strong bipartisan support. Unfortunately, the area where we haven’t seen as much is here in the Beltway,” said Julie Chávez Rodriguez, director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. “But I think folks on the ground who see the need of what it’s going to take to combat covid and get the economy back on track are on the same page.”
West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice, for example, has come out strongly in support of Biden’s approach, saying the president’s $1.9 trillion package is far better than a Republican alternative of $618 billion.
“I don’t think that America can go wrong being too high, I really don’t,” Justice said during a coronavirus briefing earlier this month. “I think, today, America’s got to go to the higher number.”
Shortly afterward, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a moderate who had been working with Republicans to scale back the plan, indicated he would instead back Biden’s proposal.
The praise is hardly universal. Some Republican governors are frustrated both with Biden’s policies and with what they call a lack of outreach.
Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he grew tired of reading in the media about Biden’s energy initiatives, which have a major effect on his state, so he called the White House several weeks ago and spoke with Rodriguez. He said he had not heard back from the White House, and he hasn’t spoken with Biden.
“We haven’t had any conversation,” he said. “We read about it in the paper. And that’s a problem.”
A White House official told The Washington Post that it had reached out to Dunleavy’s office Wednesday afternoon to set up a deeper dialogue.
Biden may be picking his battles, focusing on Republicans he knows or who share his outlook. Dunleavy, who grew up about 10 blocks from where Biden once lived in Scranton, Pa., had questioned whether Biden won the election, and Alaska under his leadership joined a Texas-led lawsuit attempting to overturn the results.
Dunleavy had a much stronger relationship with former president Donald Trump, a leader he called “the best president for Alaska since statehood.” They met at least nine times, and when Air Force One would make refueling stops in Alaska, Dunleavy said he would be invited aboard.
Beyond such niceties, Biden has rapidly reversed many of Trump’s climate change policies and banned new drilling permits on federal land. “I hate to say it, but we’re girding ourselves for a couple of long years,” Dunleavy said. “Right out of the gate, it’s not looking good for Alaska on a whole host of issues.”
North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum also said he is frustrated. In mid-December, he requested a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris and said he was directed to Rodriguez.
“I was at the inauguration and heard the speech firsthand about working together and unity,” Burgum said. “And the first couple of weeks has been a barrage of executive orders that have had a direct impact on our economy, our communities, our schools.”
The most direct contact between the White House and governors comes during a weekly call on the coronavirus response. It’s a continuation of a practice started during the Trump administration, but with notable differences.
Vice President Mike Pence used to lead the video calls from the Situation Room, often joined by top advisers including Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx and Scott Atlas.
Now the calls are led by Jeff Zients, Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, who is both more hands-on and less senior than Pence. Biden and Harris do not participate, and the sessions are held via conference call rather than video, making it unclear who is taking part. The calls are more businesslike and streamlined, 45 minutes rather than up to two hours.
Some predicted the changes would make the calls less effective.
“On a video call, every governor is like, ‘If we’re not on the call, they’re going to see we’re not. We need to be on the meeting and interact with the other governors and the Cabinet,’ " Burgum said. “With teleconference, I’d guess in a short time you’re going to have governors stop calling in and have a staffer call in. . . . It just seems there’s been some layers added with less direct contact with the administration.”
Biden, when it comes to engaging fellow political leaders, appears to fall somewhere between Trump, who often called unprompted to seek input and affirmation, and Barack Obama, who was wary of the give-and-take among elected officials. Past connections with him are beneficial, and Biden has been quick to respond to states confronting tragedy or national disaster.
Last week, Biden’s office quickly scheduled a call with seven governors - most from red states - to discuss the severe winter storm. He opened by jokingly quoting former president Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ "
“He’s pretty folksy,” said one participant on the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation. “One of the first things he said was, ‘I meant what I said, there’s no red or blue in my book.’ He didn’t come across as playing the role of the president - you know, kiss the ring.”
At the end of the call, Biden said he wanted to talk more with the governors later about advancing new solar technology that can store power longer.
“He was very focused on solving the problem at hand,” the participant said. “There was no sort of blame or ‘We need to fix this.’ It was, ‘What does your state need? And if you’d be open to it, we’d love to talk about it more in the future about this solar stuff.’ "
As Biden begins focusing on his infrastructure plan, potentially his next major initiative, he could turn even more to GOP governors as he faces resistance from congressional Republicans.
“There is a big difference - in general, governors have to be pragmatic, and they have to be problem-solvers,” said DeWine. “The buck stops with them. Governors talk a lot across party lines. Most issues we deal with, we’re as comfortable talking to a Democrat as we are a Republican.”