At start of crucial election year, Biden officials talk up his agenda in deep blue New York.

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By Dan Sears

At the start of the New Year, the White House dispatched officials from President Joe Biden’s administration to bring renewed focus to his agenda in New York, a traditional stronghold for Democrats who have won the state in every presidential election for the last four decades.

With Biden’s approval ratings at record lows in recent polls, officials from his administration on Thursday sought to reframe the debate over immigration, putting Congress on the hook for decades of inaction leading to a broken immigration and asylum system. They also tried to bring attention to what they consider some of Biden’s major policy achievements on the economy, what the administration dubs “Bidenomics.”

In separate interviews, WNYC spoke with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary Blas Nuñez-Neto, who discussed the Biden administration’s efforts to address the migrant crisis, and Stephen Benjamin, a senior advisor to the president and the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

On immigration and the migrant crisis

Nuñez-Neto said surges in migration across the border have been an issue for more than a decade under presidents of both political parties. He said the Biden administration has worked to use its executive authorities, “to strengthen consequences at the border, and we are removing record numbers of people today.”

“That said, we just recognize that there are limits to what the president can do without the U.S. Congress,” he added.

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His comments came a day after a delegation of House Republicans led by Speaker Mike Johnson traveled to Eagle Pass along the Texas border, and signaled the potential for a partial government shutdown in two weeks if their version of a border security bill is not adopted.

Several freshmen Republican members from swing districts in New York, including Reps. Michael Lawler from the Hudson Valley and Anthony D’Esposito of Long Island, were part of Johnson’s delegation.

“I’m hoping that the trip to the border will help motivate our colleagues in the House to come to the table with solutions that can pass both chambers of Congress,” said Nuñez-Neto.

While he said he was hopeful that ongoing negotiations in the U.S. Senate would achieve a successful bipartisan compromise, he offered few details when asked about any new decompression strategy for New York.

For the past year, New York officials at the state and city level have said the growing influx of migrants to our region has created significant burdens on our economy, straining our safety net systems and costing billions. The federal government has provided $140 million in aid, but Nuñez-Neto said more could be available to New York and other localities if the U.S. Congress would act on the administration’s supplemental funding request.

“This is a shared challenge that is the direct result of our broken immigration and asylum system. What you’re seeing in New York is the cost of that broken system,” the assistant secretary said. He urged people to contact their local congressional representatives to seek a bipartisan solution to the issue. “It’s too easy to play politics with immigration,” he added.

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On the economy – what is “Bidenomics”

The term “Bidenomics” has generated some controversy among Democrats. Axios reported last month that House Democrats dropped the label and are going with the slogan “People over Politics” instead. But Stephen Benjamin, senior adviser to the president and director of the Office of Public Engagement, defended the terms.

“Bidenomics means that we’re focusing on a strategy that can marshall all of our better instincts to put people to work in this country and build the American economy,” said Benjamin. “And we’re seeing the fruits of those labors.”

His comments came a day before the Labor Department released its latest job numbers for December that showed the economy added 216,000 last month, with unemployment holding steady at 3.7%, numbers that came in ahead of some economists’ expectations.

Benjamin emphasized the challenges the administration faced three years ago and what’s changed since then.

“We were in the midst of the greatest pandemic since 1918, the greatest economic distress that many had seen since 1929 – 1932, and greatest social unrest our country had seen since 1968, all wrapped up in one moment,” said Benjamin.

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In response, he said the administration secured passage of legislation like the American Rescue Act which provided stimulus funds to get the economy back on track. Benjamin, the former mayor of Columbia, S.C. also pointed to major infrastructure legislation that has led to thousands of projects across the country.

Asked how the administration hopes to help people feel better about their pocketbooks and bank accounts, Benjamin insisted Biden’s policies were working, pointing to prognosticators who said a recession was inevitable and are now talking about a “soft landing.”

“We have to make sure people feel it,” said Benjamin. “But we’ve turned the corner significantly and we’re encouraged about the way things are going.”

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