Biden Just Showed Us What He Really Values

The president drew a crucial lesson from his years in the Senate, but it wasn’t about the primacy of bipartisan cooperation.

President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on March 11 in the Oval Office.
President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on March 11 in the Oval Office. (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty)

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

In September, one political observer cast a gimlet eye on then-candidate Joe Biden’s theory about contemporary politics:

He believes that once Trump is gone, Republicans on Capitol Hill will return to the low-key, courteous mien that Biden remembers (or thinks he remembers) from his long career in the Senate. Rather than relentlessly attacking these Republicans, Biden has chosen to reach out to them.

The writer acknowledged that this approach might well help Biden win the White House but added, “If he wins, he’ll struggle to turn his theory of politics into real success.”

That writer was me, and the quick passage of now-President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus-relief package is, among other things, a rebuke of my analysis. Biden’s success suggests that I misunderstood how his many years in the Senate have shaped his approach to politics.

I thought that Biden’s frequent paeans to the Senate of yore meant that he would prioritize cutting deals across the aisle above all. During his presidential campaign, Biden was happy to encourage this impression. But there’s another, contradictory lesson of the old Senate, and it’s the one that Biden has followed thus far as president: You do whatever it takes to get things done.

When Biden joined the Senate, that meant working with senators of all stripes and cutting deals to get your legislation through. That doesn’t work these days, or at least there’s little evidence that it does; hardly anyone tries, in part because the political risks outweigh the political benefits. But cramming legislation through on a party-line vote using the obscure parliamentary procedure known as reconciliation does work in a 50–50 Senate with a Democratic vice president.

Some people in politics deeply treasure bipartisanship as an end in itself. They believe that having members of both parties supporting legislation is better for both political and policy reasons, and they are willing to make sacrifices on substance to achieve it. (Think of No Labels, Third Way, the Bipartisan Policy Center, or the dubiously named Problem Solvers Caucus. Think also, perhaps, of Senator Joe Manchin, though the West Virginian’s practice of working through things in public makes it hard to tell.) Others reject bipartisanship outright, preferring ideological purity over compromise. A third group views bipartisanship as a sometimes-useful tool—a means to achieve things.

During the presidential race, Biden often suggested that he was closer to the first camp, extolling the virtues of “civility” with a confusingly told anecdote about working with the segregationist Dixiecrat James Eastland of Mississippi. Critics took this to mean that Biden felt it was okay to work with racists as long as you could form a strong personal bond with them. They looked at Biden’s long record and his ideological flexibility and read him as a milquetoast deal-cutter who would be knocked flat by today’s Washington.

But there’s another interpretation of the Eastland anecdote: It’s a story about gritting your teeth and doing whatever unsavory things you have to do to accomplish what you want. “Working with [southern Democrats], as Biden and many liberals of his generation did, was not a matter of artificial comity or keeping peace in the valley; it was the only way they saw to do their jobs in Congress,” Todd S. Purdum wrote in June. The “civility” of the 1970s was a veneer, just like the enduring practice of referring to a colleague as the gentleman or gentlelady from this or that state while eviscerating them.

Purdum’s view has aged well—much better than mine. The scope of Biden’s accomplishment in pushing through the COVID-19 package has been understated. While Biden’s 2019 prediction that “you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends” once Donald Trump was out of the White House has not held up well, it also hasn’t mattered much so far. One reason is that Republicans are in disarray. Although they have not suddenly come around to the Democratic view, and every Republican in Congress voted against the COVID-19 package, the GOP was also unable to mount any serious opposition, or even a rhetorical stand, against it. The bill’s passage seemed almost anticlimactic, despite the huge sum attached.

None of this is to say that Biden was being disingenuous when he spoke about bipartisanship. He’s still talking with Republicans. He and Senator Susan Collins are becoming phone buddies. Pushing bills through on party-line votes may or may not make it harder to get things done across the aisle later (Charlie Cook says yes; Jonathan Chait says no). But Biden won’t let that prospect prevent action.

As my colleague Franklin Foer wrote in October, Biden has spent his entire life trying to get to the presidency, and now has only a small window to make use of the office. “Rather than evidence of diminishing vigor, that limited opportunity to govern might prove a wellspring of energy,” Foer wrote. “He knows he has only a fleeting opportunity to fix the crisis of the century, just a short moment in which to realize his dreams of transformation.”

This helps explain why Biden was able to shift gears so quickly from his attempts at a bipartisan relief bill to an all-Democratic one, once it became clear that Republicans would demand more than the president was willing to give, and even then might not end up backing the legislation. (Biden and his team learned the lessons of the Affordable Care Act too.) It also explains why he is tentatively backing changes to the filibuster, why Democrats are preparing to pass another monster bill through reconciliation (assuming the filibuster remains largely in place), and why he’s warming to big tax increases on the rich.

Will voters punish Biden for forsaking bipartisanship? Republicans who aren’t too busy claiming credit for the bill they voted against hope so. In a Washington Post column last month, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio scolded Biden for not following through on his campaign rhetoric. Portman recommended that the White House adopt his own proposal—for a COVID-19 package that was just one-third the size of Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan. The problem is that at the moment, the relief law is extremely popular. Voters seem more inclined to reward the president for passing something they like than penalize him for doing it in a way they don’t, and voters are less attuned to process questions than politicians are.

Besides, it takes two to bipartisan, and Republicans show little serious interest in engaging. When Biden was making compromises in the Senate, he was doing so to get what he wanted. If he can get what he wants in another way, he’ll do that, too. The experience of the COVID-19 package is the best indication we have so far about how Biden might manage the rest of his term, especially until the 2022 midterms, and it reflects the real lessons he learned as a senator all those years ago. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes old dogs know more tricks than they let on.