Biden’s Latest Challenge Could Be Insurmountable

The president’s insistence on reaching across the aisle may be his undoing.

President Joe Biden with roads behind him and across his face
Samuel Corum / Bloomberg / Getty / The Atlantic

Five months into Joe Biden’s presidency, his efforts at bipartisanship have yielded little progress. The depth of Republican intransigence has placed his presidency at a hinge point. If Biden can successfully mobilize his own party, he still has the chance to usher in the transformational vision that he’s promised: Families get money to cover child-care expenses. High-speed internet reaches the most remote rural homes. During the November 2022 midterms, voters might reward him by preserving the Democratic majority and giving him a tinge of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose portrait he sees every day above the fireplace in the Oval Office.

If Biden remains fixated on winning Republican votes, though, that might leave him weakened. Come 2022, with fruitless negotiations stalling his agenda, that could cost his party its congressional majority and give Biden the unmistakable whiff of a lame-duck president fated to serve a single term.

“We are going into this clear-eyed,” a senior White House official told me, adding, “It’s very hard to know when to pull the plug” on negotiations. “But the president is more experienced than the two of us, and he knows his colleagues.”

Much depends on what Biden does this summer. Inside his party, lawmakers are losing patience with Republican opposition and pressuring him to move ahead without Republican votes. And there are signs he is preparing to do just that, as part of a sequenced strategy that starts with demonstrating to both the nation and conservative Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia that he’s being reasonable while the other side is not. The next few weeks will see Biden and Republican leaders trading offers and counteroffers over a trillion-dollar infrastructure package.

“The job of the [Biden] administration is to open up the possibility for bipartisan negotiations,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat from Massachusetts and former presidential candidate, told me. “But if the Republicans are unwilling to take on the kinds of solutions that are needed at this moment, then the bigger job of the administration is to press forward.” Should Biden go it alone?, I asked Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “He may know more than we do, but I’ve seen no persuasive evidence that Republicans are as serious as they need to be.”

Biden is up against a party whose organizing principle is blunting his agenda. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last month that “100 percent” of his focus is on “stopping” the Biden administration. “Mitch McConnell is acting rationally. The odds of him having a Republican Senate and House in January 2023 are better than even,” Kenneth Baer, a former senior Obama-administration official, told me.

As Democrats see it, passing the boldest possible legislative package is a way to showcase what is at stake in the midterm elections. In which case, it’s pointless to spend months pursuing a more modest package that Republicans are likely to reject anyway. “Democrats should jump at the opportunity to go it alone,” Adam Jentleson, who was a senior aide to former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and is the author of a new book about the Senate filibuster rule, Kill Switch, told me. “What our politics is lacking right now is clarity. And people need to be clear that Democrats want to do certain things for people, and Republicans don’t.”

On June 2, Biden met privately with Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who is leading the GOP infrastructure negotiations. The two sides disagree on how to pay for the plan; there was no breakthrough and none is in sight. (Biden has been steadily dropping the price tag of what began as a $2 trillion proposal; Republicans have been raising their counteroffer, largely by tapping unspent federal funds.) The two sides disagree on the meaning of infrastructure. Republicans say it constitutes roads, bridges, airports; Democrats favor a more expansive definition that also encompasses housing and family assistance. Biden had set Memorial Day as a deadline for progress in the talks; it came and went. Now the White House is backing away from hard deadlines, calling instead for measurable progress through the summer.

Talking with senators in the Capitol last week was enough to convince me that the gap between the two parties looks insurmountable. Souring the mood was the vote over a proposed commission that would have examined the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. McConnell and Republican allies defeated the effort. The natural question that arises is whether Republicans will vote for any Democratic priority if they didn’t agree to investigate a mob that might have killed them.

A parliamentary tactic available to Biden is the same one he used when ushering in his $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package in March: reconciliation. The maneuver is a way of circumventing the outdated Senate filibuster rule requiring a 60-vote supermajority to pass major legislation. Under reconciliation, Democrats could pass an infrastructure bill on the strength of their one-vote majority. (Vice President Kamala Harris breaks any ties.)

But forget the Republicans; corralling all 50 Democratic votes will be tough enough even if Biden chooses the reconciliation route. Thus, all eyes are on Senator Joe Manchin.

On a recent afternoon, Manchin spoke with a group of reporters in the Capitol basement, sounding a bit like one of his Republican colleagues. One of Biden’s infrastructure proposals calls for spending $174 billion to expand the market for electric cars. Part of the money would be used to create incentives to build a nationwide network of 500,000 electric-vehicle charging stations by 2030.

“I don’t remember that when Henry Ford built the Model T, we went out and built filling stations for him,” Manchin said. “I don’t remember that happening.”

Placating Manchin is virtually a full-time job for Democrats. And that may be the best way to interpret the haggling over Biden’s infrastructure package. No doubt Biden is sincere in wanting Republican support: He’s made clear his disgust over the rank polarization that has infected Washington. Yet the real target audience may not be the GOP, but Manchin. Biden needs to show he’s been fair and is not attempting to steamroll the minority party. That’s a message Manchin can take back to his constituents. Manchin may be the last Democratic senator to represent a state as thoroughly red as West Virginia. Recognizing that political reality, Democrats give him ample deference.

“Presidents have, in each chapter of their presidency, a limited amount of time,” Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary under Barack Obama, told me. “President Biden has a limited amount of time, and his legislative strategy can’t be Waiting for Godot.”

One of Biden’s instincts, honed from decades serving in the Senate, is to cut a deal, but the Republican senators amenable to give-and-take are long gone. Now the party is a creature of Donald Trump. If Biden is reluctant to absorb that reality, if the negotiations bleed into the campaign season, he’s at risk of losing everything. Then, he might end his term looking more like Jimmy Carter than FDR.