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Biden has himself to blame for lost leverage

New administration is suddenly performing a lot like the last one

President Joe Biden’s defensiveness about his Afghanistan withdrawal decision was a departure from the empathetic and straight-talking demeanor that helped win him the White House, Bennett writes.
President Joe Biden’s defensiveness about his Afghanistan withdrawal decision was a departure from the empathetic and straight-talking demeanor that helped win him the White House, Bennett writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — The Biden White House would like its fellow Democrats to believe President Joe Biden has as much negotiating leverage on a massive domestic spending measure as he did when Congress left town a few weeks ago.

That contention is, to borrow one of the president’s favorite lines, malarkey.

A reporter asked Biden last week how he intends to pass what could be a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package — loaded with many pricey items — with microscopic majorities in the House and Senate. He replied with a laugh: “Is the sun going to come out tomorrow?”

It did, Mr. President. But what does the flaming orb cresting the treeline outside my window have to do with trillions in new spending that could turn off moderate voters and help hand the House and Senate back to Republicans? We’ll likely never know. After all, “Scranton Joe” riddles are as difficult to decipher as Donald Trump’s old tweets.

We know such optimistic outlooks from the Oval Office give still-recovering Democrats solace after four years of Trump’s insults and threats. We also know word puzzles alone do not cut sweeping spending deals.

Outside of a big tax cut package, Republicans during the Trump era never found a way to craft major legislation for conservatives like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and members from the party’s ever-shrinking moderate wing, like Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Democrats soon will find out whether they can do so for progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and moderates like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III.

Manchin’s role

What voters in the Bronx and Queens tell Ocasio-Cortez they want is different from what Manchin hears in Huntington and Martinsburg. Much different.

The West Virginian seems to relish his role as Democrats’ must-have vote. Oddly, there are reasons to question whether the White House takes him for granted.

“Joe, at the end, has always been there. He’s always been with me. I think we can work something out,” Biden also said last week, when asked about Manchin.

Congressional Democrats and the White House aren’t “at the end.” In fact, they’re not even close. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer knows that, and the New Yorker wants to get to the end at warp speed, knowing the longer the Democrat vs. Democrat drama plays out, the higher the risk of losing both the Manchin Moderates and the AOC-Bernie Brigade.

“We’re moving full speed ahead,” Schumer said on a call with reporters last week. “We are moving forward on this bill.”

Speed, goes the old saying in tackle football circles, kills. Manchin, a 1970 graduate of West Virginia University, saw that firsthand as his alma mater lost on Sept. 4 to the faster Maryland Terrapins, a 30-24 thriller during which the winner’s speedy wide receivers ran amok.

Manchin is eager to slow the process to a crawl. The senator appears keen that Biden, just weeks after riding high after a bipartisan infrastructure deal passed in the Senate, has lost much of his leverage after a rough summer.

“Hell no, Bernie,” Manchin reportedly told Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a progressive lion, about voting for a package with a $3.5 trillion price tag. He has also said Democrats should “hit the pause button” on their broader infrastructure plan.

Poll numbers

Despite the claims of conservative lawmakers — amplified by similar fact-challenged narratives of conservative media outlets — that the 78-year-old president is a dementia-hobbled shell of his former self, Biden looked like a sly, white-haired fox on Aug. 11. That’s when the Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill with $550 billion in new spending — something Trump promised for a half decade but never came close to delivering.

Biden’s combined approval rating that day was at 50 percent, with a disapproval mark around 43 percent, according to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight. His approval rating, however, steadily dropped in August during his administration’s poorly planned and deadly withdrawal of U.S. troops, American civilians and allies from Afghanistan. Manchin — and the progressives — can read polling data.

The president and his team have no one to blame for this lost leverage but themselves.

One day the commander in chief was saying he had no reason to believe the final days of America’s 20-year operation in Afghanistan would be chaotic. A few weeks later he said chaos was baked into his decision-making.

On Sept. 5, the State Department buried its head in the sand about a claim from House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul, R-Texas, that planes with U.S. citizens and Afghan allies at an airport in Mazar-e-Sharif were being held “hostage” by the Taliban. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken initially talked around the matter — before ultimately acknowledging the standoff.

As Kabul fell, Biden opted against returning to the White House from a long-planned vacation at Camp David, causing even allies to worry voters would conclude he was not taking the volatile situation seriously enough. Since, he has been defensive and cold about his withdrawal decision, a departure from the typically empathetic and straight-talking demeanor that helped win him the White House last year.

Biden’s pandemic approval rating has also dipped, also undermining his leverage. The administration’s COVID-19 messaging has been moderately more coherent than that of the Trump administration, but that was a very low bar to clear. In recent weeks, the president’s top health officials have contradicted one another and even the boss, prompting the need for what the White House billed as a “major” presidential address Thursday.

Will Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer find a way to pass their “Build Back Better” infrastructure and domestic spending measure via the budget reconciliation process? Most experts say probably.

But getting there will likely conjure memories of Trump-era clumsiness, the kind of arduous and noisy process candidate Biden promised he could end.

One left-leaning Washington insider recently said over coffee that he can “hardly remember that Trump was even the president.” Look a little closer, I advised.

This may end up being merely a very bad month that is soon replaced by a return to competence. For now, however, the current White House team is suddenly performing a lot like the last one: Poor planning. Shoddy messaging. Stubbornness at the top. 

John T. Bennett is a contributing editor at CQ Roll Call.