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Why it’s time to retire the ‘Joe Manchin is the real president’ narrative

The West Virginian never suggested he's the de facto POTUS. He's consistently talked of his state's country roads

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has the power to block President Biden's agenda, prompting some to dub him "the real president."
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has the power to block President Biden's agenda, prompting some to dub him "the real president." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS The doors to the State Dining Room swung open Tuesday for a presidential warning about the COVID-19 omicron variant. Marine One touched down Monday morning on the White House South Lawn, with a Marine there to open the cabin door and salute the passenger in chief.

Both times it was Joe Biden, the elected and certified 46th president of the United States, who came through the doors — not Sen. Joe Manchin III, even though many in Washington and beyond have dubbed the moderate West Virginia Democrat “the real president.”

To be clear, the former University of West Virginia quarterback has never called himself the shadow or real president. In fact, Manchin has stuck to his folksy claims that he is just looking out for the people of his home state in pushing back on, then torpedoing, Biden’s “Build Back Better” domestic spending plan. That is, after all, his main job.

So it is curious that so many in the politics and media industries have latched onto and broadcast the narrative that Manchin, because he has the power to block Biden’s agenda in the Senate, is the actual chief executive. This notion was thrust into the national spotlight last week when television host Charlamagne Tha God asked Vice President Kamala Harris if Manchin is running the country.

It is important to note, as an aside for another day, the first portion of Tha God’s question on Comedy Central’s “Tha God’s Honest Truth” show. It was an astute political analysis that should alarm Harris and Democrats.

“What scares me is if the voting rights don’t pass, the Build Back Better [bill] doesn’t pass, or police reform doesn’t pass, I doubt you’re gonna get Black people to go out there and vote in 2022 and 2024,” he said. “And, you know, Trump will be president again. What’s the plan for all of that?” He has a point, and polling supports the premise.

Harris did not answer directly, prompting Tha God to bluntly ask: “I want to know who the real president of this country is? Is it Joe Biden or Joe Manchin?” Harris forcefully pushed back, noting Biden is POTUS and she is VPOTUS.

But the Manchin-as-president narrative is full of holes and ignores reality. Here are three reasons why.

It implies Congress should be a rubber stamp

“Somebody has to push back on Joe Manchin. That guy is stopping progress. He’s ruining democracy,” Tha God warned Harris.

He is opposing the prerogatives of a president and House — which already passed a version of the “Build Back Better” plan — that he has concluded go too far. That is how the Founding Fathers set up the Senate.

Manchin is merely exercising the powers granted to the chamber to which West Virginians have elected him. That came in Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has upheld lawmakers’ power to raise and appropriate funds many times.

Democrats howled for four years whenever then-President Donald Trump made hefty demands of lawmakers on his proposed border wall and a list of other matters.

Same office. Same powers. Same Constitution.

Manchin has talked mostly about West Virginia’s country roads

That’s not just appropriate for a senator, it is his or her top job: Deliver for their constituents. Manchin has been consistent on that much during this entire monthslong legislative drama.

“I knew where they (White House officials) were, and I knew what they could and could not do. They just never realized it, because they figured, ‘Surely to God we can move one person, surely we can badger and beat one person up, surely we can get enough protesters to make that person uncomfortable enough,” Manchin said Monday in a local radio interview.

“Well, guess what? I’m from West Virginia. I’m not from where they’re from, and they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive,” he added. “Period.”

As White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki regularly tells reporters, Biden on the other hand is thinking about what he believes is best for the entire country. That’s his job, again, as described in the Constitution.

Manchin would have been correct had he announced his decision by quoting John Denver’s tune about his state: “Country roads, take me home; To the place I belong; West Virginia, mountain mama; Take me home, country roads.”

It ignores the roles of the Senate and presidency

After the Sunday morning dramatics — and after the senator had blown off some more steam during his radio hit — things got back to normal by Monday afternoon.

Tempers were much less hot by the time Psaki came out for her afternoon press briefing. Remarkably, after essentially saying Manchin lied to Biden in her 720-word blistering statement, the president’s top spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the broadside. Her subsequent rosy description of the Biden-Manchin bromance made one wonder this: What was the point — other than shock and anger — of the Sunday statement?

“The door remains open. The president considers him a longtime friend, someone who’s worked with [him] on a range of initiatives and objectives over the course of the last several years that they’ve known each other,” she told reporters. “And that’s really where we’re coming at this from.”

A reporter asked whether Biden still views his “friend” as negotiating honestly. Psaki said her boss “has said that from the beginning he continues to consider him (Manchin) a friend. And obviously our statement yesterday about the events of the last few weeks, I think, speaks for itself.”

So does the lighter tone, which amounted to an olive branch to begin repairing the damaged relationship and possibly salvage part of the spending package. It was a president and White House staff courting a key senator they needed to pass major legislation.

Just how the founders drew it up.

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