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Debt deal: Biden miscalculates, McCarthy wins 

GOP unity isn’t a talking point, something the president doesn’t understand

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik conduct a news conference after the House passed the Fiscal Responsibility Act on May 31.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik conduct a news conference after the House passed the Fiscal Responsibility Act on May 31. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Now that the wholly avoidable debt ceiling nightmare is over, after a 97-day delay caused by President Joe Biden’s initial refusal to negotiate, it’s fair to ask whether he has learned anything from his botched attempt at the worst kind of brinkmanship. Has he learned anything about how a president must lead when faced with a divided government?

And what does all this mean for the all-important congressional appropriations process just getting underway? Which Biden is going to negotiate the 12 bills that will determine the direction of the country after the COVID-19 pandemic and the debt ceiling battle?

Will the negotiator-in-chief be the conciliatory Biden we saw in the first half of his Oval Office address to the nation Friday night, commending Speaker Kevin McCarthy by saying: “He and I, we — and our teams — we were able to get along and get things done. … Both sides operated in good faith. Both sides kept their word.”

Or will he be the partisan presidential candidate who used much of his first address from the Oval as a campaign event, boasting of his deficit-cutting prowess and declaring that he had put the country on “a much more fiscally responsible course” than the one he inherited when he took office. Not surprisingly, he failed to mention that the debt increases under his proposed budget would overshadow those of previous presidents.

Sadly for the country, the rest of the speech was little more than a partisan attack on Republicans, falsely telling Americans that, among other things, he prevented them from cutting Social Security and Medicare, slashing veterans’ health care, gutting clean energy investments and protecting billionaires from “paying their fair share” in taxes.

It was classic campaign rhetoric usually reserved for the campaign trail — not the Oval Office. But Biden didn’t stop there. He closed his remarks by exhibiting a remarkable lack of self-awareness, morphing back into the fictional “unifying” president by saying: “No matter how tough our politics gets, we need to see each other not as adversaries but as fellow Americans … to join forces as Americans to stop shouting, lower the temperature and work together to pursue progress, secure prosperity and keep the promise of America for everybody.”

As his first Oval Office address, last week’s speech was a lost opportunity to reach out to the American people with an upbeat, unifying message at a time of great economic uncertainty and worry for many Americans, 66 percent of whom believe the country is on the wrong track, according to a RealClearPolitics average of several polls.

With Biden’s job disapproval at 56 percent, according to a RCP average, and the congressional appropriations process looming, the smart play would have been to share his post-debt ceiling victory lap rather than pump out more partisan vitriol. His unwillingness to stick to a nonpartisan script doesn’t bode well for what are inevitable appropriations battles to come.

Early in the debt ceiling fight, Biden dug in his heels with his insistence on a clean debt limit increase. He tried to force Republicans to put up or shut up by asking them for a GOP plan. At that point, voters also wanted Republicans — as it was put in “Jerry Maguire,” the 1996 film about a fictional sports agent — to “show me the money.”

But the Biden team didn’t recognize that voters had significantly begun to make the connection between inflation and excessive government spending. From the April survey for “Winning the Issues” done by the Winston Group, 64 percent of the electorate believed increased federal spending helps drive inflation and that rising national debt also contributes to inflation. That should have set off alarm bells for White House officials, but given their continued refusal to negotiate, Democrats failed to understand what was a critical change in how the electorate viewed this policy debate.

Biden and Hill Democrats miscalculated when they dared Republicans to pass their own debt ceiling increase and were totally unprepared when McCarthy and company did just that. It changed the dynamics of the debate in Washington — but, more importantly, it was a turning point for voters who saw more spending as a problem, not a solution. So those voters who wanted Republicans to show them a plan now had that plan and wanted Biden to negotiate.

On the other hand, McCarthy and his team understood the shift taking place. When House Republicans passed their debt ceiling bill in April, Biden should have realized there was a willingness across the Republican Conference to work together despite individual differences. He missed it.

When Biden and congressional Democrats finally came to the table, it was because they realized they were losing, badly, the messaging battle over who would be blamed if the government defaulted on its debt. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen’s letter to Hill leaders moving up the date for default only added pressure on the administration to give up its stubborn refusal to work with Republicans.

It was then and only then that the Biden team decided on a strategic retreat to the negotiating table.

Now, as the 2024 budget battle begins, both sides are operating in an environment where voters also see government spending as a bigger problem than a lack of revenue. The numbers don’t lie. What Biden actually inherited from the previous administration was a 43 percent increase in federal tax revenues, a growing economy and low inflation. Telling people the government can’t fulfill its mission without more spending simply doesn’t pass the smell test with voters anymore.

In the days after the debt deal, there was wild speculation, drummed up mostly by the media, that McCarthy’s speakership was at risk. While some Republicans in Congress would have liked the agreement to go further in dealing with spending than it did, this was a negotiation and, ultimately, a compromise was going to occur. But critically, by forcing the White House to negotiate, combined with Biden’s strategic miscalculations throughout the debt ceiling debate, Republicans now have a strategic opening to push hard for spending restraints in what is likely to be a contentious appropriations process.

Congressional Republicans have changed the trajectory of government spending and set a strategic precedent in how future debt ceiling and appropriations discussions should occur. Every president makes mistakes. Some learn from them. Some don’t. Biden and his team need to rethink what has been a legislative strategy driven by partisan intransigence and deal with the reality that Republican unity isn’t a talking point.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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