Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
Joe Biden’s presidency has always seemed bracketed by two different governing impulses. The first is what caught many liberals’ eyes in 2020: his FDR-invoking interest in big-picture economic change and social policy, coupled with repeat acknowledgements that his opposition “ain’t your father’s Republican Party” and is, in fact, peppered with “MAGA extremists.” It’s this line of thinking that yielded trillions of dollars in historic climate and COVID recovery spending and student-debt relief. The second is more instinctual for him after half a century in D.C.: the dealmaking posture he honed in the Senate. It briefly had him promising a post-Trump epiphany for Republicans before it turned into a more realistic nose for negotiating wherever middle ground still exists, such as on the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
For three years now, Biden has straddled these signature approaches, occasionally making the case that they’re far from mutually exclusive. Only now, with the president mired in a debt-ceiling fight he was so recently desperate to avoid, the two Bidens are in obvious conflict.
After Republicans secured the House last November and made it clear they would refuse to hike the debt ceiling without dramatic spending cuts from Biden, he passed the next several months insisting he had learned from the Obama-era debt-ceiling mistakes of 2011. “I will not let anyone use the full faith and credit of the United States as a bargaining chip,” he said in January. But that stance has given way to rounds of talks with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to find a deal. In the process, Biden has once again made clear that his embrace of aggressive policy stops short of approaches he regards as anathema to his institutionalist self-conception, like invoking the 14th Amendment’s clause that “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned” in order to let the government keep paying creditors and avoid default.
The predictable short-term result of this shift on Capitol Hill has been renewed lefty concerns that he will ultimately cede too much ground on spending caps, work requirements, and the duration of the next debt-ceiling hike. As progressive congresswoman Pramila Jayapal has been widely quoted as warning, “We didn’t elect the Joe Biden of 1986 and 1996, we elected the Joe Biden of 2020.” Yet those close to Biden often whisper that this is a misread of his political journey: He has always occupied the exact center of the Democratic Party on policy, and he has been moving with it. Now, even some of Biden’s skeptics see in his negotiating position the simple new political reality with hard-line Republicans controlling the House who are holding the economy hostage.
Nonetheless, many liberals on the Hill remain concerned about the terms of the debate, fearing that Biden has surrendered the GOP’s right to extort policy concessions from him, and thus that Democrats will simply not be able to sign his ultimate agreement with McCarthy. Still, as the talks drag on and the so-called X-date approaches, even some progressives see a light at the end of the tunnel. “I don’t think the president would make that kind of deal without counting the votes, he’s been in Washington long enough,” said California congressman Ro Khanna, who co-chaired Bernie Sanders’s last presidential campaign. “We elected Joe Biden because of his 40 years of experience, which included an understanding of modern progressive values. But that 40 years of service also gave him an understanding that the nation comes first and that he would be a steady hand and make sure nothing he did compromised the economy and strength of the middle class.”
If it all feels like an unsatisfying muddle, it’s not shocking to Democrats who’ve worked closely with Biden for years, many of whom see the current state of play as the inevitable messy middle-to-end game of Capitol Hill negotiations. When I asked one longtime Biden associate if he was surprised by Biden’s journey from no-negotiating-ever to hosting McCarthy at the White House, he simply replied, “Nope.” Still, Biden is said to be frustrated at having to cut short his trip to Asia — missing out altogether on Australia and Papua New Guinea, important destinations in his long game against China — and unimpressed by McCarthy, even after he surprised Democrats by getting his party to pass legislation outlining spending priorities.
The talks have progressed with the two of them working together directly, but this too feels predestined to many close to the administration as the debt deadline approaches. They remain frustrated to be in the situation of talking about spending cuts in the first place, but they insist that Biden is not negotiating over the debt itself, with default no longer seeming like a real possibility in their eyes. “You don’t negotiate the debt ceiling, but you always negotiate. You gotta negotiate!” said Robert Wolf, an investor and former bank executive who was an economic adviser to Obama before becoming a Biden ally. “You’re talking about the rhetoric of not negotiating versus getting shit done. There’s always rhetoric until the point where you gotta get shit done.”
What many elected Democrats object to, however, is the notion that refusing to negotiate until now was simply rhetoric. Instead, some now sigh, the past few months have been plagued by miscalculations. For months, Biden insisted internally that he would not negotiate with a Republican speaker who couldn’t get his own party in line for an agreement, insisting that he wouldn’t submit himself to economic extortion as in 2011. But Democrats didn’t anticipate reaching this point because they assumed Republicans wouldn’t be able to align on spending at all and would be under serious political pressure to buckle. Further, many liberals now can’t believe their own party simply didn’t work to hike the debt ceiling unilaterally before McCarthy took over. More, still, are baffled that these negotiations are going down to the wire, given that Biden and McCarthy have both known that a deadline was looming for months, even if it arrived a few weeks earlier than expected. The resulting fear is that blowback would hit both parties in the case of default, but that Democrats’ economic credibility would take a longer-term hit in the case of a real collapse, since Biden is in the White House.
What some can’t quite understand is Biden’s half-hearted approach to the 14th Amendment option, which theoretically would provide an economic out. He has asserted his openness to it as an idea: ”I’m looking at the 14th Amendment, as to whether or not we have the authority. I think we have the authority,” he said in Japan. But much as when he has expressed frustration with Republican obstruction in the Senate or the Supreme Court, he has stopped short of embracing any structural fixes (like eliminating the filibuster or expanding the court). He continued in Hiroshima, “The question is, Could it be done and invoked in time that it could not — would not — be appealed and, as a consequence, pass the date in question and still default on the debt. That’s a question that I think is unresolved.” And even that answer came only after some mixed messaging, once Biden’s insistence on a bipartisan solution had morphed briefly into calling out Republicans’ extreme demands — at his press conference, in a statement from his communications director, and in a briefing from the vice-president — before eventually drifting back to a focus on cross-aisle agreement.
Neither side is yet willing to express optimism, but in Biden’s outer orbits, some confidence is starting to build that something will pass in time to keep financial markets stable and to allow “both sides to be able to say they won,” in the words of one senior Democrat close to the president’s team. Such a solution would likely cap spending in a way that will upset plenty of his colleagues, and that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy GOP hard-liners, but the calculus is that both parties’ leadership teams are growing eager to move on from this back-and-forth and that neither will face short-term voter blowback as long as the economy doesn’t implode with a default.
Still, even some of Biden’s staunchest defenders — those who maintain that his missteps were really McCarthy’s fault — have found that there’s little use spinning the saga as anything less than a mess. They’re clinging to the expectation that the Republican speaker will be left limping away, too, facing a restive conference unamused to have to compromise with Democrats to save the economy. “They are clearly not negotiating in good faith, and I think the speaker is going to have a challenge with his own caucus and will need Democratic votes,” said Khanna. “At the end of the day, there’s going to be a bipartisan bill that passes and he’s going to have some unhappy members,” added a senior Democrat. “That puts him in a precarious situation.”