President Joe Biden seems to have racked up a major win by getting a deal with Sen. Joe Manchin to lower drug prices, address climate change and hike some taxes on the wealthy. But the advance on key parts of the White House’s agenda shouldn’t obscure the fact that this turn of events actually reveals the gravest bungle of the Biden administration.
The central failure of Biden’s presidency to date was not directly engaging with the West Virginia Democrat from the start. Instead, Biden spent the first year of his presidency vainly pushing for a massive Build Back Better program despite its certain opposition from Manchin. The breakthrough that was finally achieved on Wednesday came as Biden and Congress sit mired in low approval ratings, perhaps fatally so come Election Day.
Biden didn’t seem able to accept the political reality he was confronted with. Instead, he let himself be eclipsed in the public spotlight by some of the most left-wing members of the Democratic coalition.
If Biden had accepted from day one that he would never get a legislative deal on his domestic agenda without Manchin’s support — crucial in a Senate with a 50-50 party-line split — he could have negotiated for the doable components of Build Back Better now in the current deal without looking weak, incompetent and flailing for the past year as negotiations repeatedly broke down and votes failed. That would have put Biden in a much better political position to deal with soaring inflation and high gas prices that now pummel his presidency (though admittedly it wouldn’t have helped him mitigate the fallout from his botched Afghanistan withdrawal).
But Biden didn’t seem able to accept the political reality he was confronted with. Instead, he let himself be eclipsed in the public spotlight by some of the most left-wing members of the Democratic coalition. They put forward demands, including forgiving all student debt, expanding the number of Supreme Court justices and defunding the police that were nonstarters with Manchin. And then they rubbed salt in the wound by regularly railing against Manchin himself, including activists’ holding protests targeting the senator’s family.
Unsurprisingly, that bitter political brew didn’t produce concessions but did draw a sharp response from the uber-moderate senator: “Continue to divide and divide and divide” he told progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. The internecine Democratic back-and-forth hindered Biden’s ability to promote his agenda and wasted precious political capital.
It didn’t have to be so hard to reach the type of deal arrived at on Wednesday: one that, according to supporters, raises $739 billion in new revenue while spending $433 billion on new investments — $369 billion on energy and climate change programs and $64 billion to extend provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The proposal would also empower the federal government to negotiate down prescription drug prices.
Biden and Democratic allies in Congress might very well have reached a similar agreement with Manchin long ago absent the political Sturm und Drang. Biden could have made a beeline for the veteran West Virginia officeholder after taking office, asked him what it would take to win the vote of this most reluctant member of the Democratic caucus — and then give it to him.
But it seems Biden was unwilling to risk angering key progressives whose support he’s counting on in the upcoming midterms. It also seems Biden was captivated by advice reportedly given by prominent historians urging him to go big on federal government spending in the tradition of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. But these historians never seemed to address a crucial shortcoming: Biden didn’t have anything close to the votes needed.
It appears the academics, and Biden, overlooked the fact that, during Roosevelt’s first term, Democrats held more than 71% of House districts and 61% of Senate seats. FDR, in 1933-35, could muscle through virtually any legislation, which he did to great effect in getting enacted a swath of proposals to combat the economic chaos wreaked by the Great Depression.
Which isn’t to say Manchin would have been a straight-shooting negotiating partner. After all, Manchin spent months in negotiations in 2021 before signaling in December that he would oppose the Build Back Better Act, citing concerns over growing inflation and the national debt. It’s entirely possible the senator would have proved intransigent even with more of the agenda tailored to his liking — perhaps because it was important to his political base in deep-red West Virginia to show he was standing up to progressives and not in lockstep with Biden.
West Virginia has become one of the nation’s reddest states since Manchin began his political career. In 2020, Donald Trump crushed Biden in the state 69%-30%. The 74-year-old Manchin, up for re-election in 2024, may be the only Democrat who could plausibly hold the seat given his lifetime of name recognition and political stature in the state. Manchin hasn’t said whether he’ll run again, but seems to be keeping the option open through revved-up fundraising.
But the agreement reached Wednesday showed he was worth courting, as there was clearly common ground to be had. The surprise deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York is expected to move in the Senate as soon as next week, then win House support and receive Biden’s signature.
The Biden administration basically played Manchin wrong from the beginning. Not only did it follow many of the policy recommendations of progressives, it took aim at Manchin personally. In late January 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris went at Manchin in his own backyard, speaking to a West Virginia television station about the urgency of passing the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion Covid economic stimulus bill despite how the messaging would come across to the home senator.
Speaking to television viewers in a coal-dependent state, Harris talked about proposed coal workers’ transition to other industries as part of the president’s stance on climate change. The vice president didn’t criticize Manchin, but he didn’t take kindly to her comments. “I saw it. I couldn’t believe it. No one called me,” Manchin said tartly. “That’s not a way of working together.”
That could have been a moment for Biden — himself a 36-year veteran of Capitol Hill — to grudgingly accept the leverage Manchin holds in the evenly divided Senate. Once Manchin made clear his opposition to a large, New Deal-style spending package, it was time to call it a day and ask Manchin what it would take to reach an agreement.
That omission cost congressional Democrats a year and left the party in a weaker political position. It’s now the Biden administration’s original political sin, and even with this new agreement, it’s too late to repent.
David Mark is an editor, author and lecturer based in Washington, D.C.