Joe Biden wants you to know that his comments last Thursday about conditioning the bipartisan infrastructure plan and linking it with a more expensive Democratic-led reconciliation bill did not blow up the deal. In fact, he has been able to “clarify” his position. But has he?
As ABC News’ Rick Klein notes, his clean-up-on-aisle-nine statement on Saturday “did not really solve the apparent disconnect.” Next, Team Biden sent advisor Cedric Richmond to the Sunday shows, and even he couldn’t give a straight answer. On Monday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki likewise demurred. You can’t blame them. As the president, Biden is responsible for casting a clear vision. He has the additional burden of representing a voice of clarity in a world of chaos. For the first time in a long time, Joe Biden isn’t up to the job.
It’s possible that this is just a momentary blip, and the deal will ultimately come together. But last week’s flub suggests deeper, more fundamental problems, even as it exacerbates the issue at hand. Biden stumbled while walking a high-wire, and that stumble left him vulnerable. There are plenty of Republicans who would prefer not to give Biden a “win.” Truth be told, if I were a Republican politician, I wouldn’t like the idea that compromises and concessions I negotiated in good faith would be immediately rendered moot by a party-line vote. Yoking the two bills together also creates the impression that Republicans have abetted the whole thing, but that’s only part of the problem. Cleaning up the mess with Republicans now requires taking something away from progressives. And Bernie Sanders is now saying, “No reconciliation deal, no bill.” Blood is in the water, and sharks on both sides of the aisle are circling.
It’s worth asking: Why did this debacle happen in the first place? Why can’t Biden announce what should be a huge “win” for his administration without becoming embroiled in controversy? This is more than just a failure to communicate eloquently. It’s a symptom of a deeper problem. Biden still needs to decide who he wants to be. Only then will he be able to communicate a clear and coherent vision.
Let me state the obvious: Biden is caught between progressives (like Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) who want to spend many trillions and moderates (like Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema) who don’t. They have staked out mutually exclusive positions. Yet, instead of assuming a leadership role, Biden remains mired in passivity. “We will let the American people—and the Congress—decide,” he said in his statement. He’s acting like a parent who refuses to intervene and hopes the kids will work it out on their own. Take it from me, that almost never works out.
Instead, Biden must decide who he wants to be and choose which faction he’s going to lean on. If Biden wants to be the progressive champion, then he risks losing Manchin. If he wants to be the centrist that (I think) he ran as, then it’s time to stand up to AOC. Either way, the time to hesitate has passed. Now, he can communicate this diplomatically. Can Manchin be wooed, persuaded, and cajoled? Does AOC really want to take the blame for humiliating Biden and destroying his presidency? If Biden forces this to come to a head, he may then be able to work out some mutually tolerable understanding.
Biden’s worst option is to do nothing and watch time slip away. He may think that if he ignores this problem that it will go away and that things will just resolve on their own. And I can understand why he might think that way. When every other Democrat was falling for “woke” Twitter and touting slogans like “Medicare for All” and “Defund the Police,” Biden resisted the temptation. However, he never really confronted the left. He never really resolved this power struggle by standing up to them and having a “Sister Souljah” moment. Instead, he ran out the clock, skating by on strategic ambiguity. It’s one thing to muddle your way through a presidential election—it’s another thing entirely to try and extend that strategy for your entire presidency.
As a conservative, I’m admittedly biased about what direction I think he should go. It’s clear that Biden does not have the votes to become FDR or LBJ, and he ran as a centrist who wanted to restore bipartisan cooperation and normalcy. Biden’s authentic brand, if you’ll forgive the term, seems to be consistent with the policies I think he should pursue: bipartisan healing and compromise.
What Biden decides to do is less important than his decision to actually do it. It’s time for him to pick a lane. Will the real Joe Biden please stand up?