From the first day of his administration, President Joe Biden has pledged to oversee a remaking of the American economy and social safety net on a scale not seen since the New Deal and the Great Society.
But on Thursday evening, as a pair of Democratic senators threatened to derail the trillion-dollar package in its entirety, Biden admitted that many of the package’s most important components are dead in the water.
Medicare coverage for dental care? “That’s a reach.”
Three months of paid parental leave? “It’s down to four weeks.”
Tuition-free community college? “It’s not going to get us the whole thing.”
And the higher taxes on corporations and the nation’s wealthiest citizens that were supposed to pay for all of it? Who knows.
“Look,” Biden said frankly at one point during a town hall event on CNN, “in the United States Senate, when you have 50 Democrats, every one is the president.”
Biden’s town hall event was a study in tactical withdrawal. While the president tacitly acknowledged that the grand designs he had for paid college tuition, Medicare expansion, green energy investment, and so many other Democratic priorities had either been scaled back or slashed entirely from his “Build Back Better” economic package, he insisted that the give-and-take was part of the long tradition of legislative sausage-making—and promised that down the road, he would come back for the rest of his agenda.
“I was a senator for 370 years,” Biden said to laughter from the audience, “and I was relatively good at putting together deals.”
But beyond continued public declarations of his long-held faith in the power of compromise, the town hall—only Biden’s 14th interview since his inauguration, by The Daily Beast’s count—was the clearest articulation yet of the limits of an administration that has hedged on eliminating any part of the president’s proposals entirely.
Tax cuts on the rich, full community college tuition coverage and remaking the nation’s electrical grid, for example, would all be forthcoming, Biden promised, regardless of their fate in his still-unwritten economic package.
“It’s not gonna get us the whole thing,” Biden said of a $500 increase in the maximum Pell grant available for students in financial need, one-third of what he has proposed, “but it’s a start.”
The town hall also amounted to a tacit acknowledgement that Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—dubbed the “rogue moderates” by one audience member furious that a pair of Democrats are standing athwart the deal—have seized the keys to the castle of the president’s domestic agenda.
“He is a friend,” Biden insisted. “He has always at the end of the day come around and voted.”
On some areas, Biden said, he and Sinema are in sync, particularly on areas relating to the environment, and while there are “four or five issues” of continued contention, he still sees a path to creating “a serious, serious piece of legislation that changes the dynamic for working-class folks in America and middle-class folks and begins to have the very wealthy and corporations begin to pay their fair share.”
“All kidding aside, I think we can get there,” Biden said.
But Biden’s straightforward admission that Sinema “won’t raise a single penny in taxes on the corporate side and on wealthy people”—the mechanism by which most of his package would actually be paid for—likely undercuts his continued optimism about the future of the deal. And despite his vow that the administration will continue to pursue the components of his agenda in the future, given the likelihood that Democrats could lose their majority in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, it’s unclear how Biden plans on realizing those promises.
As Biden put it: “And so that’s where it sort of breaks down.”