For years, President Joe Biden has hung his hat on the notion that he is uniquely qualified to corral the fractious U.S. Senate and pass the greatest expansion of the social safety net in half a century.
But the apparent death of his “Build Back Better” agenda, announced with zero notice by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) on Sunday, has called into question one of Biden’s most fundamental beliefs: that the Senate is still capable of doing its job.
“You know how sometimes you think you’re waking up from a dream, but you’re actually just waking up into a nightmare?” one longtime Biden confidant said in a text message. “This is that, but the dream was the Senate being able to function, and the nightmare is reality.”
The president’s team has long lauded his experience in the Senate as a foundational aspect of his personality, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki joking on Monday that “he always thinks of himself as a senator,” regardless of the office he holds.
Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years before he was elected vice president, was regarded for decades as a sophisticated political operator who knew members of the chamber better than anybody—sometimes even their own staff.
A former longtime staffer recalled a moment from Biden’s tenure as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when a senior adviser confidently predicted the actions of a Republican committee member regarding an upcoming nomination.
“Biden kind of chuckled to himself and said, ‘That senator’s not going to do that,’” the former staffer said. When the adviser protested that he was confident in his understanding of the Republican’s intentions, Biden laughed again and bet them a year’s salary that they were wrong.
“And sure enough, Joe Biden was right,” the former staffer said. “He had been around all these other senators, he had seen floor fights, he knew the different dances, and he knew that even if a staffer in another office said one thing, his read was the right one.”
Clearly, Biden’s read is no longer always the right one.
In the 13 years since Biden left the Senate, the chamber has morphed into a hyper-partisan shitshow where consensus-driven legislation—you know, the thing that Biden has championed on an almost daily basis since he was elected nearly half a century ago—is nearly impossible.
The White House has been quick to push back on that contention, pointing to the passage of $1.9 trillion in emergency funding to fight the pandemic and a massive bipartisan infrastructure bill that actually garnered a modicum of Republican support.
On Saturday night, hours before Manchin effectively shivved “Build Back Better” in the Senate prison yard, The Daily Beast obtained a White House memo championing the president’s ability to get “an enormous amount done for the American people in 2021,” despite “unprecedented crises and opposition from Congressional Republicans.”
But the memo, intended to highlight the administration’s accomplishments—“nearly six million jobs this year, the most of any first-year president,” “the greatest drop in long-term unemployment in U.S. history”—ended up just highlighting how flat-footed the White House was caught when Manchin announced that he was a “no” on the social spending package the next day.
The West Virginia senator had given, in retrospect, many public indications that he was not on board with the Democrats’ bill. The White House has categorically refused to negotiate in public with fence-sitting Democrats like Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), favoring instead discussions behind closed doors on the staff level and between Biden and the legislators themselves. But administration officials were soothed by private assurances from Manchin that he could be brought onboard.
On Monday, however, Manchin indicated that those discussions weren’t handled as delicately as he needed to keep him playing along, blaming his decision to put the kibosh on “Build Back Better” as the result of a breach of decorum from White House staff, while he also maintained that he always knew he wouldn’t support the legislation.
“They know the real reason what happened. They won’t tell you and I’m not going to,” Manchin said on a West Virginia radio show. “It’s staff. It’s staff-driven. I understand that. It’s not the president, it’s his staff—they put some things out that were absolutely inexcusable. They know what it is and that’s it.”
That makes zero sense to those who have worked under Biden, who has a decades-long reputation of building a highly talented—and highly loyal—team of staffers under him.
“Legislation and policy-making and communications is an art, not a science,” another former staffer said, adding that they couldn’t think of a single instance of a staffer who “went rogue” without the then-senator’s permission. “He trusts his staffers to speak in his voice, to act in his voice.”
Manchin refused to elaborate on what the White House’s “inexcusable” actions, but he may have been referring to a milquetoast statement released by the White House last week in which Biden acknowledged that Manchin was part of the reason Build Back Better hadn’t yet been passed.
He may also now take umbrage at a more fiery statement from Psaki on Sunday, after Manchin announced his opposition on Fox News.
“Senator Manchin promised to continue conversations in the days ahead, and to work with us to reach that common ground,” Psaki said in the statement. “If his comments on FOX and written statement indicate an end to that effort, they represent a sudden and inexplicable reversal in his position, and a breach of his commitments to the president and the senator’s colleagues in the House and Senate.”
Manchin, who the longtime Biden confidant called “notoriously chippy,” seemed to indicate in the radio interview that there may have been a regionalist slight that finally drove him over the edge.
“Guess what? I’m from West Virginia,” Manchin said on Monday. “I’m not from where they’re from, and they can’t just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive. Period.”
The White House has remained adamant in public that Biden will pursue passage of “Build Back Better” in some form in the new year, with Psaki declaring multiple times in Monday’s briefing that he will “work like hell to get it done.” Privately, however, the mood is more fatalistic about the package’s chances, with greater emphasis already being placed on the passage of COVID-19 relief and the infrastructure package—as well as a marathon vote that confirmed more than 40 ambassadors on Friday night—as proof that Biden still has accomplishments under his belt.
But Biden himself hasn’t indicated that he’s ready to pull back just yet. In a statement released on Monday evening, the president said that in his most recent discussions with Manchin, the senator had “reiterated his support for Build Back Better funding at the level of the framework plan I announced in September.”
“I believe that we will bridge our differences and advance the Build Back Better plan,” Biden continued, “even in the face of fierce Republican opposition.”
Asked earlier that day about Manchin when he returned to the White House from Delaware on Monday, according to the White House pooler, Biden, “walking deliberately towards the Oval, did not engage.”