Bewildered Biden Wonders ‘What Happened’ to Congress as Agenda Dies

·7 min read
Chip Somodevilla
Chip Somodevilla

One year ago this week, President Joe Biden promised in his inaugural address to “heal,” “repair” and “restore” a nation at war with itself—to reset a nation that had been torn apart by a cascading series of unprecedented crises.

But confronted by his administration’s stymied legislative agenda, frustrated COVID-19 response, uneven economic performance and faltering relationships with its own Democratic allies, Biden faces a different kind of reset on the eve of his second year in office: a reset of his presidency.

Calling on reporters in his first solo press conference since March 2021, Biden faced nearly two hours of questions from the White House press corps about whether he had overpromised and underdelivered on his campaign pledge to restore competent leadership in American government—and whether continually eroding public confidence in his administration indicated that he’s bordering on lame-duck territory less than a year into his term.

“I didn’t overpromise—I think if you take a look at what we’ve been able to do, it has to acknowledge we made enormous progress,” Biden said in response to the opening question of the conference, held in the East Room of the White House. “But one of the things that I think is something that one thing I hadn’t been able to do so far, is get my Republican friends to get in the game of making things better.”

The White House pitched Wednesday’s press conference as something of a victory lap, emailing reporters copies of “FACT SHEETS” and “FAST FACTS” about the president’s first year in office and “​​a year of record progress for working families.” But the line items contained therein—“Greatest year of job creation in American history”! “Most diverse Administration in history”! “Strongest vehicle emissions standards ever”!—belied an administration that has seen two of its biggest legislative goals collapse in less than a week, and has been reduced to arguing that Biden’s underwater approval ratings are only benthic, not abyssal.

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“I think we’ve done remarkably well,” Biden said at one point, pointing to the successful inoculation of hundreds of millions of Americans since his inauguration.

Much of the blame for the perceived “competence issue,” Biden said repeatedly over the course of the conference, lies at the feet of the two other branches of American government, as well as former President Donald Trump.

“Mitch has been very clear—he’ll do anything to prevent Biden’s success,” Biden said of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) obstruction of his legislative agenda, before pinning the refusal of Republicans to come to the table on various components of his agenda as being rooted in fear of Trumpian attacks on incumbents.

​​“Did you ever think that one man, out of office, could intimidate an entire party where they’re unwilling to take any vote contrary to what he thinks should be taken, for fear of being defeated in a primary?” Biden said.

That stunning statement—about a man who slandered a Republican rival as the son of a presidential assassin only to turn him into his staunchest ally in the Senate—was echoed elsewhere in the conference when Biden, who served six terms in the U.S. Senate, similarly pleaded naiveté when asked why he’d been unable to achieve the kind of compromise he’d promised after he won the 2020 presidential election.

“I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done,” Biden said at one point, having apparently forgotten that Republican leadership called making his former boss a one-term president “the single most important thing we want to achieve.”

Asked how he had failed to learn the lesson that Republicans would seek to thwart his administration at nearly every turn after eight years at former President Barack Obama’s side, Biden claimed that “they weren’t nearly as obstructionist as they are now.” Repeatedly, Biden expressed genuine disbelief that elected Republicans—147 of whom voted one year ago to overturn his own election—weren’t willing to meet him halfway on issues that are popular with the American people.

“What has changed?” Biden asked rhetorically in response to a question about expanding voting access, which Republicans have largely opposed for decades. “What happened? What happened?”

But, as Biden was asked during the press conference, his administration’s most recent legislative failures are both rooted not in McConnell’s canny procedural machinations, but in his inability to get members of his own party on board with his agenda.

In one telling indication of how little control the president has over Democrats in the Senate, the man most responsible for sinking Biden’s legislative agenda took an additional step in attempting to nudge his way into the president’s limelight on Wednesday. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), one of the “51 presidents” who Biden has semi-joked are functionally running the country, announced minutes before Biden’s press conference that he would be speaking on the Senate floor “on the importance of upholding the filibuster” in the middle of the president’s own remarks.

That intra-party conflict has extended to include frustrated Black voters and political allies—the demographic which gave Biden both the Democratic nomination and his paper-thin Senate majority—who feel betrayed by the failure of the White House to bring voting-rights legislation across the finish line. Asked about whether that feeling of betrayal was justified, Biden said that his disconnect with one of his most loyal constituencies was likely the result of his inability to be “out in the community nearly enough.”

“I’ve had their back… my entire career,” Biden said, adding that his decision not to make public pushes for two voting-rights packages until this month was a consequence of “timing.”

“Part of the problem is as well, I have not been out in the community nearly enough—I’ve been here an awful lot,” Biden said. “I find myself in a situation where I don’t get the chance to look people in the eye, because of both COVID and things that are happening in Washington, to be able to go out and do the things that I’ve always been able to do pretty well: connect with people let them take a measure of my sincerity.”

Biden insisted that he had not “given up” on voting rights or the vast economic package that have boon been torpedoed by Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and that he was "confident we can get pieces, big chunks of the Build Back Better law signed into law.”

“I’m not asking for castles in the sky,” Biden said, noting that the majority of Americans supported almost all of the key provisions in his Build Back Better package. “I’m asking for practical things the American people are asking for for a long time, long time and I think we can get it done.”

Biden later admitted that it was “pretty clear” that the package would have to be split up into more digestible components, but remained confident that the bulk of it could still be passed piecemeal.

But there are only so many times that allies can throw up their hands in frustration over Senate procedure before they start to wonder whether Biden—who White House press secretary Jen Psaki has described as “a creature of the Senate”—no longer understands the chamber that he served in for nearly four decades.

“The idea that this is only a matter of ‘getting his message out there’ or ‘letting Biden be Biden’ is foolish,” a longtime Biden ally told The Daily Beast ahead of the press conference, amidst reports that the White House’s “reset” would consist of putting Biden in more contact with everyday Americans. “It is ​​literally damaging the party’s prospects of successful midterms.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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