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The Wart of the Deal
Despite his reputation, Joe Biden fumbled the debt-ceiling negotiations
The core message of Donald Trump’s first Presidential campaign was that he could get stuff done. Sure, he eventually stumbled into a vague ideological amalgamation of xenophobia, protectionism, and disingenuous support for the social safety net and cleaning up corruption. But the central argument for his candidacy was that he could make deals. He would get us a better trade deal with China. He would tear up the JCPOA and get Iran to accept a harsher deal in its place. Bringing his dealmaking prowess to the government would be as easy as it was to pivot his business from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He would make so many great deals that we would get tired of all the winning.
Loath as he would be to admit it, the narrative fueling Joe Biden’s campaign in the Democratic primary four years later was similar to his eventual opponent’s.1 Biden, a career politician previously best known for serving as Vice President at a time when the American public grew so disillusioned with their government that they elected Donald Trump, did not present himself as a visionary leader or an energetic new voice on the left. Rather, liberals who backed him over more-progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren argued that Biden was unique among the field in his ability to get things done. At a time of extreme partisan gridlock, the story went, Biden’s relationships on Capitol Hill, fluency in Congressional procedure, and willingness to compromise would ultimately effect more change than would a bolder agenda in the hands of a less-skilled Legislator-in-Chief.
As we all now know, this argument won the day. Democratic primary voters were willing to stomach a lot for the promise of pragmatism: Biden’s cheerleading for the Iraq War; his mixed record on reproductive health; his extensive history of making women uncomfortable, including a serious allegation of sexual assault; his trail of problematic gaffes that are not just offensive but bizarre. All in the service of putting the savviest possible negotiator in the Oval Office.
Thankfully Biden succeeded in succeeding Trump, but his vaunted dealmaking prowess has fallen far short of advertised. Consider what has happened to abortion rights during his presidency. During the campaign, Biden promised on multiple occasions to codify Roe without any caveats about Congressional control. That never materialized.2 He isn’t interested in expanding the Supreme Court to counteract the well-documented right-wing takeover of the judiciary, and the closest he’s come to leadership on the issue has been encouraging people to vote — which we did, for people who promised to do something to protect reproductive freedom, like Joe Biden. Beyond the very real human costs of last year’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, from a political standpoint it’s stunning that the Democratic Party suffered a generational policy defeat while controlling the White House and both halves of Congress and effectively shrugged off the possibility of doing anything about it.
Further, as the recent debacle over the debt ceiling has laid bare, the problem is not merely that the President’s legislative abilities have been overstated. Over the last few weeks, Biden’s instinctive incrementalism and embrace of compromise for its own sake caused him to fumble critical negotiations while the U.S. government teetered on the brink of default.
The Fiscal Responsibility Act, which will presumably become law this weekend now that it passed in the House, is not good legislation. The stricter work requirements for SNAP and TANF will make it harder for many people in need to get help, with the former targeting a particularly vulnerable age range of Americans in need. It stipulates that the student-loan-payment pause, one of the few vestiges of the fleeting early-pandemic moment when the consensus was to strengthen the social safety net rather than dilute it, will end in August. Both the specific rubber-stamping of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the broader weakening of the energy-permitting regulatory process are bad news for anyone who cares about clean water and a stable climate. From the thousand-foot view, even the basic shape of the deal — the imposition of arbitrary budgetary restrictions affecting millions of people’s lives, presented as abstract spending caps, with no corresponding changes in how the government collects revenue — reveals bipartisan acceptance of a conservative worldview.
It’s true that this deal is not as bad as many feared it would be, most notably in that work requirements were not expanded into Medicaid, that Biden’s student-loan forgiveness program is still intact, and that the tangled knot of new SNAP regulations might bring more people into food-stamp eligibility than they kick out. You can also note that the Democrats found ways to soften the impact while giving Republican lawmakers the messaging wins they sought, like clawing back pandemic-relief funds that were unlikely to be used anyway. And of course we should be glad to avoid, or at least delay, the global chaos that would follow from the U.S. defaulting on its debt. (A good rule of thumb for consuming political news: Anyone who cares more about the horse-trading winners and losers than the impact this bill will have on the American people is too pundit-brained to be worth heeding.)
Yet these silver-lining framings take for granted that the Democrats had little leverage in the debt-ceiling deal. This was no fait accompli. The Republicans’ upper hand in the bargaining process was in large part due to Biden flubbing the negotiations.
Consider that as recently as a few weeks ago, Biden’s line-in-the-sand demand was a clean debt-ceiling increase. He presumed he could shame the GOP into fulfilling this basic obligation of governance, as they had no problem doing under Trump. Then, shortly after House Republicans surprisingly passed a severely austere proposal of their own, Biden blinked. Without coordinating with Congressional Democrats, he undermined his position, publicly offering his willingness to cede ground on expanded work requirements for welfare recipients. Perhaps in Biden’s folksy vision of a backslapping bargaining session, such movement would thaw the ice of partisanship and allow him and Kevin McCarthy to hammer out a mostly clean deal over steaks and cigars. Unfortunately, here in the real world, broadcasting your eagerness to compromise on a once-fundamental principle without any concrete movement from the opposing side both guarantees the concession and reveals that your other demands are likely bluffs.
Biden had an ace in the hole in these negotiations: He could have solved the debt-ceiling crisis unilaterally in one of at least two ways. The most-straightforward method would be via the 14th Amendment, which provides that “The validity of the public debt of the United States … not be questioned.” It follows, some argue, that the very concept of a debt ceiling is unconstitutional, and thus the President could direct the Treasury Department to ignore it. Biden has signaled that he thinks this interpretation has merit and that he intends to test the theory in the future, but resisted calls to invoke it now. Aside from accepting the troubling view that following the 14th Amendment is somehow a less-legitimate way of doing politics — consider the context of the scores-long reactionary project to rewrite the history of the Civil War — the Biden administration has dismissed the idea on the grounds that such a move would be overturned in court, or that ensuing legal battle could drag on long enough to trigger a national default. But if the timing is Biden’s main objection, what was stopping him from starting the process months or even years ago? It’s as if Alexander sheathed his sword and insisted the Gordian Knot must be unraveled by hand.
The other commonly suggested workaround for the debt ceiling is the proposed trillion-dollar coin. Essentially, the Treasury could mint a coin worth $1 trillion (or whatever is deemed necessary to keep the lights on), deposit it at the Federal Reserve, and let the government go about its business. It sounds preposterous, but then again this is the timeline where Donald Trump held the nuclear codes for four years. This too would assuredly invite legal challenges, but the fact that some Republicans have tried to close the loophole that grants the Treasury such powers seemingly affirms its legitimacy. Yet Biden declined to pursue this alternative, like if Indiana Jones had insisted on fighting the swordsman with only his whip.
It’s hardly surprising that a hardcore institutionalist like Biden would rather hammer out a bipartisan bargain than blaze a new constitutional trail. But in his haste to compromise at all costs, he made a crucial error: He publicly ruled out the alternatives. As anyone who has ever been part of a negotiation understands, there is an immense difference between bargaining with a credible threat of walking away and sitting down with someone who knows you need a deal. Teddy Roosevelt said to speak softly and carry a big stick; Joe Biden would tell you that the stick is unsportsmanlike.
Had Biden started publicly laying the groundwork to invoke the 14th Amendment or asked Janet Yellen to prepare a mold for the coin — if he merely kept to himself his view that a bipartisan deal was the only way to avoid a default — he could have negotiated from a position of greater strength. Perhaps a sufficient number of Republicans would have even accepted a clean debt-ceiling bill if they believed Biden were willing to take the issue out of Congress’ hands altogether. Instead, as other Democratic lawmakers noted at the time, the White House completely undermined their own leverage. McCarthy knew that Biden had no other options, because he announced it to the world. This is the master dealmaker? Biden, the expert legislator, poisoned the well against his own position, perhaps foreshadowing what the Mountain Valley Pipeline will do to the waters of Appalachia.
Most of the Fiscal Responsibility Act’s so-called Democratic policy wins require deeply depressing context to actually look like positives. Protecting Medicaid from work requirements is maintaining the status quo, not providing additional help to those who rely on it. The unspent COVID-19 funds being returned are a sunk cost only because nobody cares enough to use them. In exchange for allowing Biden’s student-loan forgiveness program to stand, the legislation codifies the resumption of payments this summer, though of course Supreme Court will likely scrap it in the coming days anyway. Even if the SNAP situation were as satisfyingly simple as Republicans expanding the safety net because they got the math wrong, it presents as a trolley-problem moral dilemma of whether a marginal increase in enrollment is worth the harm this bring to those who are losing their food stamps. Such unnecessary compromises are the cost of Biden’s narrow-minded negotiating tactics.
Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of this deal, about the riskiness of circumventing Congress by invoking the 14th Amendment or minting the platinum coin, and even about how to value the human costs of this compromise against the preservation of our longstanding political norms. Yet I can’t see how any honest observer could witness these debt-ceiling negotiations and conclude that our President is a competent political dealmaker, let alone an exceptional one. But hey, if you still believe that Biden is a master of the legislative process, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
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The obstinance of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema is not exculpatory here. Recall that, at the time Biden made such commitments, a one-vote Senate majority to seal a Democratic federal trifecta was a wildly optimistic scenario.