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As President Joe Biden welcomed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to the White House on Wednesday for the first time since the California Republican fulfilled a long-chased dream of wielding the gavel, Biden knew he was going to ask—no, demand, White House officials previewed—that Republicans commit to not defaulting on the nation’s bills and boosting the borrowing limit to cover past debts.
It wasn’t a natural posture for Biden, who campaigned on the promise of making deals and finding common ground based on a pledge of mutual compromise. Yet it is where Biden’s advisers have positioned him over the last few weeks and heading into an expected re-election campaign set to start soon after next week’s State of the Union speech to Congress.
The whole reboot will test both Biden’s appetite for confrontation and his trust in his inner circle, which for months has been trying to convince a man who has spent more than half of his life in elected office that he may be out of touch with what voters in his opposition party demand. Put simply, this won’t be a comfortable repositioning for Biden or his team, but ultimately it’s where senior members of the Democratic Party believe the White House needs to land if they’re going to navigate the next years of divided power in Washington.
Biden is a deal-maker. As much as his predecessor before him, Biden thinks he can ultimately cajole colleagues to yes if they just keep talking. He shepherded the 1994 crime bill into law, as well as the Violence Against Women Act. He famously worked as the go-between for President Barack Obama and Congress to end a similar 44-day debt-ceiling standoff back in 2011, although Republicans to this day have questions about just how much of what came out of Biden’s mouth started in the Oval Office with the then-President and how much was Biden going with his gut with his old pal Mitch McConnell.
But ahead of the midterms last year, the White House sent Biden out on a pivot. He took off his gloves and started arguing that the GOP’s embrace of election denialism was tantamount to “semi-facism.” The White House and its allies started leaning into messaging about “extreme MAGA Republicans” being a threat to democracy itself. The tone left some of the party’s most vulnerable members clearly uncomfortable, especially in places where Democrats were counting on peeling some centrist Republicans away from the GOP. Similarly, it left Biden a little squeamish about going so forcefully against former colleagues in the Senate whom he considered friends even when he was at political odds with them.
But it worked. And the scoreboard in politics is as powerful a guide as any strategy memo. Biden might not have been entirely at ease with the tactic, but he still has a Democratic Senate and a within-striking-distance House minority at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. That victory calmed Biden’s stomach, and he seems ready to run the play again.
In recent weeks again, Biden has been again turning up the heat on Republicans. The swings haven’t always landed, but the White House feels like they’re taking their toll. Ahead of the Biden-McCarthy summit in the Oval Office, White House aides circulated a memo that would make any opposition researcher proud: in this telling, Republicans were hypocrites who turned their backs on Ronald Reagan, Social Security, food stamps, and Medicare. It was bold and set the tone, for sure. But it’s not entirely clear how much of that messaging document might ring true when it’s just Biden and McCarthy—and no cameras—doing the talking.
Biden has seen this taint-the-opposition play work out successfully before on the very topic on the table Wednesday: the debt ceiling. Back in 2011, Biden was at the middle of a so-called grand bargain that paired cuts with a hike in the national AmEx. Compromise, of course, was in the mix, but so was brand management. “Instead of making it look like we are being held hostage, we just have to change public opinion about what’s happening here,” Biden told Nancy Pelosi, according to Bob Woodward’s exhaustive book on the era. “We have to get people to turn against the Republicans.”
Turning people, however, may prove tricky. New polling from Pew suggests 64% of Republicans want their elected leaders to “stand up” to Biden, even if that makes governing tougher. And almost as many—58%—of Democrats want Biden to compromise with Republicans, even if it comes at a cost. A White House-led confrontation may be sexy, but it might end up being a colossal bungle.
As The D.C. Brief has explained before, the debate over the debt ceiling isn’t about spending, it’s about paying the bill for things already purchased. Really, the United States is alone among major economies in creating this self-imposed crisis, which creeps up like a predictable poison. The deadline, though, carries tremendous risk. It’s a hostage that demands de-escalation. Failing to raise the debt ceiling threatens to tank the U.S. and global economies, send retirement funds into the basement and unemployment into the attic. Put simply, Washington has no choice but to raise the borrowing limit, but politics always demands a price.
Biden knows the space well. He basically owned it during the 2011 negotiations—and he gave a whole lot to get the limit kicked until after the 2012 re-election. “Look,” Biden told McConnell during one of his many phone calls acting as Obama’s proxy, “we’ve given up on revenues, we’ve given on dollar for dollar. All the major things we’re interested in we’ve given up. So basically you’ve pushed us to the limit.”
This time, Biden is negotiating on his own behalf. He is the ultimate decider of what is on the table and what is not. Obama was exhausted and exasperated, rightly seeing the GOP as an obstructionist force looking to embarrass the sitting President heading into his re-election bid. This time, Biden seems to have inched toward his old boss’ posture, but at his core Biden remains the optimist about what is possible in Washington. He’s a creature of D.C., and souring on its potential is far from Biden’s biggest heartbreak.
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