On Debt Ceiling and Title 42’s End, Biden Boxed In by Outside Forces

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Joe Biden is in the midst of an incredibly consequential stretch of his presidency and remarkably little of it will be under his sole control. In fact, much of the coming weeks—and, perhaps, months, if not his total legacy—is contingent on the engagement of other players and their openness to being good-faith collaborators, and just dumb luck.

It is precisely the worst imbalance of power that any White House can face. The West Wing can fight a battle on plenty of fronts, just so long as the barbs are going out from inside the White House; taking incoming is far tougher to handle when no one knows where the next hit is being fired from, who’s the target, and what it’s blowback.

Biden’s poll numbers remain listless as he heads into Week Three as an official 2024 contender; he got into the race in a formal way on April 25 but doesn’t have much to show for it. The campaign trail remains buried back on the second page of his to-do list.

There’s a good reason that Campaign 2024 isn’t getting much real estate in Biden’s daily briefing books. Even in the best of cases, the presidency is an exercise of triage. Nothing less than the global economy is at risk if Biden can’t strike an agreement with Republicans in the House to, frankly, pay the bills that have piled up from Presidents in both parties over the last few years.

Separately, the U.S.-Mexican border is a fresh hellscape as pandemic-era policies expired at midnight, and extreme poverty and violence in Latin America are triggering historic waves of migrants to head north. Those Trump-era policies allowed the US to turn away more than 2 million would-be asylum-seekers. Biden’s replacement rules, at least on paper, are harsh, but in different ways; instead of instant processing of asylum cases, there could be instant expulsions.

And those are just the top two domestic challenges on his plate. Look abroad and things get precipitously worse—hostages, spycraft, disinformation. Look inward, and Republicans’ pursuit of first son Hunter Biden looks plenty risky. And then there’s ex-President Donald Trump’s threat to return.

As much as Americans like to lionize the presidency, it is a fragile and fickle institution. Biden can still move headlines when he cares to, and his team is working behind the scenes to reassert some control over moving events. But Biden is, whether he likes it or not, at best a collaborator in the livestream of history, and in some cases a passive observer left to react. No President likes to be cast as a supporting actor, but it’s undeniable that, at least right now, Biden is at the mercy of outside forces.

Just look at his week. Aides were careful to downplay Tuesday’s White House meeting with congressional leaders as anything nearing a negotiation. A day after it ended without any real give or take, Biden made a quick stop into a Republican-held district, where he continued to lambast GOP “threats” that “make no sense,” and planned a Friday dip down to once-deep-red Georgia where its national championship football team declined a Biden invitation to the White House. Biden’s Friday follow-up meeting with GOP leaders, meanwhile, was quietly pushed, vaguely, into next week.

At the same time, lawmakers in Washington had circled June 1 as a potential drop-dead deadline for the debt ceiling, or risk driving the United States into first-ever default on borrowed monies.

Such moments are typically dangerous times for most pols. These are the moments when they look to re-assert their dominance in a system where they typically are the apex predators. They get backed into a corner, get spooked, and do something foolish. Level-headed leaders, on the hand, tend to be fine running down the clock. Critics endlessly chastised Barack Obama for his cool—even cold—approach to such moments, but with very few exceptions, history has so far proven him prudent.

Biden, however, has seen this before—and has been on both sides of the negotiating table. For as much as his critics like to mock his age, it comes with experience. Younger White House staffers are trying to hide their anxieties over the unclear moment, while more seasoned hands are telling them that everything is under control. Those senior aides are noting that they’re engaging with Hill Republicans on spending on government, but add quickly that this is on a completely discreet track from the debt ceiling. For its part, Biden’s inner circle likes to note the echoes of this moment with both Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

For their part, Republicans are starting to begrudgingly outline conditions under which they would agree to raise the debt ceiling. McCarthy’s allies are floating ideas like work requirements for those on unemployment insurance, clawing back some of the unused Covid-19 dollars, spending caps going forward, energy projects.

Elsewhere, Biden’s spies were still in search of high-value targets they might trade for two Americans being detained in Russia. Frustratingly for the White House, Americans don’t have any Russians to trade, the White House doesn’t have any real leverage over the economic standards, and the Supreme Court has shown it will do as it pleases. The economic levers like interest rates and inflation remained far out of his control, and it’s anyone’s guess how the Supreme Court justices will come down on pending cases involving student-loan forgiveness.

If all of this sounds tricky, it is. Biden smartly launched his re-election plan weeks ago ahead of this moment of maximum passivity. Doing so allows his direct political hands to engage in the politicking that might be verboten coming from people on White House payrolls, and allows Biden to not seem like he’s preoccupied with deciding whether he actually wants this job for another four years.

Still, there isn’t an easy answer to what bedevils Biden. Then again, easy answers don’t land on the Resolute Desk. Biden knows this. After all, he’s been chasing that seat since the early 1970s. He’s now in the hot seat. And he’s learning that he has to sit there, be singed, and squirm as little as possible. It’s a whole lot easier when sitting in a seat far afield from the West Wing.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com