President Biden campaigned as a wily Senate deal-maker who would bring both parties together, but he is abandoning that model after one year of failed deal-making in the White House.
Despite serving 36 years in the Senate, Mr. Biden acknowledged after one year as president that all of his experience on Capitol Hill hasn’t benefited him in the Oval Office like he imagined it would.
“One of the things that I do think that has been made clear to me … is the public doesn’t want me to be the ‘President Senator,’” Mr. Biden said at a press conference marking his first anniversary. “They want me to be the president and let senators be senators.”
The president spoke Wednesday as those senators dealt him two more high-profile losses: a proposed election overhaul and an effort to gut the filibuster rule. The filibuster proposal would have made it easier for Mr. Biden to ram legislation through the 50-50 split Senate without any Republican votes.
Mr. Biden said of his comeuppance in Congress, “If I made a mistake, I’m used to negotiating to get things done, and I’ve been, in the past, relatively successful at it in the United States Senate, even as vice president. But I think that role as president is a different role.”
It was a startling admission for the man who boasted a decade ago, “I don’t know anybody who counts votes better than me in the Senate.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that Mr. Biden “wants to spend more time out in the country and less time behind closed doors negotiating.”
“He has a talented, experienced legislative team,” she said. “He’s certainly going to rely on them, and probably rely on them more, to get a lot of the business done, and negotiations and work with Congress.”
She said Mr. Biden is still “always going to be someone who picks up the phone and talks to people he’s known for a long time in Congress.”
Mr. Biden’s downsizing as a deal-maker was no surprise to those who campaigned against him in 2020.
“Biden campaigned as an uniter, but the country is more divided than ever,” said Tim Murtaugh, a former Trump campaign spokesman who now operates the consulting firm Line Drive Public Affairs. “He promised he was a moderate, but he’s governing as a leftist. He bragged being an experienced Washington deal-maker but is somehow shocked when Republicans don’t want [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s] agenda rammed down their throats. He’s not anything he said he would be.”
The president blames Republicans for refusing to cooperate with him. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Thursday that Mr. Biden has spent the past year focusing on far-left priorities that most Americans don’t care about, such as climate policies, while failing to control record-high inflation, a wave of violent crime and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Senate Republicans have met this administration more than halfway,” said Mr. McConnell, pointing to a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law and a measure on competing with China. “But beyond that, this administration deliberately chose to build their whole governing strategy around the party-line reconciliation process, [which requires a simple majority]. So the president cannot deflect blame for his disappointing first year. The American people know where the buck stops.”
Many Democrats say they are surprised it took Mr. Biden and his advisers a year to figure out the depth of Republican opposition.
“Reality hit,” said Tre Easton, deputy director of the liberal consulting firm Battle Born Collective. “And as one of the people who was screaming about this back during the primaries, I hate that it took a year of the president trying to pretend that Republicans wanted to be good-faith negotiators to get here.”
Mr. Easton, a former aide to Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, said the Senate “has changed since then-Sen. Biden served there. Our politics have changed. The political motivations were different.”
“I really don’t think people understand or appreciate the extent to which Barack Obama’s election as president changed how the Republican Party animates itself,” he said. “The Republican Party’s most consistent agenda right now is getting and maintaining power. And President Biden, as many friends as he might have on the other side, is an impediment to that.”
Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said the White House miscalculated by repeatedly sending Mr. Biden to the Capitol to rally Democrats for his legislative priorities, only to return empty-handed time and again.
“It’s just not presidential … to be high-tailing it up to the Hill every day, begging people to do things,” she said on CNN.
Even while Mr. Biden pulls back from his unfulfilled role as “master of the Senate,” lawmakers in both parties are discussing how to revive portions of his failed $1.8 trillion social welfare and climate bill. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, Massachusetts Democrat, chided the president for abandoning a renewal of the child tax credit, which makes direct monthly payments to parents. He said he sees possibilities for bipartisanship.
“The reality here is that with [Republican Sen.] Mitt Romney and evangelicals as well, it’s very popular,” Mr. Neal told reporters. “So I don’t understand why we can’t find that accommodation.”
Senators also are discussing a bipartisan rewrite of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which would revise procedures for certifying the presidential election. The idea gained steam in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol when a pro-Trump mob attempted to stop Congress from certifying Mr. Biden’s election win.
“We never give up on bipartisanship,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, who stood alongside Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican. “We never give up on making the Senate work. This Senate can work, and it is working.”
Asked whether he had any advice for the president on working with Congress, Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, replied, “The president has served in the Senate longer than I have. But both of us know that this is about really meeting members where they are.”
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, said Mr. Biden should follow the example of President Truman, who in 1948 took his agenda directly to voters in a more robust effort to pressure Republicans.
“Harry Truman was thought to be a goner. He had no support, and he was way down in the polls,” Mr. Sanders said. “And he started raising issues forcing Republicans [to vote]. We have not forced Republicans to vote on it. If they want to vote not to lower the cost of prescription drugs, let them cast their vote. If they want to vote against expanding Medicare, if they want to vote against improving child care in this country, let them cast those votes. At the end of the day, we will see how things shake out.”
The 79-year-old president said he intends to do just that as part of his “change in tactic.”
“I’m going to be out on the road a lot making the case around the country with my colleagues who are up for reelection and others, making the case of what we did do and what we want to do, what we need to do,” Mr. Biden said. “I tell my Republican friends, ‘Here I come.’”
• Dave Boyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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