You can take Joe Biden out of the Senate, but …

President has been strategizing as a legislator, not a commander in chief

Many see President Joe Biden’s public tolerance for the meandering ways of Congress as a weakness, Shapiro writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Many see President Joe Biden’s public tolerance for the meandering ways of Congress as a weakness, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 5, 2021 at 6:00am

After spending 36 years in the Senate, Joe Biden knows that the way major legislation comes together would make the authors of high school civics books cringe. 

Successful legislating requires the patience of a therapist, the flexibility of a gymnast, the vagueness of an advertising whiz and the flimflam of a conman. These skills need to be deployed in both bipartisan negotiations and in trying to paper over fissures in your own party. 

This has been the approach Biden and his top White House aides have employed during the laborious struggle to pass an infrastructure bill and a reconciliation package, as everyone in Washington throws around numbers in the trillions. 

Talk about patience. During negotiations on complex legislation, you have to hear everyone out, even if what he or she is saying is repetitive and illogical. 

You can, for example, imagine Biden’s inner exasperation and outward calm during his endless conversations with Kyrsten Sinema, in which the Arizona senator refuses to specify what she would support in reconciliation. 

As for flexibility, Biden has never wed himself to an overly specific timetable for passage. He knows that Congress is adept at one thing — pushing back deadlines. 

A classic example was Congress extending funding of highway and transit programs until Halloween.  As Biden said during his visit to Capitol Hill on Friday: “We’re going to get this done. It doesn’t matter when. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in six minutes, six days or six weeks.”

When Biden heads for Michigan on Tuesday, he will be playing advertising huckster as he tries to peddle both the sizzle and the steak in his awkwardly named Build Back Better agenda.  

The details will be vague since the plan currently is still little more than a sketchy framework. Inevitably, the president will talk about child care, climate change, education and getting the wealthy to pay more in taxes.

But no spending numbers will be cited since the price tag is fast being slashed from the opening bid of $3.5 trillion. Biden privately warned left-wing Democrats in the House on Friday to temper their expectations. 

He made that explicit Monday in reply to a reporter’s question about the overall cost of the reconciliation package: “I laid out what I thought it should be. It’s not going to be that. It’s going to be less.” But Biden refused to be suckered into mentioning a specific dollar figure, saying, “It’s not a smart thing to negotiate with yourself in public.”

The flimflam will be coming later. That’s the inevitable moment in the final stages of negotiations when programs are either slowly phased in or arbitrarily phased out to make the overall budget arithmetic work.

As he parried with reporters Monday at the White House, Biden sometimes let his frustration show over the purported failure of the press to understand how things work in Congress.

Asked pointedly why he failed to close the deal Friday when he met with Democrats on Capitol Hill, he replied: “I’ve been able to close the deal with 99 percent of my party. … I don’t think there’s been a president who’s been able to close deals that’s been in a position where he has only 50 votes in the Senate and a bare majority in the House.”

The political problem that Biden faces right now stems from the way that he has been strategizing as a legislator rather than a president. 

The end of last week — as the House backed off voting on a stand-alone infrastructure bill — prompted nearly everyone in journalism to trot out their “Democrats in disarray” headlines. 

Depending on what you read or listened to, the entire Biden presidency was on the line. Or maybe it was the Biden agenda. Or perhaps just the 2022 midterms. 

As a senator, negotiating a complex bill, Biden could laugh off this type of impatience from the press. Because, sitting on Capitol Hill, what matters is the final result rather than the messy process. 

But presidents are supposed to be masters of their fate, dominating the political world like a colossus. Of course, no president has managed to pull that off since the heyday of media gush over Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator. 

Biden’s public tolerance for the meandering ways of Congress can be portrayed as a sign of presidential weakness. He is, of course, right that, as he repeatedly says, “it’s a process.” But that instinctive understanding of the dance of legislation can make Biden seem like a bit player on Capitol Hill. 

Yes, our hyperactive media and political culture can be blamed for enforcing unattainable standards. Why, over a four-year term, does a president have to win plaudits every single week? How often are off-year congressional races decided by the news cycle 400 days before Election Day?

Obviously, most voters are not following the details on Capitol Hill with the panting eagerness of a cable TV news booker. But if congressional negotiations go on too long and the buy-offs become too obvious, a certain odor begins to waft over the Capitol. 

That was part of the reason why the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) was a political albatross for the Democrats in 2010. And Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which followed a similarly messy congressional trajectory, ended up making a contribution to the creation of Speaker Newt Gingrich.

No one, of course, knows how any of this will play out in 2022. In fact, a case can be made that the biggest factor in the midterms will be the trajectory of the pandemic. 

In the days ahead, the sleight-of-hand trick for Biden will be to appear like he is dominating the Democrats on Capitol Hill while still letting everything play out at its own pace.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.