Joe Biden is the Congress whisperer.
Facing the toughest sort of Congressional opposition—obstructionist, nihilistic, extremist—the president has, during his first two and a half years in office, achieved extraordinary results. He has produced transformational legislation like the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the $750 billion Inflation Reduction Act and the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act.
These were not just complex, major pieces of legislation that impacted the lives of millions, they were each historic in their own way—driving record job creation, leading to the biggest investment in our infrastructure in more than half a century, producing the biggest investment in combatting climate change in our history, resetting America’s approach to competitiveness.
In fact, in just two and a half years of Biden’s leadership, as he observed in his State of the Union address this year, he has signed an astonishing 300 pieces of bipartisan legislation into law.
But it may be that the deal to preserve America’s financial standing in the world by avoiding the debt disaster threatened by Republicans will go down as one of his deftest accomplishments. We are not there yet. Opposition to the bill lies on both the right and the left. But that perhaps is more of a feature than a bug. Biden faced a nearly impossible situation and may have managed it to its best possible conclusion.
The likely deal will have several key components. First, the debt ceiling will be raised and the economic disaster threatened by Trump, McCarthy and the GOP’s economic hostage takers will be averted. Secondly, something like a rough freeze in spending at current levels will be agreed to. And there will be some clawbacks of spending that was committed by has gone unspent, like funds for COVID relief and perhaps funds that were to go to the IRS.
No doubt there will be elements added or subtracted between now and the time the deal is done. But if it is roughly within the parameters described above, it should be seen as a major success for the president. Despite the very real leverage of the Republican-controlled House to create economic mayhem, Biden will have effectively avoided catastrophe and, at the same time, gotten roughly the budget deal he would have had the Republicans not been playing chicken with the world economy.
Some credit, of course, should go to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. He did not exercise the insane options he had been threatening. However, since he threatened those options, since he lied about the White House positions on the debt and about the origins of the deficit, since his original ideas were really just insane and would have resulted in gutting virtually all non-defense discretionary spending without addressing in any sensible way revenue generation, whatever credit goes to McCarthy should be very limited indeed.
The most extreme Republicans will howl that they did not get the draconian and often inhumane cuts they sought. Some will argue that they should have gone through with their default threats. Trump, after all, argued it would be no big deal. GOP Chairperson Ronna McDaniel said default would even provide a boost for GOP presidential candidates. But every sane read of default reached the same conclusion, it would be really really bad for average Americans and for the world.
Some said Biden should observe, accurately, that the Constitution prohibits default. That’s true. The 14th Amendment does. But what would happen next could throw the world into chaos as everyone waited to see what the courts would ultimately decide. That’s why the White House ruled that approach out.
Should the President’s negotiators have pushed for more? Could have they have gotten more tax loopholes for the rich closed? Given the leverage the House GOP had, the answer is probably no. How do we know? Well, because for one thing, Biden has a track record as president of getting more than people expected out of the Congress—much more. Certainly, by now, he deserves the benefit of the doubt that he would have done that now if he had the chance.
No doubt there are hours and days of waiting to see whether Biden helps us dodge the bullet on this crisis. But it looks like he may. He has given us a chance. And he has done so in a way that is likely to make similar crises unlikely for at least the next two years—hopefully until we have a saner Congress on the scene.
As we reflect on this and everything else Biden has done, we should be grateful that he is perhaps the president best at achieving results with the Congress, even when he is fiercely opposed, since Lyndon Johnson.
“The reason Biden has racked up so many accomplishments is that he is exceptionally good at sizing up his opposition and his own level of support.”
But our appreciation should extend further. Biden’s gifts as a leader and a negotiator, founded as they are in his decades of experience, have also shown he was able to craft complex deals among our allies in the efforts to stand up to Russian aggression Ukraine. He has looked Putin and Xi in the eye without blinking.
In short, Biden has proven very good at perhaps the most difficult and underestimated aspect of being president. He has an uncanny sense of what is achievable, of how far he can go towards his own goals and what he sees as national priorities in the face of whatever opposition he faces.
Call it judgment. Call it, in the words of the old Kenny Rogers song, knowing when to hold them and when to fold them. But the reason Biden has racked up so many accomplishments is that he is exceptionally good at sizing up his opposition and his own level of support.
It is a quality that may drive the absolutists in politics today crazy (the ones who are always calling for no compromises) but it is the secret to political success and he is just better at it than any of his recent predecessors. Just as importantly, with an election looming, there is just no comparison between his abilities in this regard and those of his likely Republican opponents in 2024. Would you want Trump to be the one eye-to-eye with Putin? You know how that would turn out. Ukraine wouldn’t even exist. Would you want Ron DeSantis negotiating a budget with Congress when he can’t even seem to handle Mickey Mouse?
No, Biden is better than the alternatives. But, history will surely note, he was actually extraordinarily good at doing what is a very tough job—making democracy work—even when many of his opponents hold it and the values of this country in contempt.