The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As one Joe builds, another Joe destroys

President Biden listens to a reporter's question during his news conference at the White House on Jan. 19. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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It was the split screen that has bedeviled the Biden presidency.

There they were Wednesday afternoon, in the exact same time slot: The two Joes. The president, and the man who is destroying his presidency.

In the East Room of the White House, President Biden gave only the second solo news conference of his tenure, marking the end of a punishing first year in office.

And smack dab in the middle of the news conference, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) rose on the Senate floor to hammer one more gratuitous nail in the coffin of Biden’s agenda.

Biden, in a nearly two-hour session with reporters, pleaded passionately for Democrats to force action on the voting rights legislation to counter breathtaking moves by GOP-controlled states to disenfranchise racial minorities, give partisan actors more power to overrule election outcomes and otherwise stack the deck against democracy.

“There’s certain things that are so consequential you have to speak from your heart as well as your head,” Biden said, defending his earlier statement that those who defeat voting rights will be on the side of Bull Connor and George Wallace in history. “Don’t think this is a freebie. You don’t get to vote this way and then somehow it goes away. This will be — stick with you the rest of your career and long after you’re gone.”

Greg Sargent: Manchin finally makes it plain: He is in favor of minority rule

Manchin, reaffirming his intention to uphold a Republican filibuster of voting rights legislation, self-righteously portrayed himself as a defender of minority rights in the Senate. But the practical effect of his action will be to deny voting rights to millions of Black, Latino and Asian American voters — and to doom yet another piece of Biden’s agenda, and a foundational piece of American democracy.

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“Let this change happen in this way, and the Senate will be a body without rules,” Manchin said, using some Senate floor poster-art to emphasize his point. “The Senate’s greatest rule is the one that is unwritten. … It’s the rule of self-restraint, which we have very little of any more. Self-restraint.”

Manchin was too high on his horse to grasp the obvious truth that Republicans abandoned self-restraint when they fomented and then excused a bloody insurrection in the very chamber where Manchin stood. Neither have Republicans been acting in good faith with their embrace of the “big lie” about the 2020 election — and with their abuse of the filibuster to protect GOP-led states’ efforts to undermine voting rights and future elections. The filibuster was intended to forge compromise; Republicans have used it to bring government to a halt.

And Manchin, along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have served as the handmaidens of that destruction. The only question is whether they’ll still be in office when Republicans revoke the filibuster the next time the moment suits them.

The damage to Biden caused by the Manchin-Sinema support for the GOP filibuster abuse (the pair used the same move to block the Build Back Better program that was the basis of Biden’s winning presidential campaign) was evident the moment the questioning began at Wednesday’s news conference.

“A few hours from now, an effort in the Senate to deal with voting rights and voting reform legislation is going to fail,” the Associated Press’s Zeke Miller told Biden. “Did you overpromise? … And how do you plan to course-correct?”

The second questioner, ABC News’s Mary Bruce, echoed the theme. “Your top two legislative priorities, your social spending package and voting rights legislation, are stalled, blocked by your own party,” she said. “Do you need to be more realistic and scale down these priorities?”

Jennifer Rubin: The media wants to paint Biden as a failure. He won’t let that happen.

Biden admitted defeat, mentioning Manchin by name. “It’s clear to me that we’re going to have to probably break it up,” he said of Build Back Better, noting that “Joe Manchin strongly supports early education.”

President Biden found himself negotiating with President Manchin through the assembled reporters. Asked whether Manchin’s opposition to the child tax credit doomed that proposal, Biden acknowledged there were items “I’m not sure I can get it in the package.”

Needled by Fox News’s Peter Doocy about why he has tried “to pull the country so far to the left,” Biden noted that he is squarely in the Democratic mainstream. “If you notice, 48 of the 50 Democrats supported me in the Senate on virtually everything I’ve asked,” he said.

That’s true. The outliers from the Democratic mainstream are Manchin and Sinema.

Manchin sounded an optimistic note as he doomed voting rights. “We can make it easier to vote. We must,” he said. “We can make it harder to cheat. I think we can. We’ve heard from our Republican colleagues who basically agree with us on that.” He also pledged to reform the Electoral Count Act to avoid another Jan. 6.

Manchin has held out such hopes of bipartisan agreement before, when he torpedoed items on Biden’s agenda. It’s time for him to produce — or spare us the naive piety. In democracy’s dark hour, he has already done incalculable harm.