The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside Biden’s hot streak, from the poolside to the Capitol

As the president sought legislation that has eluded Democrats for decades, he made a key decision — to take himself largely out of the mix

President Biden walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 7. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden sat by the White House pool on Saturday, taking in the Washington heat and phoning senators as his long-stalled economic agenda was on the brink of passing the Senate.

It was a heady but fragile moment, and Biden — who had carefully kept his distance from the talks until now — wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He called Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner (Va.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Tina Smith (Minn.), among others, urging them onward and praising their work on the final details of the health, climate and tax bill at the center of his domestic agenda.

In the end, the bill’s passage by the Senate on Sunday capped off a remarkable three-week stretch for Biden, much of which coincided with his covid isolation, including the passage of major bills to help sick veterans and boost computer chip makers; historic job growth numbers; steadily falling gas prices; a once-in-a-generation expansion of NATO; and the long-sought killing of al-Qaeda’s leader. The House is scheduled to vote on the economic package Friday, with Democratic leaders confident they have the votes.

How a string of recent big legislative wins shifted Biden’s presidency. But, is it too late to affect the midterms? (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

But such win streaks have not been the rule for Biden, who has faced low approval ratings and cascading crises. His challenge now, supporters say, is to turn this hot streak into a pivot point that reorients his presidency and energizes Democrats, rather than a brief uptick in an otherwise difficult term. That means persuading voters that these wins matter not just to Biden but to them.

The recent successes “have probably converted what would have been a Category 5 storm to a Category 3 storm for Democrats,” said David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “And that’s a big difference.”

But it will only matter if Democrats pound on GOP vulnerabilities, he added. “They’ve made some really significant strides in the last few weeks, but they also have to contrast that with the portrait that’s growing of the Republicans as a party in the thrall of extremists,” Axelrod said. Republicans have faced backlash for actions such as opposing caps on insulin costs and initially blocking a veterans’ health bill.

The turnaround on the budget bill, Biden’s most startling victory, was the result of a decision to reverse himself sharply and let senators negotiate among themselves, rather than playing a leading role himself — not an easy move for a self-declared master of the Senate. After earlier negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-Va.) blew up in December, Biden directed his staff not to disclose the details of any interactions with members of Congress to take himself out of the public picture.

“One of the lessons learned — a big lesson learned — was that letting the negotiations with senators dominate the public conversation was a mistake, because it made it so that disagreements about minutiae became what the public consumed, instead of how pieces of legislation were going to impact people’s lives,” said Jen Psaki, Biden’s former White House press secretary. “Sometimes the best things happen in the dark, away from the public.”

Biden poised for big wins in Congress

This story is based on interviews with 14 White House officials, members of Congress, Democratic strategists and others close to the White House, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

In addition, Democrats hope the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade will energize voters alarmed by what they call the extremism of the Republican Party — a hope boosted by Kansas voters’ recent decisive rejection of an antiabortion measure. And they contend that the budget bill — which provides incentives for clean energy and lets Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices — will alleviate many Americans’ daily struggles.

“This is the most significant action that a Congress and the president can take to address inflation and deliver meaningful relief to American families,” White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese said. “With respect to addressing inflation, taking on the issues of prescription drugs, taking on the issues of climate change and energy security — I think that legislation is going to speak to all of this.”

The Senate passed the sprawling legislation, a key part of President Biden’s economic agenda, on Aug. 7 after almost 20 hours of debate on the Senate floor. (Video: The Washington Post)

Republicans, however, said that the bill will do nothing to bring down consumers’ prices anytime soon and that, if anything, its minimum corporate tax will harm the economy.

“I don’t think anything in the last few weeks has changed the dynamics on the ground,” said Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Hartline said that the economy is still the primary concern for most voters and that between record-high inflation and still-elevated gas prices, the political environment will favor the GOP in November.

“Biden is still historically unpopular, and his agenda is still historically unpopular,” Hartline said. “I think they’re just putting the nail in the coffin.”

The seeds of Biden’s biggest win were planted just a few weeks ago.

On July 14, after months of painstaking negotiation, Manchin told Democratic leaders he would not support an economic package that contained tax increases or new spending on climate change. Instead, Manchin expressed support for proposed health-care care provisions, which would allow Medicare to negotiate the price of some drugs and cap seniors’ out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs at $2,000 per year — a hugely popular measure that Democrats have worked toward for decades.

It seemed to spell an unambiguous end to Democrats’ broader plans. But that night, Manchin called White House counselor Steve Ricchetti, one of Biden’s closest aides, according to a person familiar with the call. Manchin said that he was still interested in securing a deal and that he and Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) were much closer to a compromise than people realized.

That Monday — four days after the negotiations seemed to come apart — Manchin called Ricchetti and Deese. Emotions had cooled over the weekend, and Manchin said he and Schumer were finalizing the deal.

Deese met with the senators’ aides in Manchin’s small hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol to get a sense of what disagreements remained. White House officials were careful not to insert themselves aggressively into the conversation, people familiar with the process said, focusing on keeping the talks alive.

But the budget bill was just one of many balls in the air.

Democrats and Republicans were also closing in on a $280 billion bill to boost domestic computer chip manufacturing and curb China’s influence, a bill that was years in the making and that Biden had been pushing for months. In early July, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had threatened to scuttle the bipartisan Chips and Science Act because he was frustrated by Democrats’ efforts to reach their Democrats-only budget deal.

But the White House saw cracks in McConnell’s position, as key Republican senators issued statements indicating they were open to a scaled-back deal, a White House official said. Then just days after Manchin signaled that the budget deal had collapsed again, the Senate passed the Chips Act, providing $52 billion for U.S. semiconductor makers to build or improve their factories.

But later that day, in a stunning turnabout that caught most of Washington by surprise, Manchin and Schumer announced their stunning breakthrough: Manchin would support roughly $433 billion in new spending, most of which would be focused on climate change and clean energy production, reviving Democrats’ signature domestic bill.

Two weeks that saved Democrats' climate agenda

That was significantly scaled back from the $2 trillion bill Biden and Democrats sought last year, but it still marked the biggest climate investment in U.S. history, along with the prescription drug provision and tax changes that would raise $739 billion over the next decade, enough to offset the cost of the bill while securing more than $300 billion for cutting the deficit, a priority for Manchin.

Senate Republicans, who just hours earlier had helped Democrats pass the massive chips bill, were livid and felt Manchin had misled them by suggesting he was done negotiating with his fellow Democrats. The next day, angry Senate Republicans blocked a bill to help veterans who had been exposed to toxic burn pits during their service, attracting a wave of criticism.

White House officials felt that Republicans had blundered badly.

“It showed Republicans’ true colors, that not only are they trying to thwart us — they’re showing they’d cause active harm,” one White House official said. “You’re trying to gut popular bills like veterans exposed to toxins fighting for their country? Those are very powerful arguments they have handed to us.”

On July 28, fresh out of his covid-19 isolation, Biden held an economic event at the White House as the House was scheduled to vote on the chips bill. The margin could be tight, Democrats worried — House GOP leaders were urging their members to vote against it in an effort to deny Biden a legislative win.

In the green room before the White House event, Biden told his personal aide, Stephen Goepfert, to keep him updated minute-by-minute on the vote. At about 3 p.m., as the roundtable with business executives was underway, Goepfert appeared from backstage and handed Biden a note: The House was on track to pass the bill.

“The House has passed it,” Biden announced to applause. In the end, 24 Republicans defied leadership and backed the measure.

Two days later, on July 30, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, called him with triumphant news. On a secure phone, he informed Biden that a “precision strike” to kill al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared to be successful. National security officials believed they had managed to take out Zawahiri without civilian casualties, but they were still making sure.

Days later, Senate Republicans reversed course on the burn pits bill, which passed with an overwhelming bipartisan vote.

Klobuchar said the Republicans’ missteps and Democrats’ achievements were adding up to a new political mood.

“You have two things happening at once,” she said. “You have a veil that’s been lifted in part because of the Supreme Court and Republican extremism. And then you also have at the same time, just that basic things get done and deliver for people.”

While the activity was unfolding on Capitol Hill, an event was underway in Kansas that few had predicted.

The ballot measure facing voters Aug. 2 — asking whether abortion protections should be stripped from the state constitution — would be the first major political test of how voters would react to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling. The Democratic National Committee used some of Biden’s volunteer army to organize in Kansas without letting Biden’s involvement become part of a broader national story, which could repel voters in the deep-red state, a Biden adviser said.

Unexpectedly, Kansas voters resoundingly rejected the measure, as roughly 60 percent voted to maintain abortion protections. Turnout for the primary election far exceeded other contests in recent years, giving Democrats hope that the issue would motivate voters in November.

Then by Saturday, it looked like Biden’s long-sought health-and-climate package was nearing passage. As senators voted through the day and all night Saturday, Ricchetti and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain stayed up through most night to watch the process play out, talking to Biden about every half an hour. Ricchetti called Biden early Sunday morning as the president departed the White House for his beach house in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

One key provision in the health-care portion of the bill — a $35 cap on the price of insulin for many patients — was stripped away by Senate Republicans.

Still, the vote pressed on, and by Sunday afternoon, several hours after Biden arrived at his home in Rehoboth Beach, the Senate passed the bill, sending it to the House for final passage.

In some sense, the groundwork was laid several months ago. When Biden held a news conference last January to mark his first year in office, his final answer to a reporter’s question signaled a recognition that he’d made mistakes and was determined to take a different approach.

“The public doesn’t want me to be the ‘President Senator.’ They want me to be the president, and let senators be senators,” Biden said. “If I’ve 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 the role of president is a different role.”

Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this report.

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