The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden raises the stakes with the biggest gamble of his presidency for his agenda

President Biden gives remarks about his agenda at the White House.
President Biden gives remarks about his agenda at the White House. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

President Biden entered a caucus meeting of Democrats early Thursday, told them he wanted to speak from the heart, and then made one of the biggest gambles of a career that spans nearly a half century.

He put the future of his presidency, and the state of his party, on the line with a major bet that he could persuade a fractious group of Democrats in Congress to rally behind him and support his compromise $1.75 trillion social spending plan at the heart of his national agenda.

“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” Biden said, according to a participant in the meeting.

His lofty wager — the result of weeks of haggling and what has become a legislative Groundhog Day morass — was in some ways out of character for a president who has been relatively risk averse and has often kept a safe distance from the most explosive legislative debates.

On a day of high drama with numerous deadlines looming — including the governor’s race in Virginia on Tuesday — Biden had a few hours before boarding Air Force One to depart on a foreign trip that includes meeting with Pope Francis, attempting to make progress on climate change and renewing efforts to show that democracy can work.

Senior White House officials and top congressional aides spent the early hours Thursday morning scrambling to complete the text of a 1,684 page-piece of the social spending bill. They hoped that $1.75 trillion legislation might unlock the opposition to quickly voting on a separate $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, but the fate of both signature bills remained uncertain. The House abandoned plans to move ahead on the infrastructure package Thursday, punting that legislation to next week.

“We badly need a vote on both of these measures,” Biden pleaded in the caucus meeting earlier in the day, adding, “I need you to help me. I need your votes.” He reached for history, saying that what would be achieved with both plans would be more significant than the combined efforts of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Biden’s agenda — and in many ways his presidency — has teetered on the verge of catastrophe in recent weeks, before he and top Democrats slowly started to resolve intraparty conflicts that have been a stain on their tenure helming the federal government. How and whether Biden can navigate a Congress that Democrats have only nominal control over, with razor-thin majorities in both chambers, has been one of the enduring questions over his first nine months in office throughout this year.

For Biden, the revised plan held potential to show strength after months when even his allies felt he was projecting weakness. Amid all this, his tenure at times has felt rudderless to some backers.

Just as important, Democrats said, if they can reach a deal to pass the social spending plan and the infrastructure measure, it would demonstrate that the party can govern in Washington, meeting Biden’s key campaign promise to successfully work with Republicans and unite a party in which old fractures had resurfaced after Trump left office.

“The rest of the world wonders whether we can function,” he said at least twice during the caucus meeting. “Not a joke.”

Part of Biden’s political biography is rooted in coming from behind and succeeding despite being underestimated. In his 2020 Democratic primary campaign, he lost the first two contests by large margins and was all but counted out before making his comeback.

But it was done through a belief that he had a candidacy that voters would come around to support, rather than any sudden shifts in a strategy built on a message of stability and normalcy.

Biden and his closest aides have long steered clear of polarizing issues and tiptoed around topics on which they faced pressure to act but recognized that their political leverage was limited.

He has delayed hard decisions, including whether to get into a presidential campaign, which running mate to pick or even how to fill administration positions. And his career has been one in which he’s been most comfortable finding the center of his party, as he often placed small, incremental bets rather than significant sweeping ones.

Liberal activists and civil rights leaders have pressured Biden to wage a campaign to end the Senate filibuster to clear the way for legislation to broaden voting rights and raise the federal minimum wage, while judicial activists pressed him to expand the Supreme Court. While nodding to their concerns, Biden has avoided such political fights.

In much of the social spending plan talks, Biden was determined not to speak publicly on behalf of lawmakers whose votes he was trying to win, and his aides often avoided doing so publicly. Biden held a long series of meetings, with lawmakers saying he was doing more listening at first and then gradually became more assertive in the talks.

On Thursday, Biden used his most definitive tone yet to describe the current progress he had made. “I am back here to tell you that we have a framework that will get 50 votes in the United States Senate,” he said to House Democrats in their closed-door meeting, according to a Democrat with knowledge of his remarks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private discussions within the party.

In the eyes of some Democrats, he had little choice after being backed into a corner. Biden’s approval rating has slipped across the board, registering this week at just 43 percent, according to one survey in New Jersey. The delta variant, a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, inflation concerns and months of inaction on his domestic agenda have fueled what many Democrats regard as a dire political situation for the party heading into the 2022 midterm elections.

In this year’s feature election, Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe, a close Biden ally, is running neck-and-neck in the polls with Republican Glenn Youngkin in a state Biden carried by 10 points last year. McAuliffe has been imploring Democrats in Washington to “quit talking” and “get something done” — a signal of the toll that inaction has taken on the party brand — and has acknowledged the challenge posed by Biden’s current unpopularity.

McAuliffe was swift to seize on Thursday’s progress, tweeting, “The middle class tax cut announced today by President Biden is a game changer for Virginians in every corner of the Commonwealth. Massive investments in child care, pre-K, and climate plus more jobs and lower health care costs. MAJOR win for VA families.”

While some Democrats are hopeful this will help McAuliffe energize more voters this week in the final days of the race, some Democrats privately said that it was probably too late to have a significant effect.

One close ally of the White House, who has knowledge of the internal dynamics, said the desire to seize on the moment to spur action and to strengthen his position before heading abroad was a clear factor in setting the stage for Thursday’s rollout. Biden himself had pleaded with lawmakers in to help him get a deal before his trip, even appealing to their patriotism in at least one meeting during the recent negotiations.

There was a sense around Biden that deadlines can move things along, said the ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. Now Biden allies hope he looks stronger both at home and abroad.

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a close friend of Biden’s, said the president’s trip to Europe, combined with the need to move ahead with other legislative priorities like the defense authorization bill and the debt ceiling, spurred Biden to act on Thursday.

“We’re out of runway. In the caucus, we’ve been sort of circling this airport for weeks, and it’s time to the land the plane so that he can take off and focus on world leadership and so that the average American can see the positive outcomes,” Coons said. “There’s also the small but very urgent matter of the election in Virginia coming up.”

Biden, a veteran of the Senate and comfortable with Congress, also is in tune with the rhythms of legislative negotiations and struck the right closing tone at the right moment, Coons said. “He understands that the legislative process has an arc to it,” he said. Coons, who said he spoke with Biden several times in recent weeks, called him “determined” and “optimistic” but clear on the challenges he faces.

The path forward is still murky, with divisions still playing out within the party. “No one got everything they wanted, including me. But that’s what compromise is. That’s consensus, and that’s what I ran on,” Biden said in an address from the East Room on Thursday. “I’ve long said compromise and consensus are the only way to get big things done in a democracy, important things done for the country. I know it’s hard.”