President Biden entered office determined to rip to shreds most everything that his predecessor put in place. His advisers kept lists of President Donald Trump’s policies and how they could immediately and methodically undo as many of them as possible, and on his first day in office, he did just that.
But there were also subtle areas of overlap, and over the past three months, Biden has demonstrated a willingness, and ability, to carry out some of the policies Trump could not.
First, he withdrew from Afghanistan, a chaotic and messy culmination of a two-decades-long war. He has pressed for the paid family leave benefits and prescription drug changes that Trump called for but never managed to implement.
And on Saturday, Biden beamed at his biggest legislative accomplishment, one that Trump had chased but never achieved.
“Finally, infrastructure week,” Biden said, adding later of the $1.2 trillion measure funding improvements to transportation, electricity and other needs: “We did something that’s long overdue, that long has been talked about in Washington.”
Biden seemed to relish not only besting his predecessor, but also doing so in a bipartisan way that to him began to validate the kind of politics that Biden seeks to practice. At a time of tribal warfare and balkanized politics, Biden could fairly tout legislation that was supported by top Senate Republicans such as Mitch McConnell — and in many ways saved when 13 Republican House members backed it late Friday night as six Democrats voted against.
“This is a very different political environment than it was 10 years or 20 years ago. But fundamentally the same mechanics are involved,” said former senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a longtime Biden ally. “Joe is a natural at it. And nothing breeds success like some success.”
Biden also promoted the art of personal politics, a brand he has nurtured over nearly half a century in office. It was a learned skill, he has said over the years, one that had gone out of fashion in more bare-knuckle modern-day politics. And it is one that has often seemed impossible in the Trump era, with many Republicans refusing to acknowledge Biden’s 2020 victory, echoing Trump’s false claims that the election was rigged, and downplaying the significance of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Trump, after all, often describes his Democratic critics as his “enemies,” underscoring the extent to which he treats politics as tribal combat, demanding loyalty from his followers, and not necessarily as a path to policy compromises. Despite having advocated big spending on infrastructure while in the White House, Trump attacked Senate Republicans over the summer as they negotiated with Democrats for the measure that many saw as a boon for the roads, bridges and power grids in their home states. “Mitch McConnell and his small group of RINOs wants nothing more than to get a deal done at any cost to prove that he can work with the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump declared in a July missive from his political action committee, using a derogatory acronym for “Republicans in name only.”
Biden, however, said a more genial brand of politics had dimmed but wasn’t fully extinguished, and he always claimed he could get it going again.
“I know we’re divided, I know how mean it can get, and I know there are extremes on both ends that make it more difficult than it’s been in a long, long time,” he said Saturday. “But I’m convinced: If we let the American people know that we’re committed to enhancing their ability to make their way, we’ll all do better.”
The current mood has at times been hard for Biden to recognize, and even for someone who served in the Senate longer than all but 17 people in American history, he’s had to adapt. But as he spoke on Saturday, he suggested that the mode of negotiation was largely similar, even if he had to get to know a new cast of characters.
“Part of the process is getting to know all of the people personally again,” he said. “I used to know about everybody’s district. . . . It’s getting to know a lot of these people, to build trust. Because everything I say I’m going to try to do, I will try to do.”
Biden entered office with visions of Franklin D. Roosevelt, drawing on his sweeping government programs for inspiration, even hanging FDR’s portrait in the Oval Office directly across from the Resolute Desk. He’s had dreams of being able to bend the will of the Senate using his 36 years in the chamber, emulating Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s.
Neither comparison feels right at the moment, said Joan Hoff, a professor of history at Montana State University and former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency. Roosevelt had large majorities that made his legislation easier to pass, and Biden lacks the cutthroat style of Johnson.
“LBJ was a nasty negotiator. He bent elbows. He threatened people,” she said. “His longtime service in the Democratic Party didn’t turn him into a nice, boring guy. His modus operandi was really the opposite of Biden’s.”
At times, Biden has acted more as a marriage counselor, listening to concerns from warring factions in his party rather than being a full participant in the debate.
But the president who often looks to — and draws inspiration from — history briefly on Saturday contemplated his own.
“I don’t intend to be anybody but Joe Biden,” he said. “That’s who I am. And what I’m trying to do is do the things that I ran on to do.”
A lot of what he ran to do was based on reversing course from his predecessor, and that guided Biden for much of the first six months of his tenure. But some of his decisions have been in line with what Trump also had in mind, even as Biden carried it out in far different ways, at times being methodical where Trump was mercurial.
The two shared a desire to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, for example, even while they came to differ on how it was done. Trump wanted a swifter timeline for withdrawal and negotiated an earlier exit date with the Taliban. Biden delayed the date but still oversaw a chaotic withdrawal that was roundly criticized, from his own party and from Trump. Ultimately, the goal of both presidents was realized when troops left the country.
Trump often negotiated with Congress by strong-arming his party and keeping members in lock-step. But Trump was never able to pass infrastructure legislation, and the attempts from his White House to do so became a bit of a running joke when they’d announce “infrastructure week” only to have it derailed as attention turned toward the latest tweet or topical diversion.
“Yet another inherited failure reversed!” Andrew Bates, a deputy White House press secretary, wrote on Twitter after the infrastructure legislation passed. He added, “And to state the obvious, this is a knock on the Trump Administration.”
Trump prided himself on messaging and an ability to dominate media coverage, and his White House came up with a concept to devote an entire week to discussing the merits of fixing the nation’s roads and bridges.
But the first official infrastructure week, in June 2017, was derailed when former FBI director James B. Comey accused Trump of lying in congressional testimony.
The next infrastructure week, in August 2017, unraveled when Trump spent much of his 45-minute news conference meant to tout an infrastructure-related executive order blaming “both sides” for violent protests in Charlottesville.
Eventually, in April 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) emerged from a meeting with Trump at the White House declaring agreement on a $2 trillion figure to spend.
But that soon was derailed when Trump declared he would no longer work on legislation while House Democrats investigated his actions.
For Biden, the lack of action under Trump became a rallying cry for his own plans, a line he repeated frequently during the campaign and carried with him into the White House.
“They announced infrastructure week — and they announced it and announced it and announced it and announced it every week for four years, and didn’t do a damn thing,” Biden said in May, in a bit of hyperbole. “They didn’t get the job done.”
“About every second week was infrastructure week,” he said in April. “But no infrastructure was built.”
“How many times, under the former guy, did we have . . . infrastructure week?” Biden said last month. “Not a single thing happened. We need to get this done.”
But for months, it seemed Biden wouldn’t get his own infrastructure week. The Senate passed the legislation in August with a rare, overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 69 to 30. But then the legislation lingered, with House Democrats refusing to take it up until a separate piece of social spending legislation could also come up for a vote.
It ultimately became a test of Biden’s strength in the party. Before the vote on Friday, he made statements outright calling on Democrats to immediately support the bill, a demand that some wished he had issued earlier. But as the roll was called just before midnight Friday, it wasn’t clear whether the party would stand by him.
In fact, he had lost six liberal Democrats who said they felt betrayed that the vote was being called without also voting on the social spending and climate change bill. It was only the support of 13 Republicans that ensured Biden’s agenda would pass. And it came after his party lost the Virginia governor’s race and nearly lost the New Jersey one.
“All the talk about the elections and what do they mean and everything — they want us to deliver. They want us to deliver. Democrats, they want us to deliver,” Biden said the morning after the infrastructure vote. “Last night, we proved we can. On one big item, we delivered.”
There are significant challenges ahead. Biden’s party remains deeply divided and will now turn toward attempting to pass the social spending bill, which is not expected to draw any Republican votes and must win the backing of all 50 Senate Democrats and nearly every Democrat in the House.
The legislation is a major priority of liberals in the party, who agreed to give their votes to the infrastructure bill on the promise that the second bill, too, would pass.
Biden’s framework includes a plan that aims to lower prescription drug prices for millions of American seniors — and some hope they can overcome intraparty opposition and also include paid family and medical leave. Trump had attempted to implement versions of both policies but was unsuccessful.
“I feel confident that we will have enough votes,” Biden said.
He was asked what made him feel that way, and a president with news allowing him to be more chipper and confident than he was days earlier responded: “Me.”