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Maybe, just maybe, ‘Sleepy Joe’ Biden is good at this bipartisan negotiation stuff

He didn’t get everything he wanted, he conceded on the environment, but Republicans didn’t ‘school him’ and he’s looking better ahead of his re-election bid

Eric Garcia
Friday 02 June 2023 20:34 BST
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Joe Biden falls at the Air Force Graduation

Almost all of former president Donald Trump’s rallies open of a montage of President Joe Biden stumbling over his words, a reminder of the “Sleepy Joe” moniker Mr Trump gave him in 2020. Similarly, when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tried to lure Mr Biden to the negotiating table, he pledged a “soft food” lunch with the president.

And earlier this week, after House Republicans and the White House announced a deal, Rep Nancy Mace (R-SC) said “Republicans got outsmarted by a President who can’t find his pants.” Even on Thursday, many people couldn’t help but raise questions when Mr Biden took a spill but quickly recovered after giving a commencement address, reigniting debate among the pundit class about whether he is too old to be president or if he is a doddering Mr Magoo behind the Resolute Desk.

To be sure, Mr Biden is the oldest person to ever occupy the Oval Office and his penchant for making nonsensical comments goes back to when he was the youngest Senator ever elected in recent history in 1972.

But given the fact that Mr Biden will have a debt limit increase head to his desk for his signature after a high-stakes few weeks of negotiations, perhaps it is time for his conservative critics to admit that the president actually knows what he is doing when it comes to working with the legislative branch and Congress as a whole.

I say this because I was one of the people who doubted him. Last week, I wrote how the debt limit negotiations would test his whole rationale for being president. I thought at the time that the White House staff was failing the president because they allowed Mr McCarthy to control the narrative through his continued press conference, often at the White House and then later when he would be shuttled back to the Capitol.

A source close to the White House told my colleague Andrew Feinberg that the decision was a deliberate one to prevent House Republicans from tanking the bill, and indeed, Rep Garret Graves (R-LA), was able to sell the bill as an example of how they “schooled” the White House, which made the deal ultimately more palpable for some and led to it passing.

Mr McCarthy did get the White House to move its position from having a clean debt limit increase to agreeing to some spending cuts. He also made a mistake by letting Mr McCarthy and House Republicans pass their “Limit, Save, Grow Act,” however unlikely it was to pass given spending cuts Democrats would outright reject, which forced him to the negotiating table.

That being said, Mr Biden did get a win early on during his State of the Union address when he expressly got Republicans to pledge not to cut Social Security or Medicare. In addition, when he finally did dispatch his two negotiators, they preserved most of his domestic agenda.

Even in the places where Mr Biden and Democrats “lost,” they didn’t shed as much blood as one might have thought. Many progressives understandably didn’t like the fact more able-bodied adults without children will be subject to work requirements, but the fact youth who aged out of the foster system, veterans and people who experienced homelessness will be exempt from these requirements to access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme should be seen as a win.

In addition, the White House avoided seeing cuts for people on Medicaid, which would have been brutal for many who need the health care that it provides.

Progressives also probably do not like the fact the legislation fast-tracks the creation of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline that spans from West Virginia to Virginia, especially after Mr Biden approved the Willow Project drilling in Alaska earlier this year. But that was as much about assuaging Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV), who has been crowing about the Biden administration as he weighs whether to seek re-election in deep-red West Virginia.

Indeed, even some of the progressives who ultimately voted against the deal admitted that the president ran circles around Mr McCarthy. When I asked Rep Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), a member of the so-called Squad of progressive Democrats who voted “no”, whether Republicans schooled Mr Biden, he told me emphatically, “Hell no. The president kicked McCarthy's behind.” Similarly, Sen John Fetterman (D-PA), who opposed the deal for its imposing work requirements on SNAP, said he would have voted for the bill if it had made the difference.

Throughout much of the past two years, Mr Biden racked up a number of bipartisan agreements on infrastructure, guns, same-sex marriage and the manufacturing of semiconductors in the United States. Still, getting a deal in place helps when the president’s party controls both chambers of Congress, even with the thin margins Democrats had.

The fact that Mr Biden avoided economic disaster without cuts that were too steep shows political astuteness from the president and tells voters that he is well-equipped to handle Congress if they give him another four years.

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