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The COMMENT
politics ––– USA

Topping the bill

Sasha Issenberg on how Joe Biden has shown that keeping quiet – rather than cocksure noisy confidence – can sometimes be the best mode of political engagement.


When Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law on 16 August, he did not just make history by committing the US to its boldest effort to fight climate change. He also gave a young country lessons in a few old-fashioned values: persistence, patience and the willingness to yield credit to others.

Biden assumed the presidency knowing that his party’s slight congressional majorities presented a narrow window to deliver on campaign promises. So Democrats loaded all their priorities into one bill, labelled the “Build Back Better Act” after a Biden campaign slogan. It included $3.5trn (€3.5trn) in spending on ambitious social benefits and initiatives against climate change. There was something there for nearly every part of his coalition and Biden pushed ahead with a strategy that some on Capitol Hill refer to as “fake it till you make it” – act like success is inevitable so that sceptics are afraid to be left out. But Joe Manchin, a conservative West Virginian Democrat, who as the party’s 50th vote controlled the balance of power in the Senate, chafed at the bill’s big price tag.

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Biden agreed to slash his ambitions in half, assuring lawmakers disappointed to see programmes for paid medical leave and free community college cut that this was the only route to get the bill through the Senate. But even after a $2.2trn (€2.2trn) version passed the House of Representatives, Manchin still refused to go along with it.

“I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation,” said Manchin on Fox News, the media outlet Biden considers a nemesis. “I just can’t. I’ve tried everything humanly possible.” Biden’s staff was ready to go to war with Manchin, with the press secretary issuing an unusually pointed statement about the senator’s “breach of his commitments to the president”. 

Biden wasn’t ready to give up and retooled his approach to negotiations. He pulled chief of staff Ron Klain, whom Manchin reportedly blamed for the bad blood, and replaced him with a lower-profile aide more likely to hold the senator’s trust. The White House dropped its blustery confidence, substituting “fake it till you make it” with something like “quiet till they’re ready to buy it”. 

Over the next six months, Biden effectively let Manchin cherry-pick the items he could support;  clean-energy subsidies and a measure to cut prescription drug prices were the two major ones that survived. After Manchin expressed concern that rising consumer prices made him wary of even that spending, Biden agreed to rebrand the bill, dropping his own slogan from the title and replacing it with the more Manchin-friendly “Inflation Reduction”. 

But Biden made many of these concessions in private. Journalists and lobbyists began to treat the negotiations as dead, and Democratic lawmakers grew fatalistic about their prospects of passing any major legislation before November’s midterm elections. In July, when Manchin announced  his support for the act, every part of his party’s coalition celebrated it as a major triumph. After Biden signed it into law, he took the pen he used to do so and gave it to Manchin (pictured).

Image: Getty Images

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