Just don’t boast: How Biden world sought to ace the debt ceiling standoff

In the days after striking a deal with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, White House officials sought to downplay what they privately considered to be a substantial victory.

Aides feared that any crowing about the agreement would endanger its passage. They advised allies to be restrained, fearful of driving up Republican opposition.

But there was another consideration at play. Biden world wanted to emerge from the process with the public perception of being the “adults in the room;” mediators in an era of sharp partisanship. Getting lawmakers to collectively step back from the financial cliff was as big a victory as any specific provision from the debt ceiling package. And it would serve as a blueprint for the reelection campaign to come.

With the debt ceiling bill having passed the House on Wednesday, and soon to pass the Senate, the president’s team is aiming to use the negotiations around it to its political advantage, according to more than a half dozen people familiar with the plan but not authorized to discuss internal strategy. Biden’s advisers are betting that voters will reward him for getting a big thing done in a bipartisan fashion. They plan to portray the president as a steady hand in stark contrast to the extremes of the Republican Party.

The strategy has risks: Biden has rankled some progressives — over some of the compromises he made with McCarthy — who have warned that it could impact enthusiasm among voters next year. His above-the-fray approach also largely ceded the messaging space to the GOP, worrying some Democrats that they lost an important political cudgel.

But those close to his reelection bid believe that the president’s poise will stand in sharp relief to the overheated political brinkmanship put forth by Republicans, especially by Biden’s most likely 2024 opponent, Donald Trump.

“There are some MAGA Republicans in the House who know the damage that it would do to the economy,” said Biden recently when asked whether he would shoulder any blame if that nation defaulted, underscoring his argument that politics was being placed ahead of patriotism. “And because I am president, and presidents are responsible for everything, Biden would take the blame. And that’s the one way to make sure Biden is not reelected.”

Biden has long prized bipartisanship, warmly recalling his decades in the Senate when reaching across the aisle happened with more regularity than it does today. In his first two years, he was able to shepherd some bipartisan legislation through — including a massive infrastructure bill as well as a more modest gun safety package — although he relied on only Democrats for Covid funding and his signature Inflation Reduction Act and used executive action for items like student debt relief. But now, with Republicans narrowly in control of the House, Biden has no choice but to work with the opposing party on legislative matters, including on warding off a catastrophic default.

Republicans have charged that Biden was slow to the negotiating table; the White House counters by saying that McCarthy was tardy in producing his spending plan. Early meetings were contentious, and the process was grueling, but senior White House aides tasked with building support for the agreement stressed that it protects nearly the entirety of Biden’s legislative accomplishments while bolstering his image as a cross-aisle dealmaker.

In addition to advising allies not to boast, Biden himself has publicly downplayed his enthusiasm for the deal, casting it as a necessary compromise that left neither side fully satisfied. But in private, White House officials argue that he effectively out-negotiated the GOP, agreeing to small, near-term concessions in exchange for preserving a litany of major economic investments that make up the core of his case for reelection. They also note that the debt ceiling won’t need to be negotiated again until after Biden’s name is on the ballot one final time — effectively removing the main leverage point Republicans had.

On a Tuesday call with allies to outline the deal, senior aides credited Biden with staving off the vast majority of the GOP’s proposals, spending as much time walking through the provisions that didn’t make it into the bill as those that did. They touted the agreement as protecting top climate, infrastructure and health priorities, while averting significant funding cuts.

“It would’ve been over $130 billion of cuts to these programs,” Michael Linden, a senior Office of Management Budget official involved in the negotiations, said on the call, according to audio obtained by POLITICO. “Fundamentally, that was unacceptable to us, and I’m pleased to report that is not what this deal does.”

The White House has repeatedly made that case — that the big pieces of the president’s accomplishments have been enshrined — while trying to tamp down pockets of unhappiness among progressives who have worried for months that Biden is tacking to the center at the expense of the big-swing agenda that thrilled Democrats’ base in his first two years.

But allies argue the debt ceiling battle is less the sign of a pivot than an adjustment befitting Biden’s self-styled image as an experienced pragmatist. When the White House had the votes, it pushed through as many major Democratic priorities as it could. Now, with only partial control of Congress, Biden has sought to pick his spots and protect his gains. The White House believes voters approve of the approach.

“[The president] pledged to make bipartisan progress in the best interests of the country,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates, “while at the same time fighting through genuine disagreements with congressional Republicans and standing firm against agendas he disagrees with.”

Though West Wing aides tout their relationship with progressives, those on the left say they have, at times, felt shortchanged, watching their priorities fall away. When the debt debate began, House Democrats and some allies privately – and sometimes publicly – worried that Biden would fall back into an overly generous negotiating posture. When talks with McCarthy started, they questioned why he was negotiating at all.

“What scares me the most about that posture is that it seems so deeply out of tune with the political reality of who the Republican Party is today,” said Natalia Salgado, federal affairs director of the left-wing Working Families Party. “This is not the Republican Party of the ’90s. This is not even the Republican Party of the early aughts. This is a whole different beast. And so the playbook that he is using and that he is entering these discussions is no longer valid.”

But ultimately, there was a sense of relief among most liberals that the final deal wasn’t worse. More Democrats in the House ended up voting for the measure than Republicans.

“We had colleagues who were willing to hold our economy hostage and threaten a total meltdown of our economy,” said Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), chair of the centrist New Democrat Coalition. “That’s frightening to me. That’s not American. But what has come out of that is not a perfect agreement, but an agreement, nevertheless, that I think will get strong support from both sides of the aisle.”

Some Democrats harbor fears that measures in the bill — including enhanced work requirements for those on federal food aid — could further hurt enthusiasm among voters who, polls show, already are lukewarm about another Biden candidacy. An upcoming Supreme Court decision against the president’s student debt relief plan could be another blow, they said.

Several Republicans eyeing Biden’s job came out blasting the agreement, suggesting that it constituted government overreach and facilitated more Democratic-driven spending.

“Prior to this deal our country was careening towards bankruptcy. And after this deal, our country will still be careening towards bankruptcy,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running for president. “In Washington, D.C., they do these cycles to just get them through the next election. And that’s ultimately one of the reasons why they continue to fail.”

But White House aides believe that the debt ceiling negotiations will be yet another moment for Democrats to portray Republicans as extreme.

“This was a crystal clear example of a key contrast that is extremely favorable for President Biden: complete chaos and a willingness to upend our economy from MAGA Rs vs the stable, steady hand of the President able to craft a deal and keep moving us forward,” said former White House communications director Kate Bedingfield. “Couldn’t be clearer for voters: they are for chaos, he is for progress.”

Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.

The president’s advisers are betting voters will reward Biden for getting things done.  

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