Debt deal reinforces Biden as consensus builder

There’s a reason Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination for president back in 2020: As a Washington denizen known for his decades of governing experience, he could bring the capital back to something resembling normal after a norm-busting Trump presidency, his champions asserted.

Today, that argument seems to be playing out. After weeks of high-wire negotiations and brinkmanship, strong bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress have approved a deal that suspends the statutory limit on federal debt payments – the “debt ceiling” – until 2025 and also curbs some federal spending.

An unprecedented and catastrophic default on the national debt has been averted.

Why We Wrote This

For President Joe Biden, aiming for the political center defined his career. Achieving a debt deal in an era of hyperpolarization and divided government shows that the old ways can still work.

For President Biden, aiming for the political center and seeking consensus have defined his political career since his first election to the Senate from Delaware in 1972. Now, in an era of hyperpolarization and newly divided government, he’s shown that the old ways can still work.

“There’s a rhythm to governing, and I think this is the start of that rhythm,” says former seven-term GOP Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia.

The former congressman sees both Mr. Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy as winners, setting a precedent that could pay dividends in the future: “The trust factor gets better after this. They’re both learning how to deal with each other. This was a major test.”

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Voting tally sheets are seen in the press gallery after a hectic series of amendment votes and final passage on the big debt ceiling and budget cuts package, at the Capitol in Washington, June 1, 2023.

Mr. Davis points to 1997 as the model. Then, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Democratic President Bill Clinton beat the odds and compromised to balance the federal budget – setting up a brief period of budget surpluses that disappeared after 2001.

“On some days you’re going to throw insults back and forth, you’re going to attack,” he says. “And on the next day you’re going to be able to cut a deal.”

Today, Speaker McCarthy’s developing relationship with President Biden is a source of fascination – “two Irish guys who don’t drink,” as one McCarthy ally put it. Both, too, have a high tolerance for political pain. In January, it took Speaker McCarthy a record 15 votes in the House to reach the chamber’s top job. Mr. Biden finally won the presidency in 2020 after multiple tries.

Both, too, have long been underestimated, which may have worked to their advantage in the debt ceiling negotiations. For the octogenarian Mr. Biden, the constant suggestions in conservative media that he’s not mentally competent may have led to false confidence among Republicans that he could be played. Mr. McCarthy is sometimes accused of not being all that bright.

But it’s Mr. Biden who, arguably, had more to lose if the nation had actually gone into default. Presidents live and die by the economy, and the buck would have stopped with him in the event of a global economic meltdown triggered by the United States.

In the end, Mr. Biden didn’t have to give up much to get a bipartisan deal, compared with original GOP demands that entailed $4.5 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. The deal that passed Congress claws back unspent COVID-19 relief money, trims increased spending for the Internal Revenue Service, adds a work requirement to some receiving food aid, ends the pause on student loan repayments, and green-lights completion of a controversial pipeline.

Charles Mostoller/Reuters/File

Lengths of pipe wait to be installed along the under-construction Mountain Valley Pipeline near Elliston, Virginia, Sept. 29, 2019. The controversial pipeline is part of the debt deal.

The deal “showed Joe Biden being a serious person and serious president, with little drama, which is exactly why the country elected him,” says Elaine Kamarck, a former senior official in the Clinton White House. “Meanwhile, there’s Trump with one drama after another.”

Kudos for dealings with Speaker McCarthy

Mr. Biden had more good news to tout Friday, with the latest employment report showing robust growth – 339,000 new jobs in May – and dampening fears of a recession. His tumble on stage Thursday at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, where he tripped on a sandbag, created exactly the optics he doesn’t want: an elderly president looking unsteady right as his reelection bid ramps up.

But on matters of substance, Mr. Biden wins kudos for his dealings with Mr. McCarthy – even if the president got off to a bit of a shaky start.

“I was a little surprised at the outset that he wasn’t willing to negotiate earlier on,” says G. William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former senior GOP Senate aide in the 1980s and 1990s. “I felt he was being pushed a little bit by some of his more liberal [Democratic] members to stand fast and push the Republicans to the point where they would somehow cave.”

Evan Vucci/AP

President Joe Biden meets with Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (left) and other congressional leaders, to discuss the debt limit in the Oval Office, May 9, 2023, in Washington.

He suspects part of Mr. Biden’s initial posture – “no negotiating” – came out of a belief that Mr. McCarthy wouldn’t be able to pass his own budget. Once that happened, a sign of the new speaker’s own unexpected strength, Mr. Biden knew it was time to deal, and his instincts as a former senator of 36 years kicked in.

“He realized he had to negotiate and work, particularly, with the House Republicans,” Mr. Hoagland adds. “By the end, it was the old Biden as I remember him.” And of course, nothing helps deal-making in Washington like a deadline. 

William Galston, a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, applauds the president for showing restraint during the negotiations, and in particular, for refusing to declare victory – loudly and publicly – after he had reached a deal with Mr. McCarthy, so as not to complicate the task of getting the legislation through Congress.

“All of that is the fruit of his experience” as a senator, Mr. Galston says. But his strength as a backroom negotiator is belied at times by an unwillingness to provide a public explanation, he adds. Thus, the importance of a speech Mr. Biden is scheduled to deliver from the Oval Office on Friday evening.

“He genuinely believes – and he’s one of the last people in Washington to believe – in the serious possibility of serious bipartisanship,” Mr. Galston says. And that, he adds, is important to convey to the public.