There’s a story President Joe Biden likes to tell about himself.
It’s from a time when he was a first-term senator. He had objected angrily to some remarks from archconservative Sen. Jesse Helms, who was opposed to a proposal for broader rights for people with disabilities.
Biden was furious, and let Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield know it. Then Mansfield told him that Helms had adopted a disabled child. “I felt like a fool,” Biden says when he tells the story.
The moral of Biden’s anecdote: Feel free to question another person’s judgment, but not his motives.
And so it went during negotiations for the huge Covid relief package. Even when negotiating with Sen. Joe Manchin – a recalcitrant West Virginia Democrat who could have deep-sixed the entire bill – Manchin says Biden told him to “always do what you think is right.”
In the end, Biden didn’t get the congressional bipartisanship he said he wanted. But he did get his bill.
After four years of Donald Trump’s constant grievances – and now, calls for vengeance – against anyone who dared disagree or challenge him, the lack of vitriol emanating from the Oval Office is palpable. And it’s not because Biden doesn’t get angry (he does) or doesn’t have a temper (he can) or isn’t that involved (he is). It’s because above all else, Biden still sees himself as a legislator – who, according to a close ally, is “allergic to the ideological mission mindset, and that allows him to be more forgiving of people who just happen to disagree with him.”
In that sense, he is the anti-Trump he told us he was. There will be no self-promoting Biden signature on stimulus checks. There is no enemies list. Biden practices the old diplomatic slogan: There are no permanent enemies … only permanent interests.
If you’ve been in the Senate for 36 years, as Biden was, “you know tomorrow’s another day, and today’s adversary may be tomorrow’s ally,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told me recently. “That’s the nature of this business.”
And Manchin feels the same way: “Joe’s always looking for that. How do we get past this? Come on, we can work it out. Thank you for doing this, you know, just attaboy.”
If any attaboys were delivered by the former guy to an opponent, they weren’t public. Instead, opponents were shamed and ridiculed. Any opposition – or hint of opposition – was personalized. You were off the list, the subject of a Twitter tirade or threatened with a primary opponent, unless you decided to go groveling back. Which many did. And are still doing (see: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Sen. Lindsey Graham).
In Bidenworld, it would be considered self-defeating to stop talking to Sen. Mitt Romney. Trump couldn’t stop trash-talking him.
Trump defined his friends as those who would be completely loyal to him, agree with him and flatter him. Biden demands no such obeisance. In fact, his political nature allows him to have a rotating set of allies, depending on the issue.
Consider Sen. Bernie Sanders. Rather than dwell on Sanders as the guy he beat – or as the fellow who campaigned against him – Biden has embraced him as the man whose movement he needs. Think of it this way: Biden is the comfort food; Sanders is the inside operator with the bold vision.
“Together, they’re the perfect politician,” says a Biden ally.
And Sanders became Biden’s secret weapon in keeping progressives on board and getting the Covid relief package passed.
There is one way in which Biden and Trump have some similarity: They both like winning. And so, a question for the new President: Is the Covid go-it-alone-if-I-can strategy the model for future large efforts? Or is this a one-off?
Hard to predict, especially since Republicans have found new unity in opposing the Biden agenda.
But one thing is certain, as none other than Sen. Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor in 2016: ” He (Biden) doesn’t waste time telling me why I’m wrong. He gets down to brass tacks. And he keeps in sight the stakes.”