Political wisdom might ordinarily dictate that a president in need of certain senators’ votes not publicly scold those lawmakers in public.
Yet President Joe Biden did both of those things this week, apparently unbothered with conventional politics or rote partisan backlash. Approaching the five-month mark of his presidency, Biden instead appears confident enough in his standing to discard certain unwritten rules of the job, even as he settles into a more traditional presidency than the norm-bending tenure of his predecessor.
The oldest first-term president in history, Biden entered office with a long-developed sense of self-assurance in his political instincts. Aides say he is often more willing to stay the course through fraught political moments than be seen bending to pressure.
As a candidate, Biden made little effort to adjust his schedule when accused by Republicans of essentially sitting out the race. His advisers followed suit and made non-reflexive reactivity their signature trait.
Now, even as he spends days and weeks deliberating over the major decisions of his presidency, grappling over the political costs alongside everything else, Biden has shown ample willingness to take steps other presidents might avoid. In multiple ways, that has been on vivid display this week.
President jabs at crucial Democrats
Addressing critics Tuesday who wonder why he hasn’t cajoled Congress into passing a sweeping voting rights law, Biden appeared to chide Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – both Democrats who have defended the filibuster rules that allowed the voting bill to stall.
At the same time, Biden is courting both senators on his infrastructure plan, meeting with them individually at the White House as talks got underway. In many ways, their votes are the linchpin for much of Biden’s agenda – a dynamic that gives them outsized influence, sometimes to the chagrin of the President and his team.
“I hear all the folks on TV saying, Why doesn’t Biden get this done? Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate – with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends,” he said, an unspoken but unmistakable nod to the chamber’s two most moderate Democrats.
“I was surprised by it,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “And I wondered whether it was worded precisely the way he wanted it.”
Aside from the politics, Biden’s statement wasn’t true – Manchin and Sinema have not voted with Republicans on any major legislation so far in this Congress.
“They certainly vote more with Republicans than many Democrats vote with Republicans, but he does need them,” Axelrod said. “This is something that’s lost in the discussion often, which is people say, well, why do they negotiate with Republicans? Why don’t they just go it alone? Well, you can’t go it alone, unless you have 50 votes, and Manchin and Sinema are not on board on many of these key things that Biden cares about.”
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden wasn’t casting blame on his two fellow Democrats for stalling voting rights. Instead, she said he was conveying nothing more “than a little bit of commentary on TV punditry.”
“He considers them both friends; he considers them both good working partners,” Psaki said. “We don’t have to see eye to eye on every detail of every single issue in order to work together, and he certainly thinks that reflects their relationship.”
White House officials say Biden is highly attuned to the politics of individual senators, and some believe he may have intentionally been creating space between himself and two lawmakers hailing from conservative states, believing it advantageous for them. Neither Manchin nor Sinema responded publicly.
Like openly chastising key members of your party, leaving town for the beach in the middle of a week would ordinarily be viewed as politically perilous for a sitting president.
Biden apparently disagrees, decamping Wednesday for two nights to his Rehoboth, Delaware, home for his wife’s 70th birthday celebration.
Any president is on the job wherever he goes, surrounded by secure communications equipment, a clutch of aides and ever-present journalists. But Biden’s apparent indifference to the optics of vacation is telling. When President Donald Trump made lengthy sojourns south to Mar-a-Lago, he became fixated on countering the perception he was on vacation, summoning advisers for meetings and inviting the press to watch.
Biden does not appear to share that impulse. Over the course of the 14 weekends he’s spent away from the White House since taking office, he has held almost no public events and made little attempt to demonstrate he is still at work – even though he is, taking calls with advisers and ruminating over major decisions.
In a pandemic era, when American workers have logged on to jobs remotely from all manner of makeshift workplaces – some decidedly more suitable than others – it could also reflect a new attitude toward in-the-office work.
His midweek journey to the Delaware shore is timed to coincide with first lady Jill Biden’s 70th birthday, which falls on Thursday. After making millions of dollars in a post-vice-presidential book deal, the Bidens purchased the $2.7 million home as a place to convene their large extended family. The house, Jill Biden has said, fulfilled a dream of hers to own a property on the beach.
“Anyone who knows the first lady knows how much she enjoys her time at home in Rehoboth,” her spokesman Michael LaRosa told CNN.
Still, the President’s commitment to celebrating his wife’s 70th at her favorite house on the actual day – even if it falls in the middle of the week – evokes a certain shrug at the notion a president should remain at the White House on the job, at least during normal working hours.
When first lady Michelle Obama turned 50 on January 17, 2014, her husband spent the day delivering a speech about American surveillance practices at the Department of Justice. He did throw her a star-studded bash a few days later on the White House state floor, punctuated by his emotional tribute describing how they first met and a set from Beyoncé.
Her successor, first lady Melania Trump, spent her 50th birthday at the White House, too. But she was confined to the building largely because of the raging coronavirus pandemic; her husband sent her a tweet. Reporters had been advised there could be an evening outing, but it never materialized.
Biden, however, seems to view birthdays literally rather than as the suggestion of a date. He arrived in Rehoboth on Wednesday still in his suit, carrying a stack of papers, with his aviator sunglasses firmly in place.
He couldn’t hear reporters shouting questions from a nearby sand dune.
CNN’s Kate Bennett contributed to this report.