The surprise Sunday was not Sen. Joe Manchin’s announcement on "Fox News Sunday" that he won’t support President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) bill, but the White House reaction to his declaration.
It should not have been a shock. For months Manchin, D-W.Va., had expressed strong concerns about the bill’s spending, tax increases, expanded welfare benefits, and anti-domestic energy provisions. Recent events – notably last week’s latest inflation numbers and a Congressional Budget Office report the week before revealing that the BBB’s true 10-year cost was $3 trillion higher than what the measure’s supporters were flacking – only reinforced the West Virginian’s belief this gigantic buffet of "free" things wasn’t a good idea.
It appears the White House thought Manchin didn’t really mean what he said about BBB. Perhaps they thought he was angling for special provisions benefiting his state before joining virtually all other congressional Democrats in the spending orgy. Or the White House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., thought they could pressure Manchin to fall into line like they’d done to so many House Democrats who’d harbored doubts about BBB. Turns out, Manchin meant what he’s been saying.
But what’s with the aggressive slap-down delivered Sunday by White House press secretary Jen Psaki? She essentially called Manchin a liar and a traitor to his party. Who told her to do this? The president? Chief of staff Ron Klain? The White House congressional lobbyists? The likely answer is all of them.
Therein lies the rub for the deeply personal attack on Manchin. It was a terrible mistake. Did they think questioning Manchin’s integrity would make him more eager to engage with the White House in the future? Cause him to turn into a mindless, compliant blob who supported every administration initiative that Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and the House Progressive Caucus dreamed up?
There will be political fallout. Biden will be criticized by his party’s left for failing to win approval of their plan to transform America’s economy, expand the welfare state, and end reliance on oil and gas.
More traditional House Democrats – especially those in swing districts – must now defend their BBB vote in a midterm election that was already going to be very ugly for their party. And just as the hard left’s "defund the police" and "open borders" rhetoric causes problems for all Democrats, now every Democratic candidate in 2022 will have to defend the BBB’s excesses, like its tax break for wealthy homeowners in high-tax blue states or subsidies for hiring journalists or big tax credits for purchasing an electric car with a bonus for buying one made in a union plant.
And if Democratic candidates reject these special interest provisions, they could alienate important factions of their party, whether that’s the democratic socialists or powerful unions.
Moreover, the White House’s verbal trashing of Manchin won’t be well received by more traditional Democrats in Congress who for policy or political reasons were unsettled by Build Back Better’s radical transformational nature.
Now they know they could be the next to be abused by the White House. Some may be cowed by that, but members of Congress don’t like to be talked to as if they’re naughty 5-year-olds or called names by their betters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The White House will pay many prices, large and small, for attacking the senator on Sunday.
The notion of trashing Manchin may have been dreamed up by a West Wing underling, but responsibility for this bone-headed maneuver ultimately rests with President Biden. He had to approve it and by doing so, he’s added to the doubts about whether he’s up to the job.
More and more questions have been raised about Biden’s competence as the year sped by. He overpromised on COVID, promising it would be in the rearview mirror by July 4.
His administration appears indifferent to the wave of illegal aliens coursing across the southern border or impotent. The president’s transportation secretary took a lengthy, unannounced maternity leave while supply chain problems grew.
The needless retreat from Afghanistan was a debacle. Team Biden dismissed growing inflation as transitory while Americans grew more distressed by rising prices at store and pump that outpaced their wages gains. China and Russia are both dismissive of American interests. And all this while the president pursued a radical societal transformation with his European-style welfare state BBB bill that he hadn’t prepared the country for by making it a cornerstone of last year’s presidential campaign.
All this has left Biden looking increasingly incompetent as 2022 approaches. The BBB"s demise is just the latest incident. It’s not just that he didn’t pass his cornerstone piece of legislation but that he mishandled it virtually every step – springing a surprisingly ambitious proposal on the public and vulnerable members of his party without laying the predicate in the 2020 campaign, repackaging it with gimmicks that were unsustainable, and pretending he was negotiating in good faith when he really just expected critics like Manchin to fold.
The problem for Biden – or any president – is that once his image of competence begins to decline, only a strong demonstration on another significant issue or crisis can stop and perhaps reverse it. That will likely require a major exterior event to occur, meaning Biden’s standing with voters is increasingly out of his control.
The powers of Biden’s office are awesome, but since his actions on BBB and so many other fronts have raised serious questions about his competence, he’s entered a cycle of decline he may not be able to arrest.