Biden’s year two won’t be about bipartisanship 

President Biden made bipartisanship the backbone of his 2020 campaign, but with this year set to be dominated by the midterm elections, he is pivoting away from work with Republicans.  

The president, who has adopted a stronger tone with the GOP since the start of the year, said in no uncertain terms this week that the Republican Party had changed, even since he was vice president.  

It is a party that is unrecognizable to him, he said at a press conference earlier this week, drawing lines of division between the two parties.   

“I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done,” Biden said during the news conference, also adding of the Obama years, “they weren’t nearly as obstructionist as they are now.”  

He cited a number of Republicans previously willing to work across party lines including the late Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and “even, back in those days,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.).  

The tougher rhetoric makes sense in an election year where Democrats are in real danger of losing their majorities in both the House and the Senate. Biden and Democrats want to play up the contrast with the GOP as they try to beat back anemic poll numbers and make the case for Democrats to be in control of Congress.  

At the same time, it’s a notable break from the first year, when Biden sought to work across the aisle with Republicans. The effort led to the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that attracted 19 Republicans in the Senate.  

Republicans argue Biden’s first year in office has not been marked by bipartisanship given his calls to change the filibuster and his effort to pass the Build Back Better Act through budgetary rules that cut out the minority.  

“He came in here, he was going to be a uniter, and his policies, his rhetoric have been incredibly divisive, and what we’re seeing as a result of that is further division in the country,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican, said at a news conference on Thursday, accusing Biden of embracing policies too far to the left.

Partly because Republicans saw the infrastructure bill as making the Build Back Better Act more likely to pass, GOP leaders in the House opposed it despite the support from the 19 GOP senators. Only 13 House Republicans voted for the bill, and they came under harsh criticism from their party. 

The White House says Biden is still open to pursuing bipartisan compromise on some issues, like reforming the Electoral Count Act now that Democrats’ push to pass sweeping federal election reform bills fizzled.  

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday that officials have been “closely engaged” with bipartisan lawmakers exploring such reforms.  

Biden is also pushing for the House passage of a bipartisan bill to strengthen the U.S. semiconductor industry and make the U.S. more competitive, which has stalled in the lower chamber after passing the Senate last year. 

“Let’s get another historic piece of bipartisan legislation done,” Biden said at an event at the White House Friday with Ohio Sens. Rob Portman (R) and Sherrod Brown (D), calling for the passage of the CHIPS act “right away.” 

But that bill is generally under the radar, and that type of bipartisan cooperation even on lower-profile bills will be more challenging in an election year. 

“The President will never abandon efforts to bring Republicans along on his agenda – that is embedded in his political DNA,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “What can and will change is waiting for Republicans to come along. I think the political realities and the limited political calendar mandate that he cannot afford to wait for Republicans going forward.”  

The White House has no illusions that Biden will be able to pass portions of his Build Back Better bill with Republican support, which the president suggested earlier this week could be broken up into “big chunks” and passed.  

“Is there a proposal where there are 10 Republicans? I’m not aware of one. Maybe there is,” Psaki said Friday.  

“That’s not what the president was talking about the other night. What the president was talking about is getting as much – although we’re very open to that – but what the president was talking about is, we have 50 votes in the Senate. We’re going to get … as much as we can of the Build Back Better agenda that we can get 50 votes for,” she said.  

With the midterms fast approaching, Biden is setting up the election battle as a choice, painting Republicans as a party without an agenda beyond obstructing his own. 

“Everything is a choice,” he told reporters on Wednesday. 

Throughout his press conference, he weaved in attacks against Republicans including “What do they stand for?” Later, after declaring “I actually like Mitch McConnell” he aimed fire at the Senate minority leader, also posing the question “What’s Mitch for?”  

“What’s he for on immigration?” Biden added. “What’s he for? What’s he proposing to make anything better? What’s he for dealing with Russia that’s different than I’m proposing and many of his Republican friends or his colleagues are supporting as well? What’s he for on these things?” 

Biden is still planning to tout the bipartisan infrastructure law as a signature accomplishment in the coming months, which could complicate his rhetoric attacking Republicans.  

Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said it was “a bit naïve on Biden’s part” to believe Republicans would not be hell-bent on tanking his agenda and said it reflected an unwillingness to accept the reality of the highly partisan Trump era in which bipartisanship is near impossible.  

“Those days are just gone. They’re absolutely gone,” Perry said.

Tags Build Back Better Infrastructure Jen Psaki Joe Biden John McCain John Thune Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Rob Portman Sherrod Brown voting rights

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