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White House incivility is what ‘lost’ Joe Manchin

President Biden is, at most times, a brilliant negotiator. He seduces foreign leaders by working hard to know what they care about. He often brings along his grandchildren to remind them that decisions they make now will affect those kids and their futures.  

I’ve seen Biden wax on to China’s Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani about his grandkids — Finnegan, Naomi, Hunter, Maisy and Natalie — and then get them talking about their own. It’s effective. Biden told me once that “it opens up possibilities and creates common ground, shared humanity.” 

Biden is skillful as well in negotiating with members of Congress. He builds rapport and trust, and he looks them in the eye, letting them know he understands the pressures and crosscurrents of their worlds. He lets them know that he knows what it’s like to be where they are, and he often says, “Listen, don’t support something — don’t vote for something — until you can really get behind it.” 

That’s what Biden reportedly told Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) many times: “Don’t support Build Back Better until you are really behind it, Joe. I get it … I get it. Let’s work it.” And they had been working it. 

But Manchin said a definitive “no” to the Build Back Better package in a conversation with Bret Baier on “Fox News Sunday,” sending shock waves through Washington. The dealmaking on this particular legislation is done, and Biden’s signature social overhaul package seems to be dead.

Just days ago, Joe and Joe were still working things out. They were buddies who understood each other. Who better for a senator from West Virginia — 49th place in the nation on per capita income — to commiserate with than a president who started his campaign as “Scranton Joe.”  

With inflation sky high (6.8 percent nationally, 9 percent for producers), with 175,000 Russians on Ukraine’s border making global energy markets skittish and with omicron wiping out the delta variant as it infects Americans with accelerating speed, Manchin just wasn’t on board with the Build Back Better package amid so much uncertainty and economic anxiety. As Manchin has said often, “Right now, the challenges of the unknown outweigh those opportunities in front of us, and we need to be prepared to take care of the issues facing Americans right now — inflation, geopolitics and the pandemic.” But “right now” problems don’t preclude making investments in the future. 

So, sources tell me, the president and Manchin had a good discussion on Dec. 14 and “agreed” they just weren’t going to be on the same page on the legislation before Christmas — and Biden then suggested they put things on hold until the new year. Biden even reportedly said he knew the official size of the bill had grown by a half-trillion dollars and he would get his folks to knock the numbers back down to the $1.75 trillion framework all had previously agreed to. 

Manchin reportedly suggested March or April as the new deadline; there was no pushback from the White House, which committed to putting out a statement the next day that all parties had agreed to the delay.  

Everything was still moving forward as far as trying to align the White House and Senate Democrats with their colleagues, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Joe and Joe were pulling in the same direction. There would be no Build Back Better gifts under the Christmas tree — but no one would get coal in their stockings, either. Both sides were congenial, and both agreed not to trash each other, not to throw around White House chief of staff Ron Klain’s name, or the president’s or presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti’s — and the White House would refrain from finger-pointing as a way to keep the process constructive. 

My sources on this come from both Manchin’s people and the White House.

But then — bang! — the White House released a statement blaming Manchin for the delay. It tried to strike a positive tone about the future, but it targeted Manchin specifically and alone. 

Biden’s statement starts: “I had a productive call with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer earlier today. I briefed them on the most recent discussions that my staff and I have held with Senator Manchin about Build Back Better. In these discussions, Senator Manchin has reiterated his support for Build Back Better funding at the level of the framework plan I announced in September. I believe that we will bridge our differences and advance the Build Back Better plan, even in the face of fierce Republican opposition.”

I know Manchin. He believes in civility above all things. When George Washington, at age 14, hand-wrote 110 rules of civility, Rule No. 1 was: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.” When I saw Manchin’s name in the presidential statement, I knew he would perceive it as a breach of process, a breach of spirit, a breach of Joe and Joe working this out so that politicians from Scranton and Charleston could find a way to align with those from Brooklyn and San Francisco.

Given the protests that Manchin’s family has experienced at his home, which is a boat in Washington Harbor — with folks harassing him, his wife and grandson by kayak around his boat and the gate to the marina — I knew this presidential statement was personalizing the game. It put his family at risk, in my view. Everyone knows Manchin and Sinema are the two Democrats the White House must negotiate with because it has given up on Republicans — but to specify Manchin in a presidential statement meant the terms of the dealmaking had changed. 

The question now is “Who lost Joe Manchin?” Was it the president who veered away from his own famous framework for dealing with difficult leaders? How could the White House not know that getting uncivil with Manchin — who believes in civility even with his biggest antagonists, who had a three-hour dinner with progressive leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and then spoke publicly about how valuable it was to know her better than he did previously — would be so destructive?   

Sources tell me that the White House was not all that shocked by Manchin’s “no” on Build Back Better. They heard last Thursday that he was done negotiating. In my view, the control had shifted from a Biden who had said “don’t support this unless you can really get behind it” to a White House that wanted to play the blame game. 

This is not the way Biden usually operates. He doesn’t blame either side in a negotiation; he usually works it through, detail by detail, resolving problem after problem. Biden was famous for coaxing all parties in Iraq not to jump ship, participating in detail-rich but painstakingly long weekly video calls with all parties trying to hold Iraq together. Biden sat through every minute, every week, for a long time. Not understanding Manchin’s red lines on negotiating doesn’t sound like Biden — but, somehow, someone went right over those lines.

When tempers cool after the holidays, perhaps the White House will see that with Manchin, temperament matters. He has said repeatedly that there are lots of areas of Build Back Better he supports but that every key part of the bill must be funded without gimmicks. To do that, the conglomerate of the bill probably needs to be broken into manageable pieces. That might be an opportunity for politicians of good will, who care about the American people and being honest with them, to come back and try again.  

Steve Clemons is editor at large of The Hill.

Tags Biden Biden presidency Build Back Better Act Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Kyrsten Sinema Pramila Jayapal Ron Klain Steve Ricchetti

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