“I never expected the ultra-MAGA Republicans who seem to control the Republican Party now to have been able to control the Republican Party,” the president said last week. “I never anticipated that happening.”
To many Democrats, the admission was long overdue. Even some in Biden’s orbit had been urging a far more aggressive response, according to four White House officials and Democrats close to the White House.
Steve Ricchetti, Biden’s senior adviser and the primary liaison with the GOP during the infrastructure talks, told Biden after that infrastructure bill passed that he didn’t think the GOP would bargain anymore. Much of the communications staff, including just-departed press secretary Jen Psaki, advised a more aggressive stance. And first lady Jill Biden told confidants that she was urging her husband to be less scripted and more on the offensive.
But that approach did not come quickly or naturally for Biden, who chose to largely hold back, even telling senior aides that, setting aside any personal feelings, he felt he could still work with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
As a candidate and since taking office, Biden would fondly recall working with Republicans and even arc-segregationist Democrats during his 36-year Senate career. And even though he witnessed firsthand the vicious GOP attacks on former President Barack Obama, he pointed to his role as vice president in successfully spearheading negotiations around tax cuts and spending reductions with McConnell as evidence that he possessed the right temperament and skills to make deals amid the histrionics.
But Biden also believed that after four tumultuous years of Trump, the nation was hungry for unity — and that even some Republicans, horrified by the Jan. 6 riot and weary of the 45th president’s divisive approach to the office, would be willing to spend some time working across the aisle.
“The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House. Not a joke,” said Biden during a 2020 New Hampshire campaign stop. “You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”
Biden has often repeated that sentiment, one that echoed Obama’s declaration the GOP’s “fever” of opposition would “break” after his 2012 reelection. Both men were wrong.
The White House tried with no avail to win Republican support for its $1.9 trillion March 2021 Covid relief bill but didn’t give up its efforts. Zeroing in on passing a bipartisan infrastructure deal, Biden chose to ignore growing Democratic concern that he was prioritizing working with Republicans over a series of his own party’s priorities, including voting rights and climate change. But top aides argued that the public would reward him for getting GOP support for a portion of his agenda.
“President Biden ran on the message that we need to bring people together to meet the challenges facing our country,” White House senior adviser Mike Donilon wrote in a strategy memo last summer when the Senate agreed to the deal. “And the American people embraced that message. While a lot of pundits have doubted bipartisanship was even possible, the American people have been very clear it is what they want.”
But infrastructure spending — which enjoyed broad support among voters of all ideologies — was one of only a few areas where Republicans were willing to go to work with the White House, the others including legislation to enhance U.S. competitiveness towards China and a largely unified front against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Instead, the GOP leadership refused to participate in the Jan. 6 commission, its members balked at efforts at enhancing voter protections, talks over police reform faltered, future aid for Covid relief remains in limbo, and nominees to various agencies — including those at the front line of fighting inflation — have been filibustered or forced into drawn out confirmation processes. Outside of some criticism of GOP governors who defied Covid recommendations, Biden had largely held his tongue, even as he watched with growing dismay as Trump maintained his grip on the Republican Party.
There was no single moment that prompted Biden to change course, the people close to him said. But as Republicans attacked his efforts to control surging inflation, the president chose to respond in kind. A feud with Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) — whose tax plan was pounced upon by Democrats and largely ignored by fellow Republicans — quickly turned deeply personal, with Scott saying the president was “incoherent” and “incapacitated” and Biden responding that “I think the man has a problem.”
Gone was the Senate collegiality. In its place, Biden took to bemoaning the modern day GOP. “This ain’t your father’s Republican Party,” he has said repeatedly, adding that the GOP was “the MAGA party now.”
“President Biden often says ‘Don’t compare me to the almighty — compare me to the alternative,’” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates. “His top priority is cutting costs for the American people and fighting the global problem of inflation. But the only alternative from congressional Republicans is Sen. Rick Scott’s ultra MAGA tax plan that would do the polar opposite.”
The White House took pains to note that it did receive GOP support on the infrastructure bill and also picked up some GOP votes for some high-profile Senate confirmations, including of incoming Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
But privately, Biden has expressed frustration with media coverage of his administration and believes that the press — and Americans at large — have been too quick to gloss over the damage Trump did to the country. He also has taken to telling aides that he no longer recognizes the GOP, which he now views as an existential threat to the nation’s democracy.
While the president’s poll numbers remain low, and Democrats face an uphill climb in the midterms, there is some hope in the West Wing that their party will be viewed as the more palatable alternative than the extreme elements in the GOP. But most GOP strategists believe the midterms are theirs to lose even with Biden increasingly showing his fangs.
“Biden’s numbers are soft with his base because he’s not fighting Republicans the way liberal activists want him to,” said Alex Conant, a senior adviser on Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“What got Biden elected was independents turned off by Trump’s constant combativeness,” Conant continued. “This tact is recognition that indies are less important in the midterms and he needs to try to excite Democrats.”