One of the most bullish indicators for Joe Biden’s presidency came just a week after his inauguration, when Joe Manchin said, “We’re going to make Joe Biden successful.” Manchin’s comment seemed to reflect an understanding that there was no way Democrats could survive by detaching themselves from their president. Manchin holds the pivotal vote in Congress, and his desire to make Biden a success represents the single largest variable.
For that reason, Manchin’s splashy public reversal now represents the single most bearish indicator for Biden. In comments to reporters, fleshed out in an op-ed in the right-wing opinion columns of the Wall Street Journal, Manchin called for a “pause” on Biden’s signature domestic agenda. He is not ruling out voting for a bill in the end, but he is exposing Biden’s prospects to fatal danger.
Manchin’s rationale for demanding a pause is farcical. He cites “runaway inflation” as a reason to wait, when inflation is well below the levels of the 1980s — hardly a time when workers carried home their paychecks in wheelbarrows — and near levels of the mid-aughts. In any case, Biden’s domestic plan would spend roughly one percent of gross domestic product, spread out over a decade and largely, if not entirely, paid for by higher taxes or lower prescription-drug spending, which entirely negates the inflationary effect. (It is only “largely” paid for because Manchin, among other moderate Democrats, objects to many of the tax increases on corporations and the wealthy Biden proposes as pay-fors.)
Manchin seems to be confusing stimulus spending — which jolts the economy into faster levels through deliberate infusions of deficit spending — with permanent social spending increases, whose fiscal and inflationary effect is negated by their financing source.
Even more strangely, Manchin told reporters that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is another predicate for caution — as if ending a $2 trillion war makes it harder, rather than easier, to finance domestic programs.
The greatest danger posed by Manchin’s pause gambit is that it will wreck the carefully negotiated strategy Democratic leaders have crafted. Facing moderate and progressive factions that don’t trust each other, they set out to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill (favored by the center) and Biden’s human capital bill (favored by the left) in tandem. Manchin reportedly advised the moderate House Democrats who, months into the schedule, decided to wreck the strategy and insist on infrastructure first.
The compromise negotiated in the House requires an expedited schedule, with an infrastructure vote by the end of the month. The sequence is still workable, as long as both factions have an understanding of what they’ll include in the social spending bill. Without that understanding in place, progressives have every incentive to vote down the infrastructure bill, which will in turn contribute to the impression of dysfunction and chaos. (Passing it without any commitments from the moderates would strip them of any leverage and open the door for Manchin to walk away the next time inflation, a foreign-policy setback, humidity, or any other development gives him a pretext.)
The sequence of Manchin’s negotiations is especially likely to provoke distrust. He helped create a demand for a fast infrastructure vote, which necessitates the scramble to speed up the second bill. Indeed, the most reasonable demand House moderates have is not to be forced to vote for a larger bill than Manchin ultimately agrees to. The whole process hinges on Manchin figuring out what level of taxes and spending he can accept, and allowing House Democrats to negotiate on that basis. His insistence on waiting freezes everything in place.
The danger is that this pause sets off a cycle of failure. Wealthy interests are only belatedly mobilizing against the bill now. As Republican lobbyist Liam Donovan notes, the Democrats’ best chance is to move as fast as possible. Delay creates the impression of dysfunction, making Biden and Congress less popular, in turn reducing the popularity of any bill they pass, in turn making Congress more reluctant to support it. Even if Manchin doesn’t want to destroy Biden’s presidency, he may do so by setting off a vortex of failure he loses the ability to escape.
It is obviously important to take heed of public opinion. But the Biden program does this, combining highly popular tax hikes on the wealthy with highly popular tax credits and broad-based expansions of Medicare and Medicaid. The biggest risk to the bill’s public standing is Manchin and his allies, whose complaints are creating a narrative that the bill is unaffordable Big Government. Manchin himself is generating the public backlash he is warning against.
The good news is that what Manchin tells reporters one day is not always a perfect guide to what he will say the next day. A needle measuring Manchin’s utterances was always going to be an EKG, oscillating between health and cardiac arrest. But this is signal, not noise. And the signal Manchin is sending is worrisome. For the first time, Biden is staring at the plausible vision of a failed presidency.