Who’s the Change Agent Now?

Joe Biden is delivering breakthroughs that long eluded Barack Obama. Who understands the presidency best?

Senator and senator in 2005. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Senator and senator in 2005. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Senator and senator in 2005. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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Barack Obama has kept a vanishingly small circle of trust in his post-presidency, and for much of this summer, any visitors who got a moment with him and dared to ask about Joe Biden’s tanking administration tended to get no substantive answer. Ever since leaving the White House in 2017, Obama has been cautious to the point of introversion about wading into daily politics, but through June and deep into July, he was noticeably cagey even with buddies — wary that a leak about any level of concern on his part would create a hellish news cycle. Content to watch from afar on Martha’s Vineyard, where he and former First Lady Michelle have a 29-acre home and a personal chef, Obama followed the news closely as Biden’s agenda stalled out, then was ground down by inflation and gas prices and an unconvincing response to the demise of Roe v. Wade.

From his perch on an island 500 miles north of the White House, Obama spoke with Biden sporadically. As always, their calls were private and no aides listened in. But as the summer wore on, Obama’s small group of confidants gathered that Biden was impatient with his dismal approval numbers, which rivaled Donald Trump’s. They thought Biden seemed sensitive about the fact that among Democratic candidates running for office in November, the 44th president will be a far more coveted surrogate than the 46th. (One private party poll in the battleground state of Arizona showed Biden’s favorability at a putrid 26 percent.) And it seemed to them that the president was annoyed with some members of his own party, especially regarding what he saw as their fatalistic attitude about the midterms. (The White House disputes these impressions.)

Given the hit Biden took after the abortion ruling, some of Obama’s close allies were baffled by Biden’s similarly uninspiring reaction to the July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, that left seven people dead and dozens wounded. As a handful of ambitious Democrats made micromoves that could position them to run in Biden’s stead in 2024, Obama said nothing, either publicly or through back channels. He stayed mum when Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker visited the early-voting state of New Hampshire, and he didn’t reach out to bring Gavin Newsom in line after the California governor rather conspicuously began buying airtime in Florida and newspaper ads in Texas. Much of Obama’s reluctance to engage was tactical; he didn’t want to overshadow the sitting president or get dragged into a new role as Biden’s enforcer, and he’d already determined that he would be most effective as an advocate for the party if he lay low until just before the midterms. Still, coming from the most popular Democrat, Obama’s distancing had the effect of heightening Biden’s isolation, as an idea began to take hold in the public imagination that one of them knew how to be a successful president and the other didn’t.

And then, as if out of nowhere, came a very Washington version of deliverance. An agreement between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the fickle West Virginia senator Joe Manchin to make world-historic climate investments and deflate drug prices headlined a run of nearly miraculous news for Biden’s White House. It was the kind of concerted environmental effort Democrats had dreamed of for years, if not decades, and even progressives who wanted more conceded it would make for a genuine sea change in the government’s approach to the existential threat of climate change. The deal came on the heels of the bipartisan passage of a semiconductor-chip-manufacturing bill, and it cast in a better light a June compromise to enact limited gun-control measures, alongside other legislation of substance. (It didn’t hurt that in this stretch Biden had ordered the drone killing of Al Qaeda’s leader and gas prices fell by more than a dollar.) “There is no way to get around the fact the last month or so has been stellar for the administration,” Charles M. Blow declared in the New York Times. “Joe Biden’s Presidency Is Suddenly Back From the Dead,” Jonathan Chait wrote in this magazine. Bob Shrum compared him to Lyndon Johnson.

Nobody was under any illusion that Biden had personally crafted the climate deal or artfully twisted the right arms to get it done. More accurately, it fell into his lap — months after he’d last tried to cut a compromise on his Build Back Better plan with Manchin. If Biden could have made it happen sooner, he would have. But just as presidents can fall victim to external disasters over which they have little control (see gas prices), history remembers even indirect victories as their own, too. What Biden did was leave the door open to a bargain, recognizing the awkward reality that Schumer and Manchin had more space to maneuver without his voice in the mix complicating the politics that faced the prickly moderate from coal country. Biden and Schumer had also allowed Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell to believe the administration’s climate ambitions were toast; the prevailing theory in Washington is that the Kentuckian agreed to the chips bill only because he trusted that the big-ticket ones were dead.

If Biden’s abrupt turnaround can be attributed to a style of governance that is still emerging, that style is decidedly un-Obaman. The crown-jewel victory — the Inflation Reduction Act, containing the climate provisions — was painstakingly lashed together in secret by a crew of senators, including longtime denizens of Biden’s old stomping ground. The president’s own hand was nowhere to be seen in public until it was on the verge of passage, an echo of how the maximally precarious gun bill had moved through Congress a few weeks earlier. Whether because of changing times and opposition or recognition of their fundamentally distinct political strengths, Biden has veered far from the Obama model to get things done. It’s been months since he mounted a concerted effort to galvanize public opinion with the presidential bully pulpit, and he has never attempted to use an academic style of persuasion, as Obama often did.

Obama was elated to learn of the climate agreement. But as the ex- and current president celebrated, a telling gap began to open. Biden’s West Wing sold the Inflation Reduction Act as the largest climate investment ever, period. Publicly, Obama agreed, calling the law a “BFD” — a nod for nostalgists to Biden’s famous appraisal of Obamacare. Privately, however, Obama saw the legislation as a step forward — a bend in the long arc of history he often cites — and not a transformative leap. It was possible to read this as sour grapes, or at least wry analysis, from a retired president whose own grandest ambitions had been thwarted at almost every turn. Yet no one on earth understood what Biden was facing better than the man who’d held the job for eight years. The two simply saw change-making differently. Obama, in fact, had been getting updates from Schumer all summer and had been quietly musing that a climate plan might be revivable, fashioned from the surviving shreds of Biden’s Build Back Better platform. He just hadn’t necessarily seen the idea as an epochal one — more like a pragmatic concession that Biden’s original ambitions couldn’t work in this version of Washington. The difference in perspective speaks to one of the oldest lines of tension in Obama and Biden’s relationship and a question that is now more pressing than ever: What is the right way to be a Democratic president?

Neither man’s approach has been static, especially as Republican opposition has escalated from obstruction to nakedly anti-democratic sabotage. Obama entered office in 2009 with large partisan majorities, confident in his rhetorical abilities to unite the country and persuade voters to enact sweeping change, but GOP intransigence hardened his view of what was achievable and left him increasingly reliant on the unilateral powers of his office. He still used his megaphone to urge the electorate toward pluralism in moments of need, but by 2016, he was giving exit interviews about the difficulty of turning ocean liners more than a few degrees at a time. Biden observed all that from a closer vantage point than anyone, and in 2021, he took the oath of office with an altogether different strategy in mind. Although he had only a minuscule edge in Congress, he was convinced that his long decades in the Senate made deal-making possible again — both with members of his own party and with a small, theoretical group of Republicans eager to get some things done after the embarrassments and incompetence of the Trump years. Finding little success in trying to be the country’s protagonist or pastor, Biden settled into a significantly quieter and less confrontationally progressive posture even as he kept his faith in the legislative process to eventually deliver him big wins. Though his achievements were often overshadowed by a generalized perception of feebleness and unrelenting demonization from Republicans, he began to rack up major policy victories.

Seismic as it is, the climate law hardly rescues Biden from his doldrums. The presidency is about much more than legislation, and early polling suggests his approval rating has rebounded only modestly. Yet to a degree that would have been unthinkable in the depths of summer, when Biden seemed all but dead politically, it is now possible to debate whether his first two years or Obama’s were more substantively successful.

Vice-president and president in 2012. Photo: Christopher Morris/VII/Redux

Today’s Obama-Biden dynamic would be unrecognizable to a voter from 2008, back when Obama was the change-maker and Biden his elder realist and fixer. Their roles haven’t exactly reversed, but it’s striking that Obama is now more identified with piecemeal progress and Biden with a process that can be ugly and lurching but does occasionally deliver dramatic breakthroughs. Back at the start of his presidency, Obama sought to enact the most dramatic reform of the American health-care system in history, and he overruled the advisers who told him that he was being unrealistic about the political window — none of them resisting so loudly as Biden. Universal access to medical insurance was a priority for the left, but the vice-president argued that voters would give Obama “a pass on this one” if he focused on the economy, which was still teetering on the brink of ruin in early 2009. Over a few weeks of meetings in the Roosevelt Room, Biden told Obama with increasing agitation that forcing a health-care overhaul could kneecap his presidency from the start. Insisting on this kind of historical loser — reforms had failed numerous times over the decades — in year one would swamp the rest of his agenda, Biden said. But Obama was unimpressed by Biden’s advice that he ought to focus on middle-class pocketbooks above all else. He figured, We’re already doing everything we know how to do for the economy, so all you’re proposing is giving up on health care. That was status quo D.C. thinking.

It was their first serious disagreement about how to surmount roadblocks to progress. Biden was joined by Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and his lead strategist, David Axelrod, who both tried to steer Obama to other priorities. But the president grew increasingly impatient with the arguments. “What are we supposed to do? Put our approval rating on the shelf and admire it for eight years?” he asked. “Or draw down on it and do things of lasting value?” On this much, Biden agreed; he just thought Obama should do health care in phases, not all at once. At one planning meeting, Biden listened to a procession of experts brief the president on a swath of policy changes, and eventually Biden tore into them for five excruciating minutes. This will never pass, we’ll get bogged down on it, and it will distract from everything else, he said, amazed that the room still couldn’t see what seemed obvious to him: They’d end up getting drubbed in the midterms with little or nothing to show for it. Obama shifted in his chair, his discomfort and impatience more obvious by the moment, as Biden’s voice rose to a yell. The president had already made his decision, and this wasn’t the cerebral way he wanted his policies determined.

Both Obama and Biden recognized the precariousness of the moment, but where the younger man saw opportunity for dramatic change that might yet shift the cynical culture of Washington and, more important, help Americans, the other feared his boss was missing a dire political reality. Biden came around once he saw that Obama wouldn’t be dissuaded. As the health-care push began in earnest, Obama took charge of the public-facing, political-slash-moral campaign and delegated vote wrangling to Emanuel, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Even as some conservative Democrats began to voice skepticism about the cause and whether they could support it, Obama mostly left them alone; he didn’t want to spend all his time schlepping to the Capitol or inviting thirsty lawmakers to the White House residence to hang out. And he was sure that when it came time to vote, the holdouts would come through for their party. He was unwilling to be the one to woo or strong-arm them so early, figuring his political influence should be held in reserve until it was absolutely needed.

Biden watched all of this with curiosity. His style of negotiation was different: Not only did he want a lot more face time with counterparties than Obama, but he also liked to start at a point of basic agreement and build, adding pieces that each side wanted. Obama, in contrast, usually started from his ideal spot and negotiated down to a place of mutual acceptance, and he didn’t much like doing it. Biden was starting to suspect that Obama didn’t enjoy negotiating — or members of Congress — at all. He wasn’t hanging around with guests at White House receptions, and he rarely had his former Senate colleagues over for strategy sessions. It was all stuff that Biden would’ve loved to do as president but that Obama thought was superfluous and, often, bullshit.

That summer of 2009, neither Obama nor Biden knew quite how to deal with the wave of organized conservative fury that arose in opposition to the health-care effort, as epitomized by Sarah Palin’s ludicrous but effective claims about “death panels.” The GOP pollster Frank Luntz had circulated a 28-page memo coaching the party’s representatives to describe the health-care plan as a “Washington takeover,” since “takeovers are like coups — they both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom. What Americans fear most is that Washington politicians will dictate what kind of care they can receive.” At one of their regular private lunches that year, Obama asked Biden how and why Republicans suddenly seemed to be in perfect lockstep against him. Biden gave an assessment that in time would become the conventional wisdom but then felt fresh: The sickness had begun with Newt Gingrich and his acolytes, who viewed comity with Democrats as per se unacceptable, and things had been worsened by reforms to the earmarking process and an explosion of outside money in politics. Obama listened and considered it all quietly. This was why he’d chosen Biden. But the explanation didn’t much alter his tactics.

As Washington got colder and negotiations with Capitol Hill dragged on, the senior White House staff gathered for strategy sessions and carefully went through a list of senators to make sure they knew where each one stood. Whenever they worried that one was wavering, they would turn to the front of the room and gauge Obama’s interest in engaging him or her. Quickly, they figured out that this wasn’t his preferred way to spend his time but that Biden was eager to be dispatched and he and Reid could coordinate an effective approach for his ex-colleagues. Biden managed to keep several wobbly centrists in the fold, calling them regularly to say he understood their political incentives.

Obama rarely drank in office, and Biden didn’t drink at all, but after the bill passed, the president gathered his VP and a small group of senior aides to celebrate over martinis in late March 2010. Obama was exhausted, and his outlook on the condition of Washington was calcifying, but that night his confidence was radiating and his glee was evident. Biden was downright impressed it had actually worked. This was the massive overhaul for millions of Americans that Democrats had been chasing since he was a baby. After Obama signed the bill into law at a public event, the pair walked off side by side, clasping each other’s backs, like nothing could separate them.

Ex-president and president in 2022. Photo: Adam Schultz/White House Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

If reality and opposition have a way of ambushing presidents, it’s up to them whether to adapt or bulldoze — or whether to learn any lessons at all. Fresh off his reelection in 2012, Obama put aside his planned remarks at a Cabinet meeting and began to riff. He predicted that they were entering a new era. If the vote had shown anything, it was that the politics of obstruction had failed, Obama said, and Americans wanted to see Washington drop pure partisanship and tackle important issues. He’d told donors that he thought “the fever may break” once he won again “because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that.” Now, he continued, it was time for his Cabinet to think big.

Obama didn’t know that he was about to embark on a five-month slide that would turn his hope into the purest cynicism anyone had ever seen from him. Obama usually hid his anger or expressed it in sarcasm, but after the Sandy Hook massacre that December, and the failure to pass gun-control legislation the following April, he seethed. If the murder of 20 little kids wasn’t going to jar GOP lawmakers into cooperation, they were never going to get serious and work with him on anything, were they? No, he concluded. Nothing had changed.

This was the great inflection point for Obama: He saw the political earth as salted. For Biden, however, it was instructive but not decisive. He saw that even the Republicans he considered reasonable were drifting away faster than he’d realized, but he still thought he could get more done across the aisle if given slightly more time and room to maneuver. In his eyes, there was no choice. Even before that December’s horror, Biden’s faith on this point had begun to irritate many of his fellow Democrats, some of whom suspected that the Washington lifer was more interested in process than substance. Reid, for one, had spent the first term privately dismissing the idea that Biden was Obama’s true Senate whisperer. Reid and Biden were friendly but had never been especially close, and Reid considered Biden both overly talkative and overly self-assured. He sometimes told friends about the time he and Biden had faced each other on a plane from Dallas to D.C. Looking at a clock above Biden’s head, Reid timed him speaking for three hours and 18 minutes of the three-hour-and-20-minute flight.

McConnell had a comically similar story about Biden. (The main differences were that the flight had two legs and landed in Raleigh.) But he at least could stand Biden, whereas he plainly disdained Obama, describing his negotiation sessions with the president as visits to the principal where he’d get a condescending lecture about how wrong he was before he could say a word. The dislike went both ways. Obama understood, correctly, that McConnell would never negotiate in good faith. There was little Obama hated more than the common D.C.-insider-crowd insistence that he’d get more done legislatively if only he’d socialize more in town. As he put it at 2013’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, “Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”

Biden didn’t like that joke. In the long list of Bidenisms, one of his favorites was his promise never to question his colleagues’ motives. He considered maintaining a good working relationship with McConnell an important part of his job. They disagreed on almost everything but thought they understood each other’s politics, even if Biden thought McConnell was overhyped as a tactician and McConnell considered Biden a bit buffoonish. The relationship rarely bore fruit, but it suited Biden and McConnell both; in 2011, Biden had even visited the McConnell Center in Louisville to give a speech about bipartisanship. To some in Obama’s inner circle, this was the whole problem. Biden fashioned himself too much of a conciliator, they thought, and McConnell — who in 2010 admitted his goal was to make Obama “a one-term president” — was playing him.

This conviction was hardly diluted by Biden’s insistence that the White House was always one deal away from breaking the obstruction. Yet in his negotiations, Biden was always clear that he wasn’t the final decision-maker — Obama was. That’s why he, too, was often frustrated: It was common to hear Biden gripe to his aides that Obama was missing opportunities on the Hill by refusing to talk to his former colleagues. “It’s like Obama is at a dinner table he’s never been at before and doesn’t know it’s appropriate to ask them to pass the salt,” he’d say in moments of candor. “There are just things he could do that he isn’t doing that are offending people. Obama’s view is they’re never going to move. But they’re people! They can be influenced!”

And in the final hours of 2012, it was Biden’s time to prove his point. The so-called fiscal cliff was looming — an ugly combination of painful slashes to government programs and tax increases that would automatically go into effect if the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress couldn’t agree on a fix. After weeks of wrangling, McConnell had walked away from Obama and Reid and — with barely a day before the deadline — asked for Biden. The VP was thrilled to oblige at this late hour, coming up with a plan with McConnell to maintain Bush-era cuts for people earning under $400,000 and to impose a small tax hike on the wealthiest Americans.

To many in the party, it was yet another handout to the rich and not worth pursuing if the alternative — going off the cliff — might make the public realize just how extreme the Republicans’ tactics had become. On Capitol Hill, liberals were incensed and some moderates struggled to understand why they shouldn’t hold out, figuring that McConnell had rolled Biden and that the Democratic Party would lose its leverage on pocketbook issues. Reid warned the caucus to treat Biden with respect but said he wouldn’t pressure them to go along with the VP. The measure passed — Obama wanted it to, and no one wanted to be blamed for yet another economic crisis — but Reid in particular struggled to move on.

Later that year, he listened, aghast, as Biden spoke up at an Oval Office negotiation that was intended to avert a government shutdown being forced by Senator Ted Cruz. “We don’t want you to lose; we want you to win,” the vice-president said to McConnell. He’d meant he wanted it all to be resolved in a way that was acceptable to the part of the GOP he could still deal with, but Reid called Obama after the session for some blunt talk. He still liked Biden, he said, but Obama needed to bar him from this negotiation. Reid knew he could call Republicans’ bluff and make the shutdown more politically painful for them than for Obama. The president listened as Reid continued: We can’t have Biden swooping in to make some deal with McConnell to reopen the government and let Republicans declare victory.

Biden thought this perspective misread their mandate. When they needed GOP cooperation to pass anything, or even to keep the government open, he had to engage his hyperactive deal-making mode. It would be a different conversation if Democrats had unified control of Washington with enough of a margin to pass whatever they liked, but they no longer did and he was skeptical of Obama’s faith in the power of public campaigning to create enough political pressure on the opposition to do much of anything. The real work had to happen between handshakes.

Obama agreed with Reid but stayed antsy and asked for regular updates. It took 16 days for the right-wingers to cave. Reid never let any of his aides disparage Biden in front of Obama. But the message he gave the president was the polite version of a refrain among some advisers in his office and some of the VP’s critics within the White House, too: “Biden’s too horny for a deal.”

It was impossible to miss how much space Obama took up in Biden’s mind as he began his own term as president. Biden was irritated by the idea, occasionally shared on cable and especially in some corners of the conservative press, that Obama had somehow carried him to electoral victory, that he was still pulling the strings, or that Biden would simply be Obama 2.0. Yet when he gathered aides for meetings in the Oval Office, Biden pointedly sat in the exact same spot Obama had for eight years, and for a while he referred to his predecessor’s accomplishments and remembered White House procedures as “the way we did it” in “our administration.” For his first few months in office, he spoke openly of learning the hard lessons of that tenure and leveraging them to far greater effect.

At the same time, he occasionally vented to allies that he was floored to learn how much of the Obama years’ progress had been unwound by Trump. He found himself occupied with the question of how to first restore it, then how to cement his own accomplishments to ensure they couldn’t be rolled back by the next Republican president. As a result, one of his most frequent contentions was that his administration had to be far more intentional about selling the stuff he was passing to keep it popular, a point he’d tried making to Obama about their first big bill back in 2009 — a stimulus to get the country out of the subprime-mortgage and financial crises, which they opted not to brag about as other crises arose.

He excitedly viewed the American Rescue Plan Act — his nearly $2 trillion COVID-targeted relief bill — as an opportunity to test the proposition. Biden welcomed the obvious comparisons to Obama’s stimulus, and he made sure the legislation was packed with purposely easy-to-understand and popular provisions designed to make an immediate impact. Shortly after it passed the House in late February 2021, he appeared virtually for a gathering of congressional Democrats and promised them that he wouldn’t repeat Obama’s error. “We didn’t adequately explain what we had done. Barack was so modest he didn’t want to take, as he said, a ‘victory lap.’ I kept saying, ‘Tell people what we did.’ He said, ‘We don’t have time. I’m not going to take a victory lap.’ And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility,” Biden recalled.

The American Rescue Plan’s passage was an almost ostentatious rapid-fire display of lessons learned. With the excruciatingly drawn-out Obamacare experience of 2009 and 2010 in mind, Biden took one meeting with Senate Republicans, listened to their proposal to cleave the plan to about a third of its size, and rejected it. One immense advantage Biden enjoys is that parliamentary norms have changed. Obama entered office in an era that demanded 60 votes in the Senate, but by now simple-majority legislating — the use of the once-obscure process known as reconciliation — is so common on major bills as to be unremarkable. Biden had embraced some progressive-policy aggression during the campaign, and he was unwilling to let Republican foot-dragging get in the way of progress if he didn’t need GOP votes in the first place. He also advocated for fitting as many programs as possible into this one bill. Biden was under no illusions that he could return to the drawing board for a second round of funding legislation if he needed to — another mistaken assumption more than a decade earlier. When the bill briefly appeared to be imperiled by last-minute hesitancy from Manchin, Biden called him directly and worked with Schumer to address his concerns, managing to keep all 50 Democratic senators onside.

It looked like Biden had cracked the governing code, improbably delivering the kind of widely celebrated change he’d campaigned on. But Biden’s bliss soon crashed. His chaotic exit from Afghanistan dovetailed with a resurgent COVID variant and ever more fevered Republican recalcitrance, and by late summer 2021, hardly anyone remembered the specifics of the relief bill Biden put so much stock into selling. The follow-up social-spending bill he proposed had a forbiddingly long road to being taken seriously by many lawmakers, let alone passing.

The parallels to Obama’s most frustrating moments were inescapable. Biden once liked to point out that McConnell had given a tribute to him on the Senate floor about their mutual trust and had even named a cancer-research-funding provision of a bill after Biden’s deceased son, Beau. Four months into Biden’s presidency, though, McConnell said that “100 percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” an echo of his 2010 pledge to ensure Obama served a single term. No one was too surprised a few weeks later when the third-ranking GOP senator, John Barrasso, raised the bar by arguing that Biden should be “a one-half-term president.”

At the same time, Biden was distracted by infighting on his own side with Democratic centrists threatening combat against progressives who wanted him to pursue even more massive social investments. For months, Biden seemed like both a victim of his own floridly set expectations of a new FDR-inspired era — an idea that blossomed back when he’d expected a more heavily Democratic Senate — and a man who could learn only so many new tricks as he approached the sixth decade of his life in elected office. Even among his supporters, it was possible to read Biden’s first 12 months as either a loose microcosm of the Obama years or, more likely, as their frustrating natural next step in the face of unrelenting right-wing attacks on the legitimacy of the democratic system itself.

Many around Biden didn’t know exactly how to feel this spring when Obama showed up at the White House for the first time since handing Trump the keys five years earlier. Biden understood that he simply wouldn’t be the center of anyone’s attention that Tuesday afternoon, and he settled into a familiar posture, half a step behind his former boss. When Obama stood at the microphones and promptly called the commander-in-chief “Vice-President Biden,” the sitting president waited half a beat before laughing rowdily, as if to signal to the cameras that he was in on the joke. Obama’s appearance was meant to be a mood booster, but not everyone in Biden’s immediate orbit found the gag all that funny, and some light grumbling about respect ensued within earshot of the White House press corps. Still, even the most fervent Biden loyalists seemed eager to soak in Obama’s nearly wistful glow for an afternoon to distract themselves from the president’s own sinking ratings and frustrations.

That was the context in which Obama watched his partner and successor on Martha’s Vineyard as the summer of 2022 began. They never spoke about what should come next — they still haven’t discussed 2024, as has been inaccurately reported. (Obama, though, is making initial plans to back candidates for governor and state-level offices that will administer that election.) But both have taken time to consider their joint and individual legacies, which sit at the edge of an anti-democratic abyss; each has privately admitted to feeling the weight of the moment as Trump acolytes amass primary wins and threaten the future of free elections.

As Biden’s polling sank on a Jimmy Carter–esque trajectory, it might have been reasonable to chalk up his initial legislative feats to a smart use of early but limited political capital — especially considering how quickly the Democratic coalition on the Hill then started to crack — and conclude all the other responsibilities of the Oval Office and the vectors of 2022’s unforgiving politics were simply swamping him. Yet that’s also why the climate-focused deal represented a genuine breakthrough for the 79-year-old president, who’d begun facing calls from some elected Democrats in Washington to retire. It appeared to reaffirm Biden’s essential approach to politics and his oft-contested theory of change: Dealmongering isn’t dead after all, no matter the president’s age or his political shortcomings and even if he isn’t the one directly negotiating the lines of legislative text. Presidents set the context.

Biden could well continue to suffer low approval ratings and the abandonment of factions of his party, even as he continues to deliver prizes of staggering scale. In late August, he said he would forgive hundreds of billions in student loans. Progressives complained loudly that he could have been even more generous; moderates expressed skepticism about the move’s political wisdom. It’s tempting to imagine what might have gone through Biden’s head after eight years at Obama’s side and now two on his own: Do you think the last Democrat would’ve done any better?

Who’s the Change Agent Now?