President Joe Biden returned to CNN for another town hall amid slumping poll numbers, the continued Covid pandemic and drawn out negotiations for his Build Back Better agenda.
Biden, though, came across with a sense of confidence that he’d get his legislative cornerstone passed — with a bit of irreverence and a reality check.
“Look, in the United States Senate, when you have 50 Democrats, every one is the president,” Biden said, as he made pretty clear that two of them, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) were the reason that a $3.5 trillion plan would be something much smaller.
“It’s all about compromise,” Biden said.
The 90-minute town hall, far more than the past two for the network, got into much more of the nitty gritty details of negotiations and what’s possible — certainly not ideal for the Democratic coalition but one that Biden is accustomed to from his years on Capitol Hill. At one point he quipped that he was “a senator for, like 370 years,” while insisting to host Anderson Cooper that this wasn’t even the most difficult negotiation he’s been involved in. (That was the assault weapons ban).
Biden confirmed a lot of the reporting over the past few days: Gone is the plan for two years of free community college, a centerpiece of his election campaign. Also out is 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, now down to four weeks. And while he denied that a centerpiece of his climate agenda was out, in which polluters would have to pay a penalty if they don’t reduce the amount of carbon they use, he said that he’s working with Manchin to try to find another route with tax incentives.
“Joe is open to my convincing him,” Biden told Cooper.
In fact, during the 90 minutes, Biden got into enough of the details of the legislative sausage making taking place that CNN senior White House correspondent Phil Mattingly tweeted, “spent 72 hours on endless calls digging out detail after detail on private meetings and it turns out Biden was just going to lay them all out in the A block of the town hall…”
Biden also confirmed that the legislation likely won’t be able to include raising of the corporate tax rate or those on high income individuals because of Sinema’s opposition. That has left them looking at other ways to pay for the plan.
That’s surely disappointing for progressives, who see the bill as perhaps the last best chance to pass their agenda until the midterms, and perhaps for years afterward. One advocacy group, Climate Power, ran an ad during the town urging passage of the bill, even if it may have been a bit of preaching to the converted.
Biden actually joked that his wife, Jill, a community college professor, was none too pleased when he told her that the free-tuition proposal was dropped. “The White House has a lot of bedrooms, and she went like this,” Biden said, his hand pointing in the direction of, “Down the hall.”
Yet Biden was confident that there will be a bill.
“Are you close to a deal?” Cooper asked him.
“I think so,” Biden responded.
Biden’s beating in the polls, starting with the mid-summer uptick in Covid cases due to the Delta variant, followed by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and, in recent weeks, the protracted efforts to reach agreement on his agenda has fed into a narrative that his administration is on the cusp of failure and Democrats headed for electoral disaster.
Yet Biden excels at the town hall format, which allows him to interact with “average people,” non-journalists who tend to ask more questions about policy than process. It’s an opportune time for the White House, which has been criticized for its messaging over the Build Back Better agenda. Earlier on Thursday, CNN analyst David Gergen wondered why the administration wasn’t doing better on that front.
On MSNBC, Chris Hayes was focused on the House vote to hold Steve Bannon in contempt, while Fox News featured Tucker Carlson opening his show tossing a truckload of red meat to his audience with a tirade on “The Madness of King Biden.”
During a CNN commercial break, advocacy group Climate Power ran an ad pushing voters to compel “Congress to pass the Build Back Better Act” – which really was preaching to the converted in this case.
Yet even if Biden sales pitch may have been muddled at moments during the down hall, he didn’t display much of any sign of pessimism, and seemed to relish a bit in some of the opposition.
“I turn on Fox to find out how popular I am. I think I am at 3% approval,” Biden said, before repeating what he has said before of some of the network’s conservative hosts who have blasted him for his vaccine mandates.
“You know, they mandate vaccinations? I find that mildly fascinating.” (In fact, the policy requires employees to provide proof of vaccination or submit to daily testing.)
He also gave them a bit of material when he was asked about the flow of migrants to the southern border. “I’ve been there before, I know it well. I guess I should go down,” Biden said, while noting that he’s been consumed with other priorities.
As much as his agenda remains in a bit of uncertainty, Biden did predict that it would be transformative, even if so much of the media attention in the past few days has been on what has been taken out of the Build Back Better bill, not what will remain.
At the end, Cooper reminded him of the 2010 signing ceremony for the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, when Vice President Joe Biden whispered to President Barack Obama that the legislation was a “big f—ing deal.”
Cooper asked, “The Build Back Better plan. Is it a bigger f—ing deal than that?”
“I would say that this is a bigger darn deal,” Biden said.