Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks at Carnegie Mellon University at Mill 19 in Pittsburgh, Friday, January 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

On January 24, The Hill reported that, with the midterm elections on the horizon, President Joe Biden “is pivoting away from work with Republicans.” Elsewhere in The Hill on that same day was an article in which readers were told, “Democrats are eyeing turning their focus toward bipartisan bills.”

This contradictory reporting is understandable, considering the mixed messages coming from Biden. At his presidential press conference in January, after a reporter asked if he had “overpromised,” Biden said, “One thing I haven’t been able to do so far is get my Republican friends to get in the game of making things better in this country,” and “I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done.” A few minutes later, when another reporter stood and noted, “You haven’t been able to get some of these big legislative ticket items done,” Biden shot back, “Oh, I got two real big ones done. Better than any president has ever gotten in the first year.” Earlier, Biden had touted one of those big ones by name: the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Biden wants it both ways: He wants credit for breaking partisan gridlock, and he wants to tag Republicans for worsening partisan gridlock. But that doesn’t make for a coherent midterm message. Biden and the Democrats need to choose between selling a bipartisan success story or blaming Republicans and apostate Dems for screwing everything up.

You can understand why Biden attacks Republicans more than he applauds them. Even the most committed compromiser puts on the gloves in campaign season. Moreover, Democrats would like to take the ambitious ideas that hit a wall of Republican opposition in the past year and use them in November to stimulate turnout—ideas such as voting rights protections, paid family leave, and free community college. Running on such a platform requires drawing a clear and partisan contrast.

Yet this sharp-elbowed partisan strategy is out of whack with how Biden ran in 2020 and with what voters still want today.

In the 2020 presidential primaries, progressives scoffed at Biden’s repeated odes to bipartisanship. After he won the nomination and general election, some of those critics grudgingly acknowledged that his positioning was smart politics, at least for 2020. Following Biden’s January presser, The New Republic’s Alex Shephard argued that while “there was a political argument for indulging in this kind of fanciful talk” in 2020 when voters craved “a return to normalcy,” believing that Republicans would wake from “their fever-dreams and suddenly Congress would start working again” was “a theory that had no basis in reality.” Shephard praised Biden for slamming Republican obstructionism because “acknowledging the failure of bipartisanship is crucial to righting an administration that has, in recent months, gone badly off the rails.”

One problem with Shephard’s argument is that voters still want a return to normalcy. They want the pandemic to lift. They want prices to drop. And they want politicians to compromise.

In December, a poll from The Economist/YouGov found that 55 percent of voters want a congressperson who “compromises to get things done,” while 45 percent want one who “sticks to their principles, no matter what.” Well, you might say that’s just a slim majority, and appealing to the mushy middle by selling compromise won’t help energize the Democratic base. However, that majority is fueled by Democrats and liberals, as 76 percent of each camp takes the pro-compromise view. They are mostly joined by moderates (63 percent) and suburbanites (58 percent). The opponents of compromise are largely Republicans (35 percent) and conservatives (32 percent). 

This is not a fluke result. Various forms of the “compromise” question have been polled in the past 12 years, and almost every time—regardless of which party holds the most power in Washington—a majority of Democrats supports compromisers and a majority of Republicans does not.

Granted, as the political scientist John Sides explained in The Washington Post back in 2019, just because people support compromise “in the abstract” does not mean they will all readily “agree to any specific compromise.” In turn, upon taking control of the Senate and the White House in January 2020, Democrats understandably proceeded on the notion that the quality of policies they delivered mattered more than parliamentary procedures and roll call vote tallies. The Democratic push to roll back the filibuster this winter did not, in and of itself, put the party at odds with its compromise-friendly base; a January Economist/YouGov poll found 76 percent of Democrats (and 54 percent of all voters) believe that the filibuster does not “promote compromise” but instead “impede[s] passing the legislation.”

But now that filibuster reform has fizzled, Democrats must run on what they achieved. As Biden noted, that largely rests on the “two real big ones”: the partisan American Rescue Plan Act and the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In selling that record, Biden can either treat the infrastructure bill as a mere exception to the Republican obstructionist rule, which means Democrats must be kept in power if anything else is to come from Congress. Or he can tout the infrastructure package—a compromise measure that is also popular—as the strongest evidence that he got Washington to work again. With that, Biden can argue that if Congress is going to keep compromising and enact more popular bills, the current balance of power in Washington should be kept.

At a time when Biden’s job approval numbers are in the low 40s and Republicans beat Democrats in generic congressional ballot polls—on top of the fact that midterms typically go horribly for the president’s party—for Democrats to run on a strictly partisan message at odds with Biden’s declared goals of bipartisanship and compromise is a hell of a bet. 

Biden can make a better choice. When he declared victory in November 2020, he said, “The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make … And I believe that this is part of the mandate from the American people. They want us to cooperate. That’s the choice I’ll make.” Biden can now say he delivered on that mandate, not just by working with Republicans to pass the infrastructure bill, but also to avoid defaulting on America’s debt, to aid military veterans, and to ban imported Chinese goods made with forced Uyghur labor. All are bipartisan achievements that have often been ignored, not just by the media but also by Democrats reluctant to share the spotlight with their opposition. Yet the 117th Congress may not be done with bipartisanship: Talks between the two parties are currently under way to address election integrity and help America better compete with China.

The president has exceeded the low expectations most people held for bipartisanship, while failing to meet expectations regarding what he could accomplish with Democrats alone. Back in January 2021, Democrats nursed the fantasy that Biden would not only pass a sweeping voting bill but also enact statehood for the District of Columbia. But Senator Joe Manchin rejected both proposals and then, along with Senator Kyrsten Sinema, refused to suspend the filibuster to pass a scaled-back voting rights package. If Democrats manage to pass a Build Back Better bill, it will be much smaller and less expansive thanks to Manchin and Sinema. Biden did pass a one-year expansion of the child tax credit with only Democratic votes, as part of the American Rescue Plan, but he’s unlikely to replicate the feat. The temporary expansion has expired because of party disunity. Parents are already wondering where those checks went; why push a message that calls more attention to your failures than your successes?

Angry progressives seem to prefer talking about the failures. To praise bipartisanship is to praise a severe constraint on what they believe is necessary to accomplish; besides, they still believe it’s a chimera anyway. And quasi-excommunicating Manchin and Sinema, by calling for primary challenges in 2024, is a theoretical base motivator in 2022. Progressives would prefer to work toward a future in which Democrats have enough Senate seats to render Manchin and Sinema impotent and unnecessary. 

But midterm elections are always hard for presidents. Trying to win by spotlighting your own party’s circular firing squad, calling attention to the months wasted on a progressive wish list that died, in the hope that it will maximize progressive turnout, seems like a dubious strategy. The message “Next time, we promise to crush our moderate cucks and bring you the welfare state you always wanted!” appears to be a tough sell. All polling indicates that the electorate is presently primed to check presidential power by giving Republicans control of Congress, but at the same time still wants the parties to work together. That doesn’t seem like fertile ground for a strategy founded on echoing the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s views that they were right all along.

Fortunately, Biden can avoid this romanticization of defeat with some straight talk: The Democratic Party is a party with healthy respect for differences of opinion, while the GOP’s titular leader Donald Trump has mocked any Republican—including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who cooperates with Democrats or doesn’t pray in the direction of Mar-a-Lago.

The strongest Democratic message is one grounded in reality: If you give Democrats control of Congress again, we will continue to work with Republicans to the greatest extent possible and will try to deliver for the American public on our own when necessary. But if you give Republicans control of Congress, you will empower Donald Trump, who will use his bullying tactics to prevent the Republican leadership from cooperating with us, and grind government to a halt. 

Last year I wrote, “To avoid the usual midterm bloodbath, Democrats need to reverse the usual script, and remain unified while Republicans divide.” Venting about heretical Democrats and describing Washington as broken and incapable of bipartisanship lead in the opposite direction. Touting accomplishments not only helps Biden prove that he lived up to his campaign pledges, but it also spotlights a source of friction within the GOP. It has the added advantage of being true to who he is. Blasting Republicans—as well as Manchin and Sinema—for obstructionism is mere catharsis. It’s not strategy.

The mixed messages coming from Biden suggest that on some level he knows all this but doesn’t want to cross wires with his party’s vociferous partisans, who continue to chafe at the notion of political constraints. Nevertheless, a mixed message won’t do. Biden needs to pick a path. He can either run on his wins, or whine about his losses.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.