President Joe Biden speaks about the latest round of mass shootings, from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 2, 2022. Biden is attempting to increase pressure on Congress to pass stricter gun limits after such efforts failed following past outbreaks. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“I support the bipartisan efforts that include a small group of Democrats and Republican senators trying to find a way,” President Joe Biden said in his prime-time address on June 2, after articulating his preferred gun control measures. “But my God, the fact that the majority of the Senate Republicans don’t want any of these proposals even to be debated or come up for a vote, I find unconscionable.”

That passage captures what appears to be Biden’s inner conflict between his bipartisan hopes and his partisan impulses. For example, at his January press conference, Biden led by praising “the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill” he signed for its “record investment in rebuilding America.” Minutes later, the 79-year-old accused Republicans of “a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done.”

Just three days before his impassioned national address on guns, Biden characterized key Republicans not as “unconscionable” but as “rational.” In response to a reporter’s question about whether or not compromise with Republicans was possible, Biden offered, “I think there’s a realization on the part of rational Republicans—and I think Senator [Mitch] McConnell is a rational Republican; I think [Senator John] Cornyn is as well. I think there’s a recognition on their part that they—we can’t continue like this.” On the day before the address, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre indicated to reporters that Biden was taking a low-key approach to the bipartisan talks. She said, “He understands how these negotiations work. Sometimes, you have to give it a little space, so it has that quiet, so that congressional members, senators can work on the issue.”

Then suddenly, Biden was not quiet, pushing ideas not even being considered in the bipartisan talks, such as banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and then chiding Republicans for their opposition.

Does that mean Biden has derailed the negotiations? Soon after the address, The Washington Post quoted an anonymous “senior Republican aide” who said Biden’s speech was “unserious and hurts … He needs to get out of the way and be quiet.”

But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham—who has been participating in the bipartisan gun safety negotiations but has a penchant for pulling the proverbial football—suggested in a Twitter thread that he was staying at the table. However, he couldn’t resist a couple of digs: “I stand ready to vote on ALL the proposals mentioned by President Biden tonight and encourage the Democratic Leader to bring them forward for votes. I also stand ready to work across the aisle to find common ground—something that was absent from President Biden’s address to the nation.”

So long as Republicans aren’t looking for an excuse to walk away and point fingers, Biden’s jabs don’t change the fundamental dynamics. The lead Democrat, Senator Chris Murphy, has been clear that he’s prepared to accept a narrow bill to get the necessary Senate supermajority, writing at—a telling choice of forum—that “in order to find common ground, I will need to agree to a smaller set of reforms than I would prefer. I’m willing to pass incremental change, like tightening up our background checks system and helping states pass laws to allow law enforcement to temporarily take guns away from individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others. I’m also very supportive of providing more mental health resources to help young men in crisis and more funding to pay for security upgrades at our schools.”

Murphy’s parameters have substantial overlap with McConnell’s. On June 1, the Senate minority leader told reporters that he wants to “find a way forward consistent with the Second Amendment that targets the problem. And it seems to me there are two broad categories that underscore the problem, mental illness and school safety.” Critically, while Biden ticked off a far more expansive agenda, he said nothing to suggest that he wouldn’t sign a bill acceptable to McConnell.

If the talks do fall apart, the timing of Biden’s pugnacity will be second-guessed, even though the culprit will be Republican disinterest. After all, Republicans have proved capable of shrugging off Democratic political rhetoric, as they did to pass the infrastructure bill and raise the debt limit.

To my ear, Biden’s dichotomous tone is not a signal that he is putting the talks at risk but rather that he is hesitating to embrace his bipartisan side fully. The president could be campaigning in the midterms on how much he has done to work with the “rational” faction of Republicans and return functionality to Washington. Still, he continues to emphasize how Republicans throttled his larger ambitions.

Before you depict Biden as a frustrated bipartisan feebly forced into rank partisanship by the more strident progressives among his staff and in Congress, let’s not forget that he has long had a fighting side, particularly in election season. Biden enraged Republicans in 2012 when he told a heavily African American audience that Mitt Romney and the GOP would “unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put y’all back in chains.” Back in 2007, during a Democratic presidential primary debate, a Michigan voter submitted a question via YouTube video in which he displayed a menacing AR-15 rifle, called it his “baby,” and asked if the candidates would keep it safe; Biden lit up the Democratic crowd—and riled up any gun-toting Republicans watching at home—when he archly responded, “If that’s his baby, he needs help.”

A perennial tension in American politics is how to compromise with rivals while trying to defeat them at the ballot box. Still the tension within Biden is more glaring to the naked eye because so often, he has played the role of both dutiful negotiator and go-for-the-jugular campaigner.

Throwing elbows is easier when you are a primary candidate or a vice president. But Biden is the president, and he got to the Oval Office by pledging to be a unifying figure. If a bipartisan gun safety deal is struck, he’ll want the public to believe that it was forged because he set the proper tone, not that it happened despite his partisan tone.

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.