President Joe Biden spent hours during his first foreign trip behind closed doors, attempting to reassure a shaken group of US allies that America was back. It was clear, he later told advisers, just how much work remained to convince them of the durability of that commitment.
Eighteen months after those meetings in Europe, Biden departed Washington on Tuesday for his year-end vacation, riding the momentum of historic legislative success and the defiance of political gravity that has reshaped the expectations for the critical months – and decisions – ahead. It’s a moment that Biden never seemed to doubt would come, even as his party – and some inside the White House – questioned or outright urged a change in approach to address political and economic headwinds driven primarily by soaring inflation that threatened to drag down his presidency.
During those 2021 meetings in England and Belgium, Biden found a group of allies genuinely shaken by the January 6 insurrection and the events that led to it. But the president tried to reassure them that the visceral divides that culminated in the violence that day would heal and the bleak moment in US politics would pass.
He was met with polite appreciation from his foreign counterparts. But the deep skepticism served only to underscore his commitment to a belief that sat at the heart of a pledge that was often pilloried during the campaign as naïve. The only real reassurance, Biden would note, was delivering on what he’d promised.
“That’s why it’s so important that I succeed in my agenda, whether it’s dealing with the vaccine, the economy, infrastructure,” Biden told reporters in Brussels shortly before he boarded Air Force One for a flight to Switzerland and a sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “It’s important that we demonstrate we can make progress and continue to make progress. And I think we’re going to be able to do that.”
The moment provided a brief window into the president’s high-stakes theory of the case – one that appeared exceedingly aspirational given his party’s narrow congressional majorities and staunch GOP opposition. But even as this year began, Biden and his team were grasping to break free of a series of crises and the cornerstone of his agenda – a sweeping bill that included numerous administration priorities – appeared in shambles.
Biden’s anticipated final major action before the end of 2022 serves as an almost poetic coda for his first two years. The $1.7 trillion bipartisan spending package he will sign will lock in key funding priorities and include an overhaul of the law his predecessor cited in the lead up to the January 6 riot.
The turn from aspirational goals to palpable accomplishments – highlighted over the last several months by Biden’s travel to major corporate groundbreakings in states like Ohio, Arizona and Michigan – underpins the sharp reversal for the White House. That turnaround serves as evidence of Biden’s steely belief in his strategies and policy proposals –an approach deeply rooted over his decades in public service.
“One thing that is foundational with him is if he says he’s going to do something, he does it,” Steve Ricchetti, one of Biden’s closest and longest-serving advisers, told CNN in an interview, underscoring an approach that has been defined by steady, and at times stubborn, persistence.
Simple as it may seem, a campaign promise or commitment has tipped internal debates on policy decisions more than once, one White House official noted.
Biden’s closest confidants also stress that it’s a perspective that is instructive as the White House prepares for the dramatically reshaped Washington that will confront him upon his return from his family vacation to the US Virgin Islands.
“The whole idea of showing people government can work – we were mocked for that in some corners,” a Biden adviser said. “That’s literally what’s happening now.”
There are still clear challenges ahead. Inflation remains high even if its grip appears to be easing. Biden’s advisers expect economic growth to slow in the quarters ahead, though they remain cautiously optimistic a recession can be avoided.
Biden’s approval ratings, while ticking up, remain low and his age remains a real, if less publicly addressed, concern held by Democrats as they wait for an official decision about whether he will seek reelection.
But Biden’s overarching approach has guided the early-stage planning for the legislative and political implications of a new House Republican majority and served as the basis for aides already working through the outlines of the State of the Union address that will come early next year.
It’s also a defining element of the structure and message planning of a nascent campaign that has taken shape over the last several months and accelerated. Biden’s senior team has become increasingly confident that a reelection campaign will be green lit in the weeks ahead.
White House officials view the political salience of his agenda as both an underappreciated element of their ability to defy the expectations of sweeping GOP gains in the midterms and as a critical piece of what comes next. The prospect of divided government – and the exceedingly narrow legislative pathway it brings – has limited effect on an agenda that is now in the implementation phase.
“It forms the foundation for even stronger achievements as the nation heads into the New Year,” Mike Donilon, the White House senior adviser and long-standing member of Biden’s inner circle, wrote in a political memo circulated to allies this month.
Biden, advisers said, has laid down strict directives to senior aides and Cabinet officials about the necessity of efficient implementation in the months ahead.
“It’s not subtle,” a senior administration official said of the message from the top. “We have to get it right and in the moments we don’t, we damn well be ready to explain it – and fix it.”
For Biden’s tight-knit and long-serving advisers, this is a moment that both vindicates and validates core elements of a campaign and presidency that at various points were dismissed, underestimated or at some points even mocked.
“A lot of people told him that this wouldn’t resonate, or that it wasn’t the message, or that it’s outdated,” Stef Feldman, the longtime Biden aide who served as the 2020 campaign policy director before following him to the White House, told CNN.
Biden viewed his infrastructure proposal, in particular, as a central policy plank of his campaign as Democratic primary opponents raced to outdo one another with transformational progressive proposals – none of which included a viable way to pass a bitterly divided Congress.
Biden and his economic advisers zeroed in on an intensive manufacturing and supply chain agenda that grew more aggressive and transformational as a once-in-a-century pandemic gripped the country. They saw it as the key to reverse the accelerants at the heart of the atmosphere that created the opening for Donald Trump to reach the Oval Office.
“This was the right moment for his theory of the case,” Feldman said. “He could apply the principles that have really guided him throughout his whole career.”
Those principles have largely stayed with Biden through his time as a senator and vice president and were refined during the critical two years spent out of office as he weighed yet another run for the presidency.
“Ever since I’ve talked to the president about the economy, he’s distinguished between the short-term and the long-term, between consumption and investment,” said Jared Bernstein, Biden’s chief economist as vice president who now sits on the Council of Economic Advisers. “These have always been foundational to his economic thinking.”
The animating principles of Biden’s 2020 campaign hardly diverged from the key themes outlined by Donilon, Biden’s in-house mind-meld, in the 22-page memo he drafted in early 2015 as the then-vice president weighed jumping into the 2016 race.
From think tanks to business schools to Davos, Biden took the role of a kind of middle class evangelist, pressing for the pursuit of policies that addressed short-term incentives that had driven jobs away and wages down. Those speeches and discussions served as a roadmap of sorts for an agenda that is now largely law. They detailed major infrastructure investments and a incentivizing research and development that had atrophied. There were broad outlines of nascent ideas to connect hollowed out manufacturing centers and communities to new opportunities. Biden proposed changes to the tax code that tracked near where his administration would eventually land as it sought to finance spending plans.
Even the anecdotes from the period – whether the one about Chinese leader Xi Jinping and American “possibilities” or his father’s sayings about the dignity of work, or the importance of “breathing room” – are the same that populate his speeches as president.
Ricchetti, who as counselor to the president helped lead the White House legislative effort, pointed to a clear “through-line” from Biden’s days as a senator, through his time as vice president and during the first two years of Trump’s presidency.
Biden wrote a book detailing his decision not to run for president as he dealt with the pain of his son Beau’s fight with, and eventual death from, brain cancer. That process and the book tour that followed are viewed by Biden’s inner circle as an essential experience in the eventual decision to run in 2020.
“Much of what we prioritized at that time we took with us and used as the foundation,” Ricchetti said of the years leading up to the campaign.
If the effort to turn that foundation into a coherent policy agenda was accelerated and expanded in the final months of the campaign, it was turbocharged during a transition that saw Democrats take control of the Senate majority.
Officials structured the infrastructure, manufacturing, research and development, climate and equity proposals into interlocking pieces, designed to work in tandem even if they were eventually scaled back during the legislative process.
“At the core of this strategy was that the power of it is that these things work together,” National Economic Council Chairman Brian Deese, one of the architects of the package, said in an interview.
What the proposals – particularly across industries and policy priorities tied to climate and manufacturing – also represented was a dramatic shift in what had become an entrenched, if not monolithic, economic orthodoxy. Biden would oversee the most consequential pursuit of an industrial policy strategy in decades. He’d do so in many cases with Republican support.
To be clear, subscribing to the term “industrial policy” still isn’t universally embraced. Even Deese, who has driven and defined its core elements, prefers “Modern American Industrial Strategy.” In its simplest form, it’s the idea that “if you do public investment in a thoughtful way, what you’ll actually do is crowd in private investment,” Deese said.
Deese likes to point out its roots in the American economy can be traced to Alexander Hamilton.
But the convergence of factors that led it to once again gain broader, and bipartisan, traction was in many ways tailor-made for Biden.
A resurgence in research and development funding. Significant public investments designed for critical areas of national and economic security. The elevation of labor unions and a focus on creating the conditions to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US.
On their face, these issues are politically popular and hardly exclusive to Biden. They’re also exceedingly difficult to turn into policy. At least until the pandemic.
“There’s a cost associated with industrial weakness,” Deese said. “The pandemic laid bare something that had been the case for years.”
That was true for semiconductors – the tiny chips essential for everything from cars and washing machines to advanced weapons systems – that drove the bipartisan urgency behind the $280 billion CHIPS and Science law. Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican up for reelection in 2022, drove the effort on Capitol Hill – something that underscored the salience of an issue that scrambled traditional political dynamics.
For Young, who had pressed for legislation tied to the issue in the year before Biden entered the White House, it was less about embracing a broader shift in economic policy and more about addressing the fact China had pursued exactly that for a decade or longer. Young was one of 17 Senate Republicans who voted to advance the eventual law that has driven new private sector investment or commitments in the last several months.
The pandemic. The rise of China as key feature of policy making in both parties. A president animated by the idea of long-term economic incentives crafted to connect workers and communities left behind for decades.
“These policy insights might not have come to fruition were it not for a confluence of events,” Bernstein acknowledged.
Ted Kaufman has a simple explanation for Biden’s approach and the places where it paid off after two years.
“There’s a confidence that comes from knowing what you’re doing,” said Kaufman, the former Delaware senator, longtime Biden Senate chief of staff and one of the president’s closest friends. “This is a guy who is so incredibly well qualified to be president because of experience.”
As to why that experience has rarely been rewarded by voters, Kaufman had another simple explanation.
“It’s hard because you have a record,” he said.
In a way it’s both an implicit acknowledgment of the unprecedented factors – most notably Trump, but in some ways the pandemic as well – that created an opening to the presidency for Biden. Another incumbent, or another moment, and advisers note that it wouldn’t be a question of if Biden would win. He wouldn’t have even run.
Instead, as he weighs running for reelection at age 80, he enters the final two years of this term with much of his agenda now law. Core elements of that agenda were driven by bipartisan consensus. Even Biden’s final bipartisan achievement of the year – the $1.7 trillion spending package – includes an initial $500 million to seed the technology and innovation hubs created by the CHIPS and Science Act in parts of the country outside of traditional tech sectors.
While Democrats narrowly lost their House majority in the midterm elections, the party expanded its Senate majority by a seat.
Perhaps most critically for Biden, the voters sharply reject some of the most extreme voices parroting 2020 election lies in critical races for governor and secretary of state.
In the months leading up to the midterm elections, Biden had started regularly recounting the experience with his foreign counterparts on that first foreign trip in an effort to underscore the stakes.
In the weeks that followed, after his travel to Indonesia for the G-20 Summit, he was ready to provide an updated version as he stood against the backdrop of a new factory in Arizona to celebrate the announcement by a Taiwanese chip maker of what would mark one of the largest foreign investments in US history.
“What was clear in those meetings is the United States is better positioned than any other nation to lead the world economy in the years ahead if we keep our focus,” Biden said.