Biden's low profile in debt crisis -- failure or clever strategy?

·4 min read
US President Joe Biden is keeping to a mostly behind-the-scenes role in the US debt ceiling talks
US President Joe Biden is keeping to a mostly behind-the-scenes role in the US debt ceiling talks

Where's Joe Biden?

As the United States teeters on the edge of self-inflicted economic calamity, the question is echoing around Washington.

Republicans and Democrats tried frantically on Friday to close a deal ahead of next week's potential US debt default deadline. Biden's schedule, however, featured hosting champion men's and women's college basketball teams at the White House, before heading out for the weekend.

So is Biden really missing in action on possibly the biggest economic crisis of his presidency? Or is he a quiet assassin cleverly weaving strategies from behind the scenes?

The jury is out.

In Congress, usually loyal Democrats have spent the week complaining to US media that Biden has gone AWOL, that he's failing to bully from the bully pulpit, and that Republican congressional leader, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, is winning the public relations battle.

"It's time to bring the president off the bench -- or bring somebody off the bench," Politico quoted a disgruntled House Democrat saying. "We have the Oval Office. I've never seen anything like it."

Blunter still, another Democratic lawmaker told CNN: "The White House communications strategy is an atrocity."

"Where's the president? Is he in an undisclosed location?"

A jet-lagged Biden met with McCarthy in the Oval Office on Monday, right after flying in from the G7 in Japan.

Since then, however, he's been either invisible or dealing with other things -- like Friday's events with the basketball players.

On Thursday, at a ceremony to present an Air Force general as his nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Biden did give an update on the debt crisis, but the remarks lasted barely three minutes.

- Outplayed by McCarthy? -

The shape of a deal reportedly emerging would require significant concessions from the Democrats.

They'd bow to Republican demands to limit spending on an array of programs just so that the debt ceiling could get lifted -- something done for decades unconditionally.

That's something Biden long insisted he did not want to let happen.

Polls also show voters blaming all sides for the mess, ignoring Biden's message that Republicans have been uniquely reckless, taking the economy hostage to force their politically motivated spending cuts.

And McCarthy, meanwhile, appears to be flourishing.

The Republican speaker's regular television appearances and press conferences contrast starkly with the president's quieter style. Even more surprising, McCarthy had until now been widely seen as having limited clout in his own party, which is dominated by an unruly, hard right wing.

"There are many ways to measure Joe Biden's decline, political and otherwise, but here's one that's unexpected: One of the weakest House speakers in living memory is running rings around him in a high-stakes negotiation," conservative writer Charlie Sykes wrote in The Bulwark.

"We'll have to wait a bit to determine whether, in fact, this really is a rout. But it highlights a puzzle and a problem: Why isn't Joe Biden using his bully pulpit?"

- Been there, done that -

Biden has an answer to that.

At 80, with four decades in the Senate and eight years as a vice president, he wants Americans to remember that he knows what he's doing.

Even if sometimes that means -- in public at least -- doing less.

Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre calls the strategy a matter of giving the negotiators -- members of Congress and White House staffers -- "the space and the time."

As for the Republican claim that Biden has been refusing to engage, that's "a fake narrative," says Hakeem Jeffries, leader of the Democratic minority in the House of Representatives.

Biden has previously pulled major legislative rabbits out of the hat in his two years as president -- and then too he adopted his largely behind-the-scenes role. So he may yet have the last laugh.

Some see his ceding of the spotlight to McCarthy not as a sign of weakness but a clever way to flatter the recently installed speaker.

Even the Friday basketball event at the White House included evidence of Biden's soft power approach: among the sports-mad audience was one of his main negotiators, Shalanda Young and also top Republican negotiator Garret Graves.

Biden says he has no regrets.

"I've done my part," he told reporters last week.

But he said he also accepts the difficult reality of politics.

Even if "on the merits" he would be "blameless" for a default, "presidents are responsible for everything," he said.