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Biden's week: COVID, a 'historic' agreement and the GDP

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Something surprising happened in Washington this week. The Democrats' agenda that looked stalled from the outside got a major boost with a deal between West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on what they are calling the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. For President Biden and Democrats, this badly needed good news comes with not much time before this fall's midterm elections. So is there still time for things to turn around for the president and his party? We're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: Tam, it has been a really busy week at the White House. Why don't you just start by telling us what happened?

KEITH: It started with the president stuck at home, stuck in the residence with COVID. But then things started to turn around. By midweek, he had tested negative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And now I get to go back to the Oval Office. Thank you all very much.

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: Then the bipartisan CHIPS and Science bill passed the Senate. By the end of the week, it had passed the House, too. And in the middle there, all of a sudden, Manchin and Schumer announced this deal on this big piece of legislation that includes reducing Obamacare premiums, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and a huge investment in clean energy paid for in part by tax changes for the wealthy and businesses. Now, we should say that this has to be passed with Democratic votes alone. And, you know, it's not done until it's done. The Democrats have the narrowest of margins, but even just being able to announce a deal was quite a breakthrough given the last year of back-and-forth and will-they-or-won't-they and winnowing of the ambitions of this plan.

SUMMERS: I think a lot of people were surprised by the timing here. I follow Capitol Hill pretty closely, and I certainly wasn't expecting this. Talk to us a little bit more about how this happened.

KEITH: Yeah, it looked very dead. So this was initially called Build Back Better, and it was President Biden's big, huge social spending initiative. The most recent that anyone had really heard was that Senator Joe Manchin had cold feet about rising inflation. Then all of a sudden, this deal was announced. And it had a new name, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. President Biden described it yesterday as a historic agreement to...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Fight inflation and lower costs for American families. It's called the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Some of you will see a lot of similarities between the beginnings of Build Back Better initiative. It's not all of it, but we've moved a long way.

SUMMERS: I am curious, Tam, then. Was this a surprise to the White House? Or how involved was the president?

KEITH: Well, the president wasn't involved at all, at least not directly. That's what Senator Joe Manchin told "Talkline" in West Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "TALKLINE")

JOE MANCHIN: I was not going to bring the president in. I didn't think it was fair to bring him in. And this thing could - very well could not have happened at all.

KEITH: Now, White House staff continued to stay in touch with Manchin's team. And, you know, for the president, it doesn't really matter if he had his sleeves rolled up doing the negotiating or whether the Senate Democrats came up with a deal that happens to give him a vast majority of the things that he had been talking about in recent months, including these climate provisions, which pencil out at about two-thirds of what he had been asking for since the beginning.

SUMMERS: And it strikes me, Tam, a lot of this is what President Biden campaigned on when he was candidate Biden. So it makes me wonder about the politics and what this could mean for Democrats who are heading into the November election cycle soon.

KEITH: President Biden's approval rating is very much underwater. Part of his problem, though, is Democratic frustration that he and Democrats in Congress were not able to do some of the things that he promised. Well, this would amount to him and Democrats in Congress doing some of what had been promised in the campaign. So that might relieve some of that pressure. And also, the one really big dark spot on the week for the president was these new GDP numbers that came out showing two quarters in a row of economic contraction. Whether you call it a recession or not, people are worried about the economy. They feel very uncomfortable with the amount that prices have risen. And for the president and for Democrats to be able to get out there on the campaign trail and in ads and say, we know you're worried about inflation; well, guess what; we've got something to address that - can't hurt.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Tamara Keith covering the White House. Thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.