How Joe Manchin could derail the Biden presidency

From small-town boy to big-time senator, meet the man who controls Biden’s agenda

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Joe Manchin grew up in a small, brick house perched on a bend of Buffalo Creek in Farmington, West Virginia. It’s only a four-hour drive from Washington, but a world away in rural Appalachia.

The three-term Democratic US senator maintains a large and mythical presence in the tiny town of 350 people as he does in the nation’s capitol, where he holds President Joe Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda hostage.

The conservative Democrat stands in the way of sweeping legislation that seeks to make the US a leader in the global fight against climate change and bring major investments to Medicare, childcare and paid leave.

His constituents, whose economic and cultural ties are inextricably linked to coal, overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.

West Virginia is the second-largest coal producer in the US and the industry still employs about 14,000 people, a fraction of the more than 100,000 people it employed at its high point in the 1950s.

Mr Manchin not only has political interests in coal but business ones as well: he owns stock in Enersystems, a company he founded in the late 1980s, valued at between $1 million to $5m. His son, Joe Manchin IV, controls the company.

The senator opposes a key part of the president’s multitrillion-dollar climate and social reforms package.

The bill includes a $150 billion Clean Electricity Performance Programme, which encourages the transition to renewable energies by providing financial incentives and penalties to utilities who don’t.

The programme would directly impact West Virginia.

In an evenly split Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote, Mr Biden needs the support of all 50 Democratic senators to push his agenda forward, making Mr Manchin one of the most consequential and powerful politicians in Washington.

The 74-year-old’s reluctance to sign off on the president's bills has frustrated his Democratic colleagues.

“He is just one person. There are more of us who say, hell no will we allow the planet to burn,” tweeted congresswoman Rashida Tlaib.

Bernie Sanders, who is at the opposite end of his party’s political spectrum, wrote an op-ed in The Charleston Gazette urging West Virginians to support the $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” bill.

“This is a pivotal moment in modern American history,” Mr Sanders wrote. “We now have a historic opportunity to support the working families of West Virginia, Vermont and the entire country and create policy which works for all, not just the few.”

Deep and loyal roots

Pictures of Mr Manchin at various stages of his life line the family home he grew up in. The red brick house mirrors the senator's life in many ways.

Rooted in the small, working-class town of Farmington, it has expanded from a few rooms into a sprawling nine-bedroom home.

The home is owned by his sister, but Mr Manchin still has his own room at the top of the stairs on the second floor.

“I have seen with my eyes how hard he works tirelessly for the betterment of the people of West Virginia,” said Jaime Hall, Mr Manchin’s cousin, though she refers to him as “Uncle Joe”.

Ms Hall lives next door to Mr Manchin's childhood home, in a house built by the senator's great-grandparents.

She said the family's working-class values shine through Mr Manchin.

“You do what's right for the person — it doesn't matter what party they are.”

The Manchin family dominates Farmington, a town so small it has only one stop light. A portrait of Mr Manchin’s grandfather hangs over a large brick building near the entrance to town, where his grocery store used to be.

A block farther down, the Manchin Clinic, a medical facility run by the senator’s brother, stretches over two blocks, effectively to the edge of town.

“I think the people that are badmouthing him are the people that don't know him deep down, don’t know where he came from,” said Elizabeth Born, who lives within eyesight of the Manchin family home in Farmington.

“He came from hard-working, good people.”

While the Manchin name is synonymous with Farmington, not everybody in town has shared in the family's success. At the Family Dollar store across the street from where the Manchin family grocery store once stood, many employees work for less than $10 an hour.

“I would like him if he raised the minimum wage,” said one employee.

Mr Manchin derailed Mr Biden’s hope of raising minimum wage across the country to $15 an hour when he voted against including it in the Covid relief package passed in March.

In Morgantown, perhaps the most liberal enclave of the deeply Republican state, students at West Virginia University question Mr Manchin’s outsize role in Washington.

“It's really not fair,” Enrique Herrera, 20, said of Mr Manchin’s refusal to sign off on the president's legislation.

“It's not right.”

Mr Herrera said the senator’s views on climate change are “stuck in the past".

Many Democrats in Washington would agree.

The party, which holds the White House, Congress and, in theory, the Senate, is in a position to make generational impacts but as of now, Mr Manchin is preventing that from happening.

“I think for a lot of Democrats, he could have huge significance, if he erodes the ability of the party to use their perhaps one shot to actually deal with some of these issues,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University.

For the time being, Mr Manchin appears unwilling to envision a world without coal, whose black veins run throughout the mountains of West Virginia and fuelled its economy for over a century.

Professor Zelizer said that while Mr Manchin occupies a significant position in Washington today, it may not last for long.

“Sometimes, the people who play this role — obstacles, mavericks, whatever you want to call them — can emerge as kind of famous figures with a big legacy,” he told The National.

“On the other hand, they can come and go, this is their moment, we don't really hear much more from them.”

Updated: October 20, 2021, 3:15 PM