'Head-Spinning': John Fetterman’s Breaks With Joe Biden Confound Some Democrats

WASHINGTON – When Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) ran for Senate, he promised voters that he would be a loyal member of the Democratic team, lambasting senators who broke with President Joe Biden’s agenda. 

“Does anyone in this room fashion themselves a Joe Manchin Democrat?” Fetterman asked the audience at an April 2022 Democratic primary debate, referring to conservative Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has blocked some of his party’s top legislative priorities. 

When no hands went up in the audience, Fetterman said, “I’m grateful that Joe Manchin is a Democrat, but if I were your Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, I’ll never be that vote that holds important stuff up from getting done.” When his chief rival, former Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), sought to tie Fetterman to progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Fetterman praised Sanders for sticking with Biden “as opposed to Joe Manchin.”

Fetterman, now in his sophomore year in the Senate, has been true to his word about being a reliable Democratic vote in the Senate. But his attacks against members of his own party and public breaks with the White House are drawing comparisons to Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), the two signature Democratic party apostates of the moment, putting on display some of the very tendencies Fetterman said he opposed — even if earlier stages of his career hinted at his current behavior.

This version of the gruff, hoodie-wearing, 6-foot-8 Pennsylvania senator has grated on progressives who supported him during his 2022 run for Senate and even some fellow Keystone Democrats who watched his rise to national prominence. 

“There is a head-spinning quality to it,” Lamb, who lost to Fetterman in their Senate primary, said in an interview with HuffPost. “We were in so many of the same rooms during the campaign trail, in which he repeatedly said he would never be [West Virginia Sen.] Joe Manchin.”

“He seems to be finding common cause with Joe Manchin, or at least acting like it,” Lamb added. “It’s so different from the person he presented as on the campaign trail.”

Fetterman is winning admiration from the right as he bucks his party on key issues.
Fetterman is winning admiration from the right as he bucks his party on key issues. Nathan Howard via Getty Images

In the six months since Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, and throughout the brutal assault on Gaza that followed, Fetterman established himself as perhaps Israel’s most loyal and outspoken Democratic ally. For a long time, his loyalty to Israel put him on the same side of the issue as Biden. 

But as the president has amplified his criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government and other Democratic senators have begun exploring ways to hold Israel accountable for civilian deaths in Gaza, Fetterman’s stances have increasingly become outliers. 

He has firmly rejected calls for a cease-fire, opposed conditioning U.S. support for Israel if it doesn’t allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and has defended Israel’s plans for expanding its military campaign into more civilian areas, which Biden has warned against.  

On CNN recently, Fetterman urged Biden not to “capitulate to the fringe” in his party when it comes to Israel and said he didn’t agree with the president telling Netanyahu that the U.S. would not participate in a retaliatory operation against Iran after it launched hundreds of drones to attack Israel. 

“I think it really demonstrates how it’s astonishing that we are not standing firmly with Israel,” Fetterman said, echoing Republican criticism of Biden’s handling of the situation.

That kind of talk has earned Fetterman plenty of criticism from the left. One post on the Daily Kos, a progressive news blog, even called him “the new Sinema.”

The comparison has some merit. While Fetterman no longer considers himself a progressive after clashing with left-wing protesters over Israel, he remains well to the left of Sinema and Manchin ideologically. At the same time, Fetterman rarely seems to be coordinating with his fellow Democratic senators, striking out on his own in a manner similar to Sinema, who famously spends far more time socializing with her Republican colleagues than with her ostensible allies. 

“Imagine that, talking to colleagues — cats and dogs living in sin? It’s outrageous,” Fetterman deadpanned when asked about his relationships with Republican senators during an interview with HuffPost.

In some ways, Fetterman’s behavior was predictable. While he oversaw the Pennsylvania Senate as the state’s lieutenant governor, he made little effort to schmooze with even the Democratic senators in the chamber. And his unapologetic support for gay rights and marijuana legalization showed how he easily brushes aside critics.  

And like Sinema, he’s won admiration from the right.

“I respect the fact that he doesn’t just do what the party tells him to do,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who often breaks with his own party. “He speaks his mind and, frankly, speaks common sense. I think he’s shown flexibility at the same time — an independence that is badly needed in a Washington world.”

Fetterman holds a small Israel flag as he heads to the Senate chamber for a vote at the Capitol in Washington. He has established himself as perhaps Israel’s most loyal and outspoken Democratic ally.
Fetterman holds a small Israel flag as he heads to the Senate chamber for a vote at the Capitol in Washington. He has established himself as perhaps Israel’s most loyal and outspoken Democratic ally. via Associated Press

To Fetterman, however, being critical of Biden’s Israel policy doesn’t mean he is any less supportive of Biden’s campaign for reelection. He also doesn’t think calling out Biden over Israel will harm his odds against Trump in the November presidential election, a bit of a reversal from when he said in February that those questioning Biden’s age and ability to serve a second term would only help Trump win.

“I have my view, and anyone else can have their view, and that’s perfectly reasonable. I don’t know why that’s controversial one way or another,” Fetterman said when asked about breaking with Biden on foreign policy.

When he ran for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania back in 2018, Fetterman, then a longtime mayor, cast himself as a progressivefighter in the mold of Sanders, whose 2016 presidential bid Fetterman endorsed, aligning himself with the left on things like universal healthcare and income inequality. Sanders returned the favor a few years later, endorsing Fetterman and rallying on behalf of his campaign for lieutenant governor in Philadelphia.

As lieutenant governor, Fetterman won national acclaim for his focus in office on promoting clemency for convicted criminals, marijuana legalization and LGBTQ rights — issues he has continued to champion while serving in Washington. His progressive stances won him national headlines, and he even landed a side gig as a commentator on MSNBC. 

His break from the progressive wing of his party began when he ran for the Senate in 2022. He ran as a supporter of fracking, a key issue in his state, opposed lifting pandemic-era border restrictions and came out against the reinstatement of a mask mandate in Philadelphia. He also laid out his staunch support for Israel, which developed after the antisemitic attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a shooter killed 11 people.

“I’m not really a progressive in that sense,” Fetterman told Jewish Insider ahead of the Senate primary that year, vowing to “lean in” on bolstering ties between the U.S. and Israel if he came to Washington. 

And lean in he has, especially after the deadly Oct. 7, 2023, attack on Israel by Hamas. He’s made a habit of confronting pro-Palestinian protesters, calling them out via social media, where he also regularly voices his disagreements with the Biden administration’s moves on Israel.

Earlier this year, he rejected the label of progressive entirely, even though he is still aligned with progressives on many key issues.

Despite his moves to the ideological center, Fetterman’s primary race against Lamb in 2022 was often cast in the press as a clash between the progressive left and the Democratic Party establishment. Lamb, a Blue Dog centrist, spent his two terms in the House often straddling party lines. On the campaign trail, he had to battle against the impression he would follow in the footsteps of Manchin, who at the time was busy wrecking Democrats’ biggest legislative ambitions.

Reflecting on the matchup against Fetterman now, Lamb still has some misgivings. 

“The spirit of the person he campaigned as is very different,” Lamb said. “I don’t understand what’s driving it. If I was someone that voted for him — and I did in the general election — but if I was one of his original supporters, I’d be disappointed.”

Fetterman speaks during a news conference on the debt limit at the U.S. Capitol. Since running for the Senate in 2022, he has broken from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Fetterman speaks during a news conference on the debt limit at the U.S. Capitol. Since running for the Senate in 2022, he has broken from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Alex Wong via Getty Images

Fetterman’s sophomore year in Congress has been quite different from when he first began stomping around the Senate in a pair of shorts and Hoka shoes, scaring the living daylights out of the chamber’s stodgy traditionalists. For one, he’s much more eager to engage with reporters in the hallways of the Capitol despite still exhibiting symptoms of an auditory processing disorder resulting from a stroke. When asked a question, he opens a transcription service on his iPhone that helps him understand and respond with a buzzy quote quickly. 

More often than not, he’ll use the opportunity to take unprompted hits against Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), whom he belittles as “gold bar Bob,” a reference to allegations that the senior New Jersey Democrat accepted bribes from foreign governments, including gold bars that were found at his home. When he spots Menendez walking to vote in the Senate, he’ll yell at reporters to chase him and press him on his legal troubles. 

Such in-your-face tactics are rare in the halls of the Senate, where members pride themselves on collegiality. It’s even rarer for it to occur between two members of the same party. But that’s part of Fetterman’s appeal to senators on both sides of the aisle.

“Fetterman shakes this place up a little. And it needs some shaking up,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another progressive who campaigned for Fetterman in 2022. 

Sanders, meanwhile, declined to comment for this story. He and Fetterman are on opposite sides of the Gaza debate, with the Vermont senator pressing for the end of U.S. aid to Israel unless it alters its military campaign. 

Fetterman rarely spends time on the Senate floor. And despite Democrats’ rule change last year allowing senators to wear non-formal attire in the chamber, he prefers to vote by ducking only his head and arm through its doors. He also rarely attends caucus lunches, where senators break bread together and discuss party strategy. Still, he says he’s enjoying his time in the Senate, even if progress on passing legislation like U.S. aid to Ukraine has been slow. 

“This is what I signed up for,” he told HuffPost. “I’m grateful to be here today.”

Manchin, who often splits with Biden, said he’s been impressed to see Fetterman in action, pointing to his shifts to the right on issues like energy and immigration. 

“I think he’s an honest, truthful voice,” Manchin said. “Some of [his] views, I think you’ve seen, are practical views. I’m happy to see that.”

“A lot of the positions I’ve been taking have sometimes been lonely. It’s great to have John confirming them,” he added.