White House Rudderless, Aimless, and Hopeless?
Some Democrats are less than pleased.
A CNN report headlined “After string of Supreme Court setbacks, Democrats wonder whether Biden White House is capable of urgency moment demands” seems at first to be yet another “Democrats in Disarray!” story. Indeed, the lede had me rolling my eyes.
Debra Messing was fed up. The former “Will & Grace” star was among dozens of celebrity Democratic supporters and activists who joined a call with White House aides last Monday to discuss the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
The mood was fatalistic, according to three people on the call, which was also co-organized by the advocacy group Build Back Better Together.
Messing said she’d gotten Joe Biden elected and wanted to know why she was being asked to do anything at all, yelling that there didn’t even seem a point to voting. Others wondered why the call was happening.
Seriously? Debra Fucking Messing is upset? Who cares?
They should have led with this:
Top Democrats complain the President isn’t acting with — or perhaps is even capable of — the urgency the moment demands.
“Rudderless, aimless and hopeless” is how one member of Congress described the White House.
Two dozen leading Democratic politicians and operatives, as well as several within the West Wing, tell CNN they feel this goes deeper than questions of ideology and posture. Instead, they say, it gets to questions of basic management.
That . . . seems concerning.
More than a week after the abortion decision, top Biden aides are still wrangling over releasing new actions in response, despite the draft decision leaking six weeks earlier.
White House counsel Dana Remus had assured senior aides the Supreme Court wouldn’t rule on abortion that day. A White House press aide assigned to the issue was walking to get coffee when the alert hit. Several Democratic leaders privately mocked how the President stood in the foyer of the White House, squinting through his remarks from a teleprompter as demonstrators poured into the streets, making only vague promises of action because he and aides hadn’t decided on more.
Then, Biden’s July 1 meeting with governors to talk about their efforts to protect abortion rights was planned so last minute that none of those who attended came in person, and several of those invited declined to rearrange their schedules to appear virtually.
So, on the one hand I agree that the administration should have had a response to the inevitable abortion decision ready to go. There’s really no excuse for that given that the outcome was more than likely a year ago when the case was put on the docket and essentially a certainly once Alito’s draft was released. On the other, as I noted the last time we got “Dems in disarray on abortion” reports, there’s only so much Biden can do here. Not only is he personally not all that enthusiastic about the issue but he’s got a 50-50 Senate and no support to break the filibuster. Indeed, he likely lacks 50 votes to do much of anything on the issue. Further, a hostile Supreme Court would almost certainly swat any executive orders down.
But the frustration seems to go well beyond abortion:
Multiple Democratic politicians who have reached out to work with Biden — whether it’s on specific bills, brainstorming or outreach — often don’t hear anything back at all. Potential appointees have languished for months waiting to hear if they’ll get jobs, or when they’ll be done with vetting. Invitations to events are scarce, thank you calls barely happen. Even some aides within the White House wonder why Biden didn’t fire anyone, from the West Wing or at the Food and Drug Administration, to demonstrate some accountability or at least anger over the baby formula debacle.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
I honestly don’t know how reasonable the complaints about returned phone calls and thank yous are. Everything I know about Biden points in the direction of him being incredibly affable and good at this sort of thing even by A-level politician standards. And he’s probably the most empathetic guy in politics. But he’s got kind of a busy job these days.
Are these just a few miffed people with unreasonable expectations? Is he getting overwhelmed by the stresses of a job known to kick the asses of men 20 years younger? Is his health deteriorating?
Inside the White House, aides are exhausted from feeling forever on red alert, batting at a swarm of crises that keeps growing — enough for White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to make an offhand joke about the constant “eleventh hour” decision-making in the building when under fire at a recent daily briefing.
Several officials say Biden’s tendency to berate advisers when he’s displeased with how a situation is being handled or when events go off poorly has trickled down the ranks in the West Wing, leaving several mid-level aides feeling blamed for failings despite lacking any real ability to influence the building’s decision-making. That’s contributed to some of the recent staff departures, according to people familiar.
That’s . . . not good. Rumors about this kind of behavior helped derail Amy Kloubuchar’s presidential run (not that she had much of a chance, anyway). Then again, Biden is known to be both hot-tempered and caring with staffers. A NYT profile from last May (“Beneath Joe Biden’s Folksy Demeanor, a Short Fuse and an Obsession With Details“) describes his style this way:
Mr. Biden is gripped by a sense of urgency that leaves him prone to flares of impatience, according to numerous people who regularly interact with him. The president has said he expects to run for a second term, but aides say he understands the effect on his ability to advance his agenda if Republicans regain power in Congress next year.
He never erupts into fits of rage the way President Donald J. Trump did. And the current president rarely exhibits the smoldering anger or sense of deep disappointment that advisers to Mr. Obama became familiar with.
But several people familiar with the president’s decision-making style said Mr. Biden was quick to cut off conversations. Three people who work closely with him said he even occasionally hangs up the phone on someone who he thinks is wasting his time. Most described Mr. Biden as having little patience for advisers who cannot field his many questions.
That would be frustrating to deal with as a staffer, especially since the sort of folks who are in the room with the President are high-achievers with egos. It’s frankly not right. But it’s understandable given the pressures of the office. Even the Vulcan-like Obama exhibited the tendency. Again, it’s a high-pressure job.
Back to the CNN report:
Democrats worry the lack of decisions and authority are deepening their own midterm problems and feeding a sense that the President couldn’t truly handle the extra complications of a run for reelection in 2024 — and along the way, reinforcing narratives that he’s an old man not fit for the moment.
The President who campaigned on putting America back together again after four years of deep divisions appears to have stopped trying, supporters say.
“There’s no fight,” another Democratic member told CNN. “People understand that a lot of this is out of his hands — but what you want to see is the President out there swinging.”
So, I’m frustrated by anonymous complaints about the President’s leadership. I understand why fellow Democrats won’t their names on the line here but it can leave readers with the impression that the complaints are more widespread and high-level than they may actually be. It’s one thing for Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to be frustrated with Biden. It’s quite another if it’s Bernie Sanders or members of the Squad.
Biden came to office hoping that he could use the skills that served him so well for decades in the Senate and eight years as Veep to reach across the aisle and get things done. I had some small hope that at least a handful of his old friends in the Senate would be amenable to that. We were, it seems, naive. Or at least blind to just how deep the rot was in the Republican caucus. Regardless, there are essentially no Republican votes for much of anything he wants to do. Hell, he can’t even get Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema on board.
A year and a half in, the Biden administration is struggling to untangle supply chains and tackle soaring inflation— which is by far the biggest problem facing Democrats up and down the ballot in November.
“It’s got to look like you’re taking actions,” said California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna. “Any economist who says the President shouldn’t do anything on the economy should be fired. They can be at a think tank, they can be a professor. But they shouldn’t be at the White House.”
“There’s not a frontline office out there that isn’t frustrated with the lack of action coming from the White House on inflation,” one aide told a member fighting to hang onto an endangered seat. “At the very least, the President should get caught trying to bring prices down just about every day.”
So, from my outside perspective, it looks like Biden is indeed taking constant action to try to deal with the supply chain, gas prices, and the like. I don’t think there’s anyone in the White House telling him he “shouldn’t do anything.” But, as Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter learned, there’s only so much the President can do to impact global economic forces. Indeed:
White House aides say that is exactly what they are doing. In the past few months, the administration has announced a historic release of oil from the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve, invoked the Defense Production Act to address baby formula shortages, and even floated a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax.
But none of these moves have solved the problems: The baby formula shortage persists, inflation remains high and gas prices, though slightly down from their high, are still hovering close to $5 a gallon.
Biden’s support of a gas tax holiday was the subject of months of deliberations among officials — many of whom were against it and privately suggested it was a purely political step to show initiative on gas prices, and only recently put the question in front of Biden directly.
“It had the appearance of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks,” one official said privately.
Well, yeah. But, again, you can’t have it both ways. Either the President is supposed to give the appearance of doing everything in his power to fix the economic problems that voters are anxious about or he’s not. And, given that the forces are largely outside his control, most of those things are in fact going to be theater.
Sources also say that decisions in the White House are getting bottlenecked, as veteran advisers urge Biden to take the long view, rather than focus on fast responses. Few are trying, and even fewer succeeding, in pushing back against Biden’s infamous inability to settle on decisions, on everything from whether to lift tariffs on Chinese imports or cancel student loan debt.
Biden has been mulling what to do on student loans for more than a year. White House staff drafted a memo on the topic weeks ago, and a final decision is now being targeted ahead of when the current repayment pause expires on August 31 — further aggravating progressives who say Biden’s indecision is hurting people with debt who are trying to make plans, and losing much of the political benefit he could get from it.
“We picked that date for a reason: we’d like to see where the inflation problem is, and we’d like to see where our legislative agenda is. There’s nothing uncertain or hesitating about it: it’s a deadline, and we will deliver on it,” White House spokesperson Chris Meagher told CNN about the timeline.
Obama, too, was famous for frustrating his staffers with a penchant for deliberation. Biden is apparently taking it to an even higher level. From the above-mentioned NYT report:
Quick decision-making is not Mr. Biden’s style. His reputation as a plain-speaking politician hides a more complicated truth. Before making up his mind, the president demands hours of detail-laden debate from scores of policy experts, taking everyone around him on what some in the West Wing refer to as his Socratic “journey” before arriving at a conclusion.
Those trips are often difficult for his advisers, who are peppered with sometimes obscure questions. Avoiding Mr. Biden’s ire during one of his decision-making seminars means not only going beyond the vague talking points that he will reject, but also steering clear of responses laced with acronyms or too much policy minutiae, which will prompt an outburst of frustration, often laced with profanity.
Let’s talk plain English here, he will often snap.
Interviews with more than two dozen current and former Biden associates provide an early look into how Mr. Biden operates as president — how he deliberates, whom he consults for advice and what drives his decisions as he settles into the office he has chased for more than three decades.
What emerges is a portrait of a president with a short fuse, who is obsessed with getting the details right — sometimes to a fault, including when he angered allies and adversaries alike by repeatedly delaying a decision on whether to allow more refugees into the United States.
On policy issues, Mr. Biden, 78, takes days or weeks to make up his mind as he examines and second-guesses himself and others. It is a method of governing that can feel at odds with the urgency of a country still reeling from a pandemic and an economy struggling to recover. The president is also faced with a slim majority in Congress that could evaporate next year, giving him only months to enact a lasting legacy.
Those closest to him say Mr. Biden is unwilling, or unable, to skip the routine. As a longtime adviser put it: He needs time to process the material so that he feels comfortable selling it to the public. But the approach has its risks, as President Barack Obama found out when his own, sometimes lengthy policy debates led to infighting and extended lobbying, and made his White House feel process driven.
Mr. Biden could fall victim to the same fate, though he has far more experience governing than Mr. Obama did in 2009. So far, the Biden administration has moved quickly to confront the nation’s challenges even as Mr. Biden’s own deliberations can linger, often prompting calls as late as 10:30 or 11 p.m. as he gets ready for the next morning.
I don’t know that there’s a right model of presidential decision-making. There have only been a relative handful of Presidents in the modern era (which I date from FDR) and some have been more effective than others. But, even since FDR’s day, the job has gotten bigger in the sense that more power has accrued to the Federal government and, thus, to the Executive branch.
One obviously doesn’t want to be paralyzed with indecision. Nor does one want to shoot from the hip. Ultimately, we need to let Biden be Biden. He’s been at this a very long time and has developed a way of processing information. If he can’t sell policy decisions to the public without going through the process, we’re just going to have to let him go through the process.
Taking time on major decisions isn’t a bad thing, White House aides argue, and neither is taking seriously, for example, that independent agencies like the FDA and US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention are supposed to function without the President’s direct interference — something Biden allies say is a key differentiation from the last President.
“This is what separates him from Donald Trump, and it’s an important separation. He says, ‘I am not a dictator. I am not an autocrat,'” said Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor who’s coordinating the implementation of the $1 trillion infrastructure law passed last year.
White House officials also lament not getting more help from their colleagues in Congress, most recently on trying to lower gas prices. If congressional Democrats thought Biden took too long to offer his gas tax holiday proposal, the thinking in the White House goes, they could have easily come up with another idea of their own, and sooner. Aides also eagerly point out how much support multiple polls show for Biden’s proposal.
That’s . . . not wrong. Granted, Senate Republicans—and probably Manchin and Sinema—may well block any initiatives House Democrats come up with. But Congress is really the locus of domestic policymaking, despite the fact that Presidents get most of the blame or credit.
Landrieu ticked off a number of initiatives the White House has gotten behind and hoped for congressional action by Democrats only to have bills languish.
“The President has called on Congress to pass a reconciliation bill. The President has called on Congress to pass the COMPETES Act. The President has called on Congress to reduce prescription drugs, to reduce costs to health care, to fill in the gap on the challenges with the Affordable Care Act and to continue to basically do everything they can, and Congress has gone, ‘Oh, well, we can’t do anything.’ So it’s just the nature of politics sometimes you just say, ‘I wish somebody else would help,’ when we’re really this is all hands on deck,” said Landrieu.
Throughout, the President’s defenders argue, Biden is the one who’s taking action, even if much of that action is out of view. They hold up the gun legislation passed by Congress as a perfect example of how his approach works even if not always in the spotlight: Biden deliberately left the negotiations to the rank-and-file members to avoid aggravating a delicate situation.
White House aides checked in daily, and Biden spoke several times with Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who led the efforts. “The President’s early attention to this issue was a big part of setting the table for the process that led to the bill’s passage,” Murphy told CNN.
Inside the White House, criticism and proposals from fellow Democrats are often seen as the latest version of, essentially, presidential fan fiction — the kind of visceral, political statement that sounds great from the sidelines but doesn’t actually make sense.
Like setting up mobile abortion clinics?
For example, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s abortion reversal, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul have called for the White House to open up federal lands to abortion clinics, a move that lawyers inside and some outside the government believe would backfire by leaving abortion providers and women open to potential prosecution as soon as they stepped off the federal lands.
Fundamentally, Biden and his aides are operating from a very different sense of the presidency. He’s being realistic, they believe, and responsible — not just because his options are truly limited, but specifically because he’s trying to restore the structural integrity of the government and of democracy after four years of Trump. They also see him as taking a more integrated view — moving on canceling student loan debt, for example, they believe, could imperil whatever is left of the legislative agenda that is starting to emerge from Senate negotiations.
“The West Wing” was a really entertaining television show. In a lot of ways, it’s how national politics ought to work. But it was unrealistic in 1999 and positively science fiction in 2022.
Biden has been batting away complaints that he’s out of sync with his party since before he launched his presidential campaign.
“The country didn’t elect Joe Biden because they wanted a Democratic Donald Trump to go out there every day and divide the country more,” said Cedric Richmond, who left his own seat in Congress to serve in the West Wing for Biden’s first year. Democrats attacking Biden are “scapegoating the President, or distracted and not focusing on what they should be focused on. He saved democracy once by beating a tyrant. He’s doing it again, but he doesn’t do it by beating his chest.”
The attacks Biden is facing now are “the same foolishness that got us Donald Trump — ‘Hillary wasn’t good enough,’ ‘She’s not fighting hard enough,'” Richmond said. “That’s what got us Donald Trump. And that got us Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Case closed.”
I don’t know that it’s “case closed.” Ultimately, Biden and the Democrats are being blamed for a lot of externally-driven events. There’s only so much they can do about inflation, supply bottlenecks, and the price at the pump. And even less they can do about a 6-3 Supreme Court reversing decades of progressive decisions. And that will likely be even more true come January, as it’s all but certain that Republicans will take back the House, and, while things are looking better for retaining a Senate majority than they did a couple of months ago, it wouldn’t shock me at all if they lost it.
UPDATE (0842): I see WaPo is at it too (“As some Democrats grow impatient with Biden, alternative voices emerge“):
In the view of many distraught Democrats, the country is facing a full-blown crisis on a range of fronts, and Biden seems unable or unwilling to respond with appropriate force. Democracy is under direct attack, they say, as Republicans change election rules and the Supreme Court rapidly rewrites American law. Shootings are routine, abortion rights have ended and Democrats could suffer big losses in the next election.
Biden’s response is often a mix of scolding Republicans, urging Americans to vote Democratic and voicing broad optimism about the country. For some Democrats, that risks a dangerous failure to meet the moment.
“There is a leadership vacuum right now, and he’s not filling it,” said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic consultant and former top adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid of Nevada. “I sympathize with the argument that there’s very little they can do legislatively. But in moments of crisis, the president is called upon to be a leader. And when people are feeling scared and angry and outraged, they look to him for that, and they’re not getting much.”
They add an interesting twist: vague hints that Biden could face a primary challenge.
But as the Democratic rank-and-file’s thirst for a more combative attitude becomes increasingly evident, other party leaders are beginning to showcase an alternative tone, one that goes far more sharply at Republican attitudes and tactics.
The two highlighted are Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and California Governor Gavin Newsom. While anything a politician of that stature does is potentially auditioning for a presidential run, there’s little real evidence either are considering it. The closest we get is this:
On July Fourth, Newsom took the unusual step of airing an ad in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is widely seen as a potential 2024 presidential candidate and has been implementing deeply conservative policies. DeSantis has rapidly become a detested figure among liberals, and Newsom sought to take him on in conservative terms, casting him as an enemy of liberty.
“Freedom? It’s under attack in your state,” Newsom said in the ad, addressing Florida residents and citing book bans, voting restrictions and laws on classroom instruction. “I urge all of you living in Florida to join the fight. Or join us in California — where we still believe in freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom to choose, freedom from hate and the freedom to love. Don’t let them take your freedom.”
In case anyone missed the point, Ian Calderon, the Democratic former majority leader of the California State Assembly, tweeted, “Governor @GavinNewsom is the only Dem that seems to understand that democrats everywhere want their leaders to push back with a strong message and to stop letting the GOP control the narrative. Republicans are loud and it’s time for Democrats to get louder.”
And, lo and behold, POLITICO (“Shadow 2024 race: Newsom vs. DeSantis“) is pushing the same story. Who is it that is pushing these stories, I wonder?
Look, I’m sure Pritzger and Newsom would like to be President. If Biden doesn’t run in 2024, it’s a safe bet that one or both of them will make a play for the office. But I don’t see a repeat of 1976, 1980, or 1992—where sitting Presidents faced serious primary challenges. It strikes me more likely that Biden will go out like Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson, simply declining to run for re-election, than that happens.