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The White House had a good week. They’re dreading what comes next

White House reporter's notebook: Beware of August. "What's a recession?" Don't call it a comeback & The "First State" fight.


WASHINGTON — It started with a negative test. And within hours of President Biden’s triumphant Rose Garden return from Covid-isolation, he saw the passage of a long-sought bill aimed at boosting America’s advanced manufacturing sector, and the revival of a pared-down version of his Build Back Better plan.

It appeared that the White House had its best week in months. But hopes to capitalize on what advisers see as a potential momentum shift, quickly dashed by the president’s rebound case, still have to contend with a familiar presidential nemesis: August.

The final month of summer has long been unkind to the occupant of the Oval Office. And while Democrats may have, to borrow a phrase from White House economist Jared Bernstein, pulled a “legislative rabbit out of a hat” with Biden’s climate and economic agenda, the White House knows first and foremost he needs to see the deal through before any real comeback narrative can take hold.

The anniversary of last summer’s collapse of the Afghan government, punctuated by the death of 13 U.S. servicemembers who had to return to Kabul to facilitate a chaotic evacuation, is just one potential trouble spot ahead. The White House was still finalizing plans for how it would mark the anniversary, one senior official told NBC News Saturday. 

And people close to Biden are also tracking reports that the Justice Department’s investigation into the president’s son, Hunter, over unpaid taxes could provide a major distraction at a key moment. 

Biden’s initial quick recovery from Covid put him in a position to get back to what was supposed to be a back-on-offense road show for the administration as the midterm elections are now 100 days away. But just hours after the White House announced that Biden would travel to Michigan on Tuesday — also the state’s primary election day — to tout the new CHIPS bill, it disclosed the rebound positive. Biden will now isolate again through most of next week. 

The White House says he will hold virtual events until he can resume his travel schedule. Members of the Cabinet were already scheduled to fan across the country this month for events with members of Congress. And the White House is closely coordinating with congressional democrats on “days of action” planned for August.  

Of course, there’s also an expectation Biden will spend time on the typical August presidential vacation. But the White House is looking for ways Biden could still engage on key agenda items throughout even if he’s also getting some R-and-R. 

Peak inside our White House correspondents' notebooks. This week:

  • A debate over how to define a recession.
  • Kate Bedingfield isn’t going anywhere.
  • Where does a 2024 candidate start?

What is a recession? 

The spate of good news last week came at a time the White House had been bracing for bad news — especially on the key midterm issue of the economy. Aides spent all week, in fact, arguing that new GDP data showing a second consecutive quarter of contraction did not, in and of itself, represent a “recession.” 

As officials repeated all week, the final arbiter of a recession is in the hands of an otherwise obscure outfit known as the National Bureau of Economic Research. Biden himself pointed Thursday to a strong jobs market, among other factors in arguing: “That doesn’t sound like a recession to me.”

Just two years ago, though, Biden and his surrogates were campaigning aggressively on how to reverse what they called repeatedly a “Trump recession” — or as Biden often put it, “this godawful recession.” But the NBER didn’t formally make a determination about a 2020 recession until July of 2021 — more than a year after it had passed. 

Asked why the White House is now insisting reporters follow NBER’s lead on the terminology when Biden and his team hadn’t, White House spokesperson Jesse Lee told NBC: “The unemployment rate in 2020 peaked at 14.7%, and the labor market was stagnant even as President Biden took office. There is no comparison to a period of 3.6% unemployment and two quarters averaging 400,000 jobs per month.”

Don’t call it a comeback. 

Kate Bedingfield really did plan to leave the White House, and Anita Dunn really was looking to replace her. But Biden from the start wasn’t ready to welcome the departure of a top messenger in his orbit for seven years. Bedingfield tells NBC News her decision to remain as White House communications director really was a last-minute decision. 

With an original departure date on July 21, she had soaked up all her “lasts.” A final flight on Air Force One, home from Saudi Arabia (she even spent time in the cockpit). A visit with her two young children to see Marine One take off from the White House South Lawn last week. She even had her office partially packed up last Friday before she emailed staff that afternoon announcing she would stay put. Staff are moving ahead with filling other press and communications vacancies.  

The First State? 

As we reported this week, when J.B. Pritzker was planning to head to New Hampshire recently, he afforded the White House a heads up and assured them 2024 considerations were not involved. Of course, Democrats are considering a major reshuffle of the 2024 nominating calendar that could see the Granite State, as well as Iowa, lose their leadoff primary and caucuses, respectively. And quietly, Biden’s home state of Delaware was among 16 states, plus Puerto Rico, still petitioning to be in the early state group.

As those states made their cases to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee earlier this year, Delaware’s governor, John Carney, made an unsubtle power play, telling committee members he had come straight from the Oval Office and a meeting with Biden. The White House insists it’s keeping a hands-off posture to the party debate, which Alex Seitz-Wald scooped will now not be resolved after the midterms.