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Inside a Biden White House adrift

Amid a rolling series of calamities and sinking approval ratings, the president’s feeling lately is that he just can’t catch a break — and that angst is rippling through his party.
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WASHINGTON — Faced with a worsening political predicament, President Joe Biden is pressing aides for a more compelling message and a sharper strategy while bristling at how they’ve tried to stifle the plain-speaking persona that has long been one of his most potent assets.

Biden is rattled by his sinking approval ratings and is looking to regain voters’ confidence that he can provide the sure-handed leadership he promised during the campaign, people close to the president say. 

Crises have piled up in ways that have at times made the Biden White House look flat-footed: record inflation, high gas prices, a rise in Covid case numbers — and now a Texas school massacre that is one more horrific reminder that he has been unable to get Congress to pass legislation to curb gun violence. Democratic leaders are at a loss about how he can revive his prospects by November, when midterm elections may cost his party control of Congress. 

“I don’t know what’s required here,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., whose endorsement in the 2020 Democratic primaries helped rescue Biden’s struggling candidacy. “But I do know the poll numbers have been stuck where they are for far too long.”

A West Wing shakeup?

Speculation is churning that Biden could shake up the West Wing staff, although that’s not about to happen right away. Multiple people close to the White House said they’ve heard that chief of staff Ron Klain will depart at some point after the midterms, and one has heard him discuss leaving.

Should Klain go, a potential successor is Anita Dunn, a White House adviser and Biden confidant whom he often turns to when his fortunes look bleak. Dunn began working at the White House at the start of the term, then left and returned in early May at Biden’s specific request. No woman or person of color has ever been the White House chief of staff since the position was created after World War II.

Other possible replacements include Steve Ricchetti, a longtime Biden aide who is a counselor to the president, and Susan Rice, the domestic policy chief. After he lost the Virginia governor’s race last year, Terry McAuliffe spoke to the White House about taking a senior role as an adviser to the president, Cabinet secretary or chief of staff, people familiar with the matter said.

The White House didn’t make Klain or Dunn available for comment. Remi Yamamoto, a senior White House communications adviser, said: “As Ron has said publicly, he has not set a time frame, and this is not a discussion on the top of anyone’s mind here.” 

This article is based on interviews with more than two dozen current and former administration officials, lawmakers, congressional aides and other Democrats close to the White House who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the president’s private conversations.

Any assessment of Biden’s performance needs to take into account the epic challenges he faced from the start. 

“They came in with the most daunting set of challenges arguably since Franklin D. Roosevelt, only to then be hit by a perfect storm of crises, from Ukraine to inflation to the supply chain to baby formula,” said Chris Whipple, the author of a book about White House chiefs of staff who is now writing a book about the Biden presidency. “What’s next? Locusts?”

Biden wonders the same thing.

“I’ve heard him say recently that he used to say about President Obama’s tenure that everything landed on his desk but locusts, and now he understands how that feels,” a White House official said.

Image: White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain walks on the South Lawn of the White House on May 1, 2022.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain walks on the South Lawn of the White House on May 1.Stefani Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

Managerial breakdowns

Amid a rolling series of calamities, Biden’s feeling lately is that he just can’t catch a break. “Biden is frustrated. If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said a person close to the president.

An assumption baked into Biden’s candidacy was that he would preside over a smoothly running administration by dint of his decades of experience in public office. Yet there are signs of managerial breakdowns that have angered both him and his party. 

Biden is annoyed that he wasn’t alerted sooner about the baby formula shortage and that he got his first briefing in the past month, even though the crisis had long been in the making. (The White House didn’t specify when Biden got his first briefing on the formula shortage.) His nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Robert Califf, told Congress last week that the agency was sluggish and that it had made “suboptimal” decisions as parents hunted for formula on empty store shelves.

Beyond policy, Biden is unhappy about a pattern that has developed inside the West Wing. He makes a clear and succinct statement — only to have aides rush to explain that he actually meant something else. The so-called clean-up campaign, he has told advisers, undermines him and smothers the authenticity that fueled his rise. Worse, it feeds a Republican talking point that he’s not fully in command.

The issue came to a head when Biden ad-libbed during a speech in Poland that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power.” Within minutes, Biden’s aides tried to walk back his comments, saying he hadn’t called for Putin’s removal and that U.S. policy was unchanged. Biden was furious that his remarks were being seen as unreliable, arguing that he speaks genuinely and reminding his staff that he’s the one who is president.

Asked about the staff’s practice of clarifying Biden’s remarks, the official said: “We don’t say anything that the president doesn’t want us to say.” 

Image: Shelves normally meant for baby formula sit nearly empty at a store in downtown Washington, DC, on May 22, 2022.
Shelves normally meant for baby formula sit nearly empty at a store in Washington, D.C., on May 22.Samuel Corum / AFP - Getty Images

Democrats unnerved

Biden’s angst is rippling through the party. Democratic lawmakers are sparring among themselves and blaming the White House for their dim prospects in November. 

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., said the White House has failed to put forward what she called an “intellectually honest” plan to combat inflation — a burden that ranks first among Americans’ economic concerns, polling indicates. A bill the House passed to crack down on alleged gas price gouging isn’t an answer, she said.

“If I sound frustrated, it’s because I hear from my constituents,” Murphy said. “They’re struggling. This is not a time for political games. It’s not the time for finding bogeymen.”

A spokeswoman for her office said she hasn’t talked about policy with a senior White House official in six months. The White House official countered that Murphy has been in “very regular contact with our staff here.”

Biden’s frustrations

Biden has vented to aides about not getting credit from Americans or the news media for actions he believes have helped the country, particularly on the economy. Unemployment rates have dropped to below 4 percent — pre-pandemic levels — but polling indicates most Americans believe the economy is in bad shape. Biden grouses that Republicans aren’t getting their share of the blame for legislative gridlock in Congress, while he’s repeatedly faulted for not getting his agenda passed. 

The president has also told aides he doesn’t think enough Democrats go on television to defend him. A particular sore spot is his slumping poll numbers; he’s mystified that his approval rating has dropped to a level approaching that of his predecessor, Donald Trump, ranked by historians as one of the worst presidents in history.

“He’s now lower than Trump, and he’s really twisted about it,” another person close to the White House said.

Image: President Biden Signs Policing Executive Order
President Joe Biden listens as Vice President Kamala Harris speaks Wednesday at an executive order signing event for police reform at the White House.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

At a meeting with advisers about a month ago, Biden was surprised to see polling that indicated he had dropped among suburban women, according to two people familiar with the meeting. An adviser said Biden gets weekly polling briefings that delve into “key demographics” and that, because he is kept apprised regularly, he didn’t have that reaction. (At a news conference in September, Biden said flatly, “I don’t look at the polls — not a joke.”)

The White House official denied that Biden is feeling frustrated. “What he’s pushing for is to make a sharper case for all that we have accomplished thus far,” this person said.

A few weeks ago, Biden started employing a midterm election tactic that has been a go-to for sitting presidents: villainize the opposition. He has sought to tether Republicans to Trump’s Make America Great Again agenda. But Biden has been leaning on White House aides to come up with a message that captures the stark choice voters face. Biden himself thought up the phrase “Ultra MAGA,” which he and other Democrats have started using in hope of drawing a clear contrast with Trump’s movement.

The phrase tested well in polling reviewed by the White House, but it also had the unintended effect of firing up the Trump faithful. Merchandisers have found a hot market for “Ultra MAGA” T-shirts.

“He shares the view that we haven’t landed on a winning midterm message,” a third person close to the White House said of the president. “And he’s putting a lot of pressure on people to figure out what that is.”

No reprieve ahead

One of Biden’s prescriptions for his political troubles at the start of the new year was to travel outside Washington more. As he has gotten out in the country, he has also gotten an earful from Democrats about what his administration is — or isn’t — doing.

“People confront him,” said a top Democratic donor who has witnessed such conversations at fundraisers. “All he’s hearing is ‘Why can’t you get anything done?’”

It’s no wonder. About three-quarters of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, a recent NBC News poll found — only the fifth time in the last 34 years that so many Americans have been dissatisfied with the nation’s direction.

There is no respite after the midterms. The 2024 presidential election season begins in earnest once the last races are called. No sitting president wants to be challenged for the party’s nomination; Biden can’t count on a free ride.

“We’re on a track — a losing track,” Faiz Shakir, a senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, said of the Democrats.