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Democrats to Biden: Time to make changes at the White House

While only a handful are calling for staff shake-ups, a number expressed concern that time was running out to take a new tack ahead of the midterms.
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WASHINGTON — There’s a growing sense among Democrats that it’s time for a change of course at the White House — whether that means new strategy or new staffers.

On the political front, President Joe Biden’s numbers aren’t getting better, his message isn’t resonating, and his party’s midterm prospects are bleak. On policy, his Build Back Better plan is dead, Covid is alive, and inflation is rising.

If he doesn’t take a new tack soon, it may be impossible for him to deliver for the public, help his party in November or move an agenda in the final three years of his term, according to a dozen lawmakers, White House officials and veteran Democratic Party operatives who spoke to NBC News about their concerns.

“A sign of a good leader and a successful executive is to identify the policies or personnel choices that have not resulted in success and make necessary course corrections — because it’s too important not to,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a co-chair of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, which has chafed over Biden’s efforts to accommodate the progressive wing at the perceived expense of moderates.

While only a handful of Democrats have called for heads to roll in the White House — even privately — there is broader agreement within the party that Biden can’t keep doing the same things and expect different results. Suggestions range from picking a handful of high-stakes fights with Republicans to elevating Cabinet secretaries to altering his inner circle by addition, subtraction or both. 

A member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the president, said the U.S. exit from Afghanistan and the coronavirus pandemic have led voters to question a key component of Biden’s campaign-trail sales pitch: that his team would be competent. 

Replacing top aides, including chief of staff Ron Klain, would send a signal to the public that Biden understands something has to change, this lawmaker added.

“Biden’s the star quarterback, and you can’t fire the star quarterback, so you start looking at the head coach and the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator,” the lawmaker said, pointing to Klain as the architect of a failed strategy to advance Biden’s agenda. “Fairly or unfairly in a situation like this, you start looking at the person who is in the chief of staff position.”

The lawmaker pointed to three moments last year, describing them as strategic failures by the White House. After months of fellow Democrats’ berating of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for failing to make his positions known on the Build Back Better plan, it was revealed that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had signed a document in which Manchin had recorded his priorities for the legislation. And Biden twice traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with House Democrats, with major bills pending, only to decline to ask them to vote for his infrastructure measure.

“There was no strategy. That just put the president in a horrible, horrible situation,” the lawmaker said. “That has to fall on the head of the chief of staff.”

Another Democratic lawmaker applauded Biden’s recent promise to travel the country more but said he needs a change at the top.

“I don’t think there’s anything abnormal after a year of looking at your staffing situation and maybe shaking things up,” this lawmaker said. “My hope is that he does do that.”

Specifically, the House member said, Klain hasn’t been an enforcer with progressives on Capitol Hill, resulting in the delay of the infrastructure law and futility so far on the Build Back Better measure.

“You’ve got to crack some heads sometimes,” the lawmaker said.

But Biden has long been reluctant to fire veteran aides or bring new ones close. The upper echelon of his administration is full of people who were members of his staff when he was vice president or when he was a senator. They include Klain, deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, advisers Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti and national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

“I’m satisfied with my team,” Biden said last month at a White House news conference, where he said he would travel more, raise money for the midterms and seek more advice from outside experts.

That hasn’t changed in the intervening weeks, White House spokesman Chris Meagher said.

“The president has spoken to questions around any staff changes in the past,” Meagher said. “There’s no change since his comments.”

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, a member of the board of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said the core group of staffers is a source of strength for Biden and that the White House has accomplished a lot in terms of economic growth, combating Covid and reducing poverty among children.

“The president has got a terrific team that he trusts, has great chemistry with,” said Daschle, who is also a registered lobbyist for Comcast, the parent company of NBCUniversal, among other companies. “The last thing they need to do right now is change the people.”

Most of the Democrats who were interviewed praised Biden for enacting the infrastructure law and a Covid relief measure, as well as for overseeing an economy that has grown and added more than 6 million jobs — a record for a president’s first year in office.

A White House official defended Biden’s record on Capitol Hill when asked about some Democrats’ frustration with Klain.

“The reality is there is a 50-50 Senate and four-vote margin in the House for Democrats,” the official said. “Getting anything passed is incredibly difficult. The fact that we got the American Rescue Plan passed, as well as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed, is remarkable and speaks to the skill of the team we have led by the president, and BBB is a work in progress that we are confident we can still get done.”

The official noted that Biden’s agenda reflects his campaign platform and added a question: “Are those criticizing saying the Biden administration should not have done what it was elected to do by the American people?”

Klain and other key decision-makers within the White House get the most criticism, public and private, because they have the highest profiles, said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the center-left think tank Third Way.

“When you have the largest profile you also wear the largest target, and time immemorial when you have White House shake-ups you shake up the people who are most visible,” Bennett said. It’s “usually done as a concession to the voices in that party who are nervous, but I don’t think it has the impact people believe it does. There’s no magic person that can come in and fix all these problems.” 

Adding new strategic thinkers could be a productive route, Bennett said, but mainly, the administration needs to start striking the right chords in public comments about Covid and inflation. 

“The whole administration could be clearer about arguing how they expect this to go. I think they know that and they’re working on it,” he said. Bennett said that with the economy, Biden should be hammering home that he will do everything in his power to drive down prices, clear up the supply chain and work out kinks in the labor market. 

“He needs to be seen as working on those aggressively, and they know this. None of this is news to them,” he said. 

As the pressure mounts, there have been signs of finger-pointing in the news media as Democrats look for a way forward. The White House recently raced to reassure Latino leaders rankled by White House officials’ criticism of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra’s job performance in news reports, with Biden and top staff members giving Becerra a tight embrace. 

NBC News reported that Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison had considered leaving his post before the midterms because of tension with Biden’s aides. Biden plans to meet with Harrison soon, the White House said. 

In an interview this month, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said the Becerra episode was the result of larger structural issues with how the White House has decided to carry out key priorities, such as the coronavirus response.

“You don’t handicap your secretary by layering them under somebody else,” Castro said.

Democrats say the signs of infighting matter, because Biden can ill afford to preside over dysfunction in his administration when he is still trying to convince the public that he can unify and run the country. There is some level of jockeying within every White House, where ambitious high achievers can clash with one another in a crucible of high stakes for both careers and the country.

That is only aggravated by the public dissatisfaction with Biden.

Inside the White House, some aides fear that Biden won’t be able to make changes in time to help the party in the midterms or himself in 2024. So far, even amid a handful of high-profile departures, Biden’s top team has stayed in place. 

“He has blind spots with staff,” said a second White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “He should not have the second-worst approval rating of all time given the positive things that he’s done. If that were me, I would re-evaluate the advice that I’m getting and the people that I surround myself with. I don’t see that happening.”

The same official lamented a sense of strategic drift and said that “everyone’s resigned” to Democrats’ getting thwacked in the midterms. 

“It feels like there is a wave coming and no one is doing anything to stop it,” the official said.

Philippe Reines, a onetime top adviser to Hillary Clinton, said a staff shake-up wouldn’t be a magic bullet.

“He’s not one staffer away from a higher approval rating,” Reines said.  

Reines attributed the high disapproval numbers to an electorate so polarized that half would never support Biden. The numbers, he said, also reflect discontent over an unrealistic expectation that the sheer act of ousting former President Donald Trump and electing Biden would shut off the noise and bring a semblance of civility back to politics. 

“There’s a national hangover, and when you have a hangover you just want to sit in peace and quiet, pop some Advil and drink some water,” Reines said. “Instead, it’s become a situation where everyone’s got a hangover but we’re stuck at a rock concert.”

As a candidate, Biden vowed to turn down the temperature in Washington, and a core tension of his presidency has been between impulses to demonstrate civility and attack political opponents. Faiz Shakir, who managed Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, said Biden resurrected his campaign when he began to take more aggressive swipes at his opponents.

Calls for a staff shake-up risk “infantilizing Biden” and suggesting that he’s a puppet of his aides, Shakir said, and adding a fighter to his operation could clarify where he has the most passionate disagreements with Republicans. 

“On the political score, it would be helpful to have some people who have some sharper elbows, for the president to make sure that side of him is projected,” Shakir said.