WASHINGTON — The White House is racing to respond to Latino allies rankled by public criticism of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra’s job performance, according to more than a dozen administration officials and Hispanic leaders.
The administration was so rattled by the outpouring of concern that it launched a public campaign to reassure Becerra — and key Latino supporters — after The Washington Post reported last week that White House frustration with Becerra had grown so deep that aides have openly discussed replacing him.
Following an NBC News story in December about Becerra's low public profile, The Post report touched an already raw nerve among Latino leaders. Even though White House aides derided the speculation as "anonymous gossip," prominent Latinos were concerned that a narrative could set in that Becerra had been sidelined. They lit up the White House with calls, texts and emails last week to urge President Joe Biden to voice his support for Becerra.
Biden’s response has been to elevate Becerra's profile, as on Wednesday, when Becerra traveled to Minneapolis with first lady Jill Biden for a child care event.
Biden called Becerra himself Friday to offer a vote of confidence in a conversation that White House officials quickly relayed to the activists, according to two people who were contacted. Becerra, who also received a call of support from White House chief of staff Ron Klain, was invited to join the first lady. The White House says that Klain also spoke to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to convey the president’s support for Becerra and that it is in touch with multiple groups to underscore Biden’s backing.
Several Democratic insiders said all of that was necessary but perhaps not sufficient when Biden’s support among Hispanic voters has fallen. Among some Becerra allies, there is lingering frustration over the treatment of one of the most prominent Latino officials in the country. More broadly, according to more than a half-dozen party officials and White House aides, the Becerra matter is emblematic of frustrations with how the White House is run.
"The whole episode was set up by a bad management system," Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said in an interview, referring to the White House’s early decision to ask Jeff Zients to set the administration’s pandemic policy. "The most important thing that the health and human services secretary was going to deal with during the early years of the Biden administration was going to be the Covid response. You don’t handicap your secretary by layering them under somebody else. It sends the wrong signal to them and the wrong signal to everyone else in that world."
For months, news coverage detailed Becerra’s lack of visibility in his job, some of it quoting anonymous sources as describing Becerra as taking a back seat to other health leaders in the administration, such as Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, who was hired long before the Senate confirmed Becerra. Supporters complain that the White House hasn’t elevated Becerra or allowed him to take on a more high-profile role.
"What was rankling me was all these anonymous sources from administration members" who were "critical of the secretary," said Arturo Vargas, the CEO of the NALEO Educational Fund, a nonprofit Latino advocacy group, who said he also was contacted by the White House. "I think it was absolutely important for the president to express what his opinion was."
The administration has faced criticism for a Covid strategy that health experts have said needs rethinking in light of the realities of a highly infectious variant like omicron. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency under HHS led by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, has been criticized for its communications missteps.
Assistant HHS Secretary Sarah Lovenheim, a longtime Becerra aide, said her boss has been traveling the country — to 22 states and more than 40 cities — to "deliver the president’s vision of a healthier nation" outside Washington.
"The secretary, whether he’s in front of a camera or behind the scenes, is getting the work done that he was appointed to drive forward," Lovenheim said in a statement.
Castro said he was upset with a structure put in place by the White House that has had the appearance and effect of marginalizing the secretary, which he said creates confusion about authority and responsibility and would do so “regardless of who that person is.”
The White House said Tuesday in a statement that Biden trusts Becerra and noted that Becerra held a wide range of duties.
“Anonymous, unfounded griping is counterproductive and has no basis of truth,” Chris Meagher, a White House spokesman, said of those casting doubt on Biden’s support of Becerra. “The truth is, Secretary Becerra has been an invaluable asset on the massive priorities that span the HHS portfolio. He’s a trusted messenger with close to 20 Covid-focused trips alone, and dozens more on the issues that HHS touches upon.”
Zients has been the public face of the Covid response, and the White House wouldn’t say how many times, if ever, it had invited Becerra to speak at a news briefing, about Covid policy or any other topic. A White House official said Becerra speaks weekly with Zients.
Pressed on Tuesday, White House officials couldn’t identify a time when Becerra had been invited to speak at a news briefing at the White House about Covid or any other topic. They said Becerra has traveled extensively and taken part in numerous media interviews.
“The best thing I can tell you,” Becerra told NBC News in December, “is that it’s not profile, it’s results, that count, and so at the end of the day, if we do this right, if we’re mission-focused and if we are results-driven, we’re going to save lives. I suspect that’s going to help not just my profile, but HHS and this administration’s profile on tackling Covid.”
For some of Becerra's backers, it didn’t go unnoticed that a public vote of confidence from Biden came only after prominent Hispanic political players weighed in heavily.
“It's not that this has been the most Hispanic-friendly White House,” said a person who communicated with lawmakers, activists and the public engagement office. "It got enough heat that people started getting pissed — there were enough people pushing back."
The White House’s efforts to smooth things over with Latino groups also comes as Biden’s approval numbers have dropped across the board, including among Hispanic voters. Biden has long been criticized as struggling in his outreach to those voters.
“We’ve been doing a lot of engagement with outside groups and the CHC [Congressional Hispanic Caucus] and others that are tracking this closely to make sure that they understand that,” the White House official said of efforts to communicate the support for Becerra.
The Latino Victory Project, an advocacy group that says it often sends letters to promote Latinos in the administration, emailed the White House last week.
Nathalie Rayes, the group's president and CEO, said her email Thursday raised concerns about recent reports she had seen that featured White House officials criticizing Becerra.
"We got a clear response from this administration that there’s going to be a refocus and Xavier Becerra is front and center," Rayes said in an interview.