Despite signs that Democrats may be in better shape in the midterms than many expected six months ago, a widespread malaise is setting in within the White House. There is a growing sense that President Biden is not prosecuting a political case against Republicans aggressively enough.
I spoke today with Michael D. Shear, a longtime political reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner who has covered the White House for the past 13 years.
Shear has seen plenty of drama over that time: He covered all four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, including two impeachment inquiries, and he and Julie Hirschfeld Davis wrote “Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration.”
Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
You wrote this week: “At a moment of broad political tumult and economic distress, Mr. Biden has appeared far less engaged than many of his supporters had hoped. While many Democrats are pleading for a fighter who gives voice to their anger, Mr. Biden has chosen a more passive path — blaming Congress, urging people to vote and avoiding heated rhetorical battles.” What are your sources telling you?
The concern among Democrats about the White House, and in particular about President Biden’s political skills, is palpable. The main issue seems to be a performative one. Democrats want Biden to seem tougher, more engaged and more in the moment.
It was striking to me that in a week when there were so many big, sweeping issues — Roe v. Wade, inflation, recession fears, mass shootings — you wouldn’t have known it from the president’s schedule. He awarded the Medal of Honor to four Vietnam-era soldiers (a worthy thing, for sure), gave a speech on pensions and then awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 people.
There has been a string of departures and arrivals at the White House lately. Cedric Richmond, the director of the Office of Public Engagement, and Jen Psaki, the press secretary, have left. Kate Bedingfield, the communications director, is departing. Anita Dunn, who was a top aide to both Barack Obama and Biden, is returning from her consulting firm.
What’s going on here? Is this connected to a feeling of low morale inside the White House? Or just the usual personnel turmoil that happens inside every administration?
I think the turnover in the communications shop is a bit of both.
There is burnout in every administration around this time; many of the people who start an administration worked like crazy on the campaign, and they are tired.
And Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, has made it clear to people that if they wanted to leave, they should do it sooner rather than later in an election year. Thus Psaki and Richmond have left recently.
The Biden Presidency
With midterm elections looming, here’s where President Biden stands.
Bedingfield has been working nonstop for Biden since 2015, and I’m told she has been debating when to leave for a while. The fact that Anita Dunn — a veteran communications czar for Democratic presidents — was recently brought back on was the writing on the wall.
But having said all that, I do think morale is low right now. The president’s polling numbers are low, the problems are myriad and one of the first places that critics look to place blame is with the communications staff. The problem for this White House is that if predictions come true and Republicans take over in Congress, things will just get bleaker.
What do people in and around Biden’s political operation make of all the reporting, including from our colleagues, that shows Trump is weighing the announcement of a 2024 bid earlier than expected?
There is no question that the White House is paying close attention to this question.
There is a belief among some people close to the president that a formal Trump candidacy will provide an effective foil for Biden and will energize him much the way he was energized during the 2020 campaign. The threat of Trump was, after all, Biden’s stated reason for running in the first place.
There’s also a belief — maybe more of a hope — that an early decision by Trump to announce that he is running could hurt Republican candidates this fall. It would force the political discourse away from issues that benefit Republicans, like inflation, and toward subjects that are more favorable to Democrats, like Trump’s rantings about Jan. 6 and a “stolen” 2020 election.
There also will be legal issues and questions about whether the president needs to start a re-election effort sooner as a result — so he can start to raise money. But those questions are still being hashed out.
When I speak with Democrats running campaigns or working at party committees, I hear a lot of frustration with the White House and a lot of criticism, specifically about Biden’s political acumen. Are White House officials aware of the extent of the complaints?
David Plouffe, one of the architects of Obama’s presidential campaigns, famously dismissed complaints from Democrats as “bed-wetting” by overly anxious partisans.
The current White House doesn’t use that phrase, but the sentiment is basically the same.
I talked this week to Cedric Richmond, one of Biden’s earliest and most fervent supporters, who was a top White House aide until he departed recently for the Democratic National Committee.
He did not hold back.
“We have to have some discipline as Democrats in what we’re talking about, and not be going off on tangents that are destructive to where we want to be,” Richmond said, referring to the sniping at Biden from members of his own party.
“So go out there and show the difference between the two parties,” he said. “But the circular firing squad, I think, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
What are people inside the White House most optimistic about regarding 2022 and 2024? What do they think, or hope, the main drivers of the midterm elections will be?
For a long time, there was a hope inside the West Wing that inflation would subside by the time the election came around.
That is no longer a realistic hope, given the situation internationally, including the Russia-Ukraine war. The president’s advisers are mostly cleareyed about how the deck is stacked against them in 2022.
But they are optimistic about a few things: They think — hope — that Covid is receding as a major political issue, given the relative success of the vaccination program. They think the underlying economy — job growth, wage increases, manufacturing — is strong. And they argue that Biden has accomplished more than he currently gets credit for.
The worry about all of those things is the possibility of reversal. Covid could surge again. Job growth could slow. And the accomplishments could fade further into the rearview mirror if the rest of the year is simply a political stalemate.
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You win some, you Newsom
Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, is being put through the political wringer once again — this time, over a family vacation in Montana.
As On Politics has noted, Newsom has carved out a national role for himself as a leading critic of Republican-led states. Montana, despite having a Democratic-friendly, “prairie populist” streak, is deeply red: Trump won the state by more than 16 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election.
It’s also a place that holds special meaning for Newsom, who married his second wife there. The couple even named their older daughter Montana. His in-laws own a ranch along the Bitterroot River and still live there.
The problem, politically speaking, is that Montana is on liberal California’s travel ban list. State-funded travel to Montana and 21 other states is barred in California, through a law enacted in 2016 under Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown. The restrictions, which are enforced by the California Department of Justice, were put in place to punish states whose laws were deemed discriminatory toward the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
Newsom paid for the trip himself, and the travel ban does not apply to personal vacations, as his aides have pointed out. Still Republicans have seized on the episode to accuse the governor of hypocrisy. Sometimes, when you poke the G.O.P. bear, as Newsom did when he joined Donald Trump’s social media network and ran ads on Fox News stations in Florida, the bear pokes back.
It “must be hard for his family to meet all the woke rules that he and the ‘Regressives have created for themselves,” James Gallagher, the Republican leader of the State Assembly, posted on Twitter.
The criticisms echoed one of the more politically potent attacks on Newsom. When the governor dined, indoors and without a mask, at a pricey Napa Valley restaurant in 2020 at the height of the coronavirus lockdowns, his critics said Newsom believed the rules didn’t apply to him.
And while California did not pay for Newsom’s Montana trip, the state did pay for his security detail.
Anthony York, a spokesman for Newsom, said the trip was very much a personal, and not political, one. “His kids are visiting their grandparents for his daughter’s birthday, as they do every year,” he said.
York denied that Newsom’s office was being coy about his whereabouts, and said that the office was trying to balance transparency with safety. “On the security side, the law explicitly states there is an exemption for public safety, and the governor has to travel with security,” he said.
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