Despite signs that Democrats may be in better midterm shape than many hoped six months ago, widespread unease is building within the White House. There is a growing sense that President Biden is not pursuing a political case against Republicans aggressively enough.
I spoke today with Michael D. Shear, a longtime political journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner who has covered the White House for the past 13 years.
Shear saw a lot of drama during that time: he covered the 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, slightly edited for length and clarity:
You wrote this week“In a moment of vast political turmoil and economic distress, Mr. Biden has appeared far less engaged than many of his supporters had hoped. While many Democrats are arguing for a fighter who vents their anger, Mr. Biden has Chose a more passive path – blaming Congress, urging people to vote, and avoiding heated rhetorical battles What are your sources telling you?
Democrats’ concern about the White House, and in particular President Biden’s political skills, is palpable. The main question seems to be performative. Democrats want Biden to appear tougher, more engaged and more in the moment.
It was striking to me that in a week when there were so many big, high-profile issues — Roe versus Wade, inflation, recession fears, mass shootings — you wouldn’t have known it from the President’s agenda. He awarded the Medal of Honor to four Vietnam-era soldiers (a dignified thing, of course), gave a speech on retirements, and then awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 people.
There has been a flurry 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, left. Kate Bedingfield, Director of Communications, is leaving. Anita Dunn, who was a first assistant to both Barack Obama and Biden, returns from his consulting firm.
What is happening here? Is it related to a feeling of low morale inside the White House? Or just the usual staff bustle that occurs inside every administration?
I think the communications shop’s turnover is a bit of both.
There is burnout in every administration at this time; a lot of people starting an administration have worked like crazy on the campaign, and they’re tired.
And Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, made it clear to people that if they wanted to leave, they should do so as soon as possible in an election year. So PSAKI and Richmond left recently.
The Biden presidency
With the midterm elections looming, here’s where President Biden stands.
Bedingfield has worked non-stop for Biden since 2015, and I’m told she’s been wondering when to leave for a while. The fact that Anita Dunn – a communications veteran for Democratic presidents – was recently reintroduced was the writing on the wall.
But having said all that, I think morale is low right now. The president’s poll numbers are low, the problems are myriad, and one of the first places critics seek blame is the communications staff. The problem for this White House is that if the predictions come true and the Republicans take power in Congress, things will only get worse.
What do people in and around Biden’s political operation think of all the reporting, including of our colleagueswhich shows that Trump is weighing the announcement of a candidacy for 2024 earlier than expected?
There is no doubt that the White House is paying close attention to this issue.
Some people close to the president believe that an official Trump candidacy will provide an effective foil to Biden and energize him in much the same way he was in the 2020 campaign. Trump’s threat was, after all, the Biden’s stated reason for running in the first place.
There’s also a belief — perhaps more of a hope — that an early move by Trump to announce he’s running could hurt Republican candidates this fall. That would shift the political discourse away from issues that benefit Republicans, like inflation, and toward topics more favorable to Democrats, like Trump’s Jan. 6 rants and a “stolen” election in 2020.
There will also be legal issues and questions about whether the president should start a re-election effort sooner as a result – so he can start fundraising. But these issues are still being addressed.
When I speak with Democrats who run campaigns or work on party committees, I hear a lot of frustration with the White House and a lot of criticism, especially about Biden’s politics. Are White House officials aware of the extent of the complaints?
David Plouffe, one of the architects of Obama’s presidential campaigns, called the Democrats’ complaints “bedwetting” by overly anxious supporters.
The current White House doesn’t use that phrase, but the sentiment is basically the same.
I spoke this week to Cedric Richmond, one of Biden’s earliest and strongest supporters, who was a top White House aide until his recent departure for the Democratic National Committee.
He didn’t hold back.
“We have to have some discipline as Democrats in what we talk about, and not stray off destructive tangents to where we want to be,” Richmond said, referring to sniping of Biden by members of his own party. .
“So go out there and show the difference between the two sides,” he said. “But the circular firing squad, I think, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
What are the people in the White House most optimistic about in 2022 and 2024? What do they think will be, or do they hope to be, the main drivers of the midterm elections?
For a long time, there was hope inside the West Wing that inflation would come down at election time.
This is no longer a realistic hope, given the international situation, including the Russian-Ukrainian war. The president’s advisers are mostly clearheaded about how the game is stacked against them in 2022.
But they’re optimistic about a few things: They think — hope — Covid is receding as a major political issue, given the relative success of the vaccine program. They think the underlying economy – job growth, rising wages, manufacturing – is strong. And they argue that Biden has accomplished more than is currently credited to him.
The concern with all of these things is the possibility of inversion. Covid could increase again. Employment growth could slow. And the achievements could fade further in the rearview mirror if the rest of the year is just a political stalemate.
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You earn some, you Newsom
Gavin Newsom, the Governor of California, is once again subject to political upsurge – this time, on a family vacation in Montana.
As On Politics noted, Newsom has carved out a national role as the leading critic of Republican-run states. Montana, despite pro-Democratic and “prairie populist” leanings, is deeply red: Trump won the state by more than 16 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election.
It is also a place of special significance to Newsom, who married his second wife there. The couple even named their eldest daughter Montana. Her in-laws own a ranch along the Bitterroot River and still live there.
The problem, politically speaking, is that Montana is on the liberal California travel ban list. State-funded trips to Montana and 21 other states are banned in California, under a law signed into law 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 have been found to discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
Newsom paid for the trip himself and the travel ban does not apply to personal vacations, as pointed out by his aides. Still, Republicans seized on the episode to accuse the governor of hypocrisy. Sometimes when you push the GOP bear, like Newsom did when he joined Donald Trump’s social media network and ran ads on Fox News stations in Florida, the bear comes back.
It “must be hard for his family to play by all the woke rules he and the ‘regressives’ have made for themselves,” James Gallagher, the Republican leader of the State Assembly, posted on Twitter.
Critics echoed one of the most politically powerful attacks on Newsom. When the governor dined, indoors and without a mask, at an expensive Napa Valley restaurant in 2020 during the height of the coronavirus shutdowns, his critics said Newsom thought the rules didn’t apply to him.
And although California didn’t pay for Newsom’s trip to Montana, the state did pay for his security details.
Anthony York, a spokesperson for Newsom, said the trip was very personal and not political. “Her children visit their grandparents for her daughter’s birthday, as they do every year,” he said.
York denied that Newsom’s office was coy about his comings and goings and said the office was trying to balance transparency with security. “On the security front, the law explicitly states that there is an exemption for public safety and that the governor must travel safely,” he said.
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