Being familiar never makes the feeling less dreadful: White House aides emailing each other during one of President Joe Biden’s stops on the road, tracking who’s covering what he’s saying, which TV channels are taking the speech live – and realizing a number of times that the answer was none.
“You are thinking,” said one person familiar, “why are we doing this?”
Biden and his inner circle get weekly readouts of the metrics on local newspaper coverage of his speeches, how long and for what he was covered on cable, but also videos that staff post on Twitter and other social media interactions. Those reports go on the piles with internal memos from pollsters saying Biden isn’t breaking through in traditional news outlets and that the people who are engaged are mostly voters who’ve already made up their minds.
But beneath this struggle to break through is a deeper dysfunction calcified among aides who largely started working together only through Zoom screens and still struggle to get in rhythm. They’re still finding it hard to grasp how much their political standing has changed over the last year, and there’s a divide between most of the White House staff and the inner circle who have been around Biden for longer than most of the rest of that staff has been alive. In an email to CNN, White House spokesman Andrew Bates said, “That is not the dynamic in the White House.”
At the center is a president still trying to calibrate himself to the office. The country is pulling itself apart, pandemic infections keep coming, inflation keeps rising, a new crisis on top of new crisis arrives daily and Biden can’t see a way to address that while also being the looser, happier, more sympathetic, lovingly Onion-parody inspiring, aviator-wearing, vanilla chip cone-licking guy – an image that was the core of why he got elected in the first place.
“He has to speak to very serious things,” explained one White House aide, “and you can’t do that getting ice cream.”
Aides regularly talk about how little traction they’re getting from one-off Biden appearances or events and then – whether on inflation, the baby formula shortage or mass shootings or the other crises landing on Biden’s desk – he’s often left looking like he’s in a reactive crouch on the issues that matter most to voters rather than setting the agenda. Sometimes clipped moments from those speeches that the White House puts out on social media generate huge traffic but, at least as often, moments from the President appearing to be caught off-guard go viral on their own.
Aides and allies worry that the West Wing is making the same mistakes as they tout the White House’s big pivot to inflation – which they know is a defining issue for the midterms – using all the methods Biden and his top advisers keep going back to: A Wall Street Journal op-ed, a basic photo-op Oval Office meeting with the Federal Reserve chairman and Treasury secretary, dispatching Cabinet secretaries for short TV interviews.
Biden’s speech on Thursday night calling for real action on new gun control laws was a departure from many of his recent appearances, complete with a carefully stage managed line up of mournful candles in glass lining his walkway into the East Room.
But even with his intense delivery and repeated return to the word “Enough” and laying out of an aspirational agenda that has little chance in Congress, despite broad support among many Americans outside of Washington, he was more than anything reacting to how the conversation had already taken shape without him. And then, less than an hour after he was done issuing his call to action, Biden left for an early weekend at his beach house in Delaware, without much of a public schedule for days.
The President is a 79-year-old man who still thinks in terms of newspaper front pages and primetime TV programs, surrounded by not-quite-as-senior aides in senior positions with the same late 1990s media diet. Lifelong habits don’t tend to fade when people get to their desks in the West Wing.
“These numbers that get put up by ‘soft media,’” a senior adviser put it to others on staff recently, using a term meant to brush off all platforms that aren’t older than Biden’s grandkids, “don’t feel as real.”
It’s not just the kind of news Biden consumes, according to CNN’s conversations with 14 White House aides and other Democrats in close touch with the White House. After 50 years of looking up to the Oval Office, televised speeches and front-page stories are how he thinks of a president making news, still conceiving of the presidency as a sort of Rooseveltian ideal where he can lay what’s happening for an audience gathered around to hear from a commander-in-chief whose schedule keeps getting cleared for him to write, edit and review each set of remarks.
“A speech is presidential, remarks are presidential. His view is if he can just explain to people what’s going on and why, that people will understand,” said one person familiar with Biden’s thinking.
Finger-pointing inside the White House
Biden aides cite a range of other factors – a political press corps still hooked on Trump-style melodrama, a news environment dominated by Ukraine and pandemic, a Secret Service buffer that limits what Biden can do, lingering anxiety that he’ll catch Covid-19 and possibly become really sick.
That’s in between pointing fingers at each other for whose fault it is. They have the same internal meetings over and over, insisting that they need to change up their whole approach to how they’re using Biden – and then each time watch as nothing changes.
Older aides dismiss the younger aides as being too caught up in the tweet-by-tweet thinking they say lost the 2020 election for everyone else. Younger aides give up – what’s the point of working up innovative ideas, they ask themselves, if the ideas constantly get knocked down and the aides get looked down on for suggesting them?
Responding to a question about the President’s older media habits, Bates noted the weekly time set aside on the President’s schedule for creating digital content and the over 70 people on staff who help create it and manage his various accounts, as well as two interviews in the past few months with online-only creators.
“The President has a well-rounded strategy that combines putting unprecedented resources into digital engagement, speeches that provide many of his most powerful moments, and person-to-person interactions that showcase important qualities like his empathy,” Bates said.
Biden did more traveling around the country during May than in any month of his presidency so far. But nearly every stop was the same toe-touch, take-a-factory-tour-then-give-a-speech-then-back-on-Air Force One routine, one-off events with a couple of mournful condolence trips to Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, added.
Nothing happened that wasn’t on script. Nothing that’s not fully planned.
When they’re on message, aides will take solace in driving local news coverage, despite the events not registering outside of whatever media market he lands in. When they’re being frank, they acknowledge that they’ve been slow to realize that doing single events on any topic never seems to make much of an impact.
Speeches that have broken through – like the President’s sorrow-filled statement delivered while the bodies were still being identified in Uvalde – are rarely because of either the words themselves or the delivery.
It’s because Biden himself shines through, like when he, a father who’s buried two of his own children, talked about the parents in Texas having parts of their souls ripped away, or on his condolence visit a few days later when he placed his hand on each murdered student’s oversized photo.
Aides still figuring out the best way to present the President
Outside of those consoler-in-chief moments, Biden and aides know they’re not doing much to make him empathetic.
He’ll talk about how he feels families’ struggles over inflation and gas prices. He’ll talk about how he knows about difficulties of the pandemic and the baby formula shortage. And then aides will talk about how he talked about it.
They’ll tell each other he doesn’t have enough time in his schedule. Then they’ll say, actually, no, he is doing the kind of events that should resonate, just no one is giving him credit.
They’ll note that the structure of the White House staff – down to the physical arrangement of the offices, so that the press aides are all clustered together in the only accessible part of the West Wing – is around interactions with traditional media outlets, even as viewership and readership declines.
They’ll say he’s answering reporters’ questions whenever he’s asked, while nixing interview requests to avoid the hours of prep and possible clean-up. They’ll acknowledge that Biden himself feels shut off enough that he’s quietly had a half-dozen sessions with favored writers since the fall, like last month’s lunch with the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, in which the columnist shared his own impressions of Biden’s off-the-record thoughts, with only the tuna sandwich, fruit bowl and milkshake approved for publication.
In a January memo, White House chief of staff Ron Klain offered a compromise plan, to have Biden do one town hall each month to at least grab some unscripted moments and media exposure. That got sucked into the maw of blaming and dysfunction like so much else: Some aides embraced the idea for at least shaking things up a little, some mocked it for being an outdated idea, some complained that the logistics of making that happen would be impossibly time consuming.
In the end, not a single town hall was scheduled. A White House aide said Wednesday that now more town halls are expected in the near future.
Conducting the presidency ‘from the set of Jeopardy’
The most effective way Biden aides found to convince people the President isn’t the doddering right-wing media caricature is when people see him in action, they’ll say in meetings and emails and memos. And the best way to convince voters that he’s taking action on a list of complaints, which is growing longer almost by the week, is to show him actually doing things.
Those little moments which have always been his magic, the retail politics virtuosity of finding the humanity in almost anyone he talks to and having them find the humanity in him – that’s what they need more of, they say. And anyway, that’s what makes him the happiest.
Yet Biden keeps showing up behind the same podiums surrounded by the same big screens, talking from a remove about what he feels and what he wants to do about it. He’s coming across disconnected, aides have acknowledged to allies in Congress and beyond. And then, they say, the same events keep getting planned.
“World’s most interactive man,” sighed one person familiar with White House operations after one of the recent events, “and we’re going to have him conduct the presidency from the set of Jeopardy.”
Excited as White House aides were by the appearance by the K-pop superstars BTS showing up at the daily press briefing on Tuesday, with more than 180,000 people watching the live stream at one point and fans pressed up against the security gates asking what the singers smelled like, they also acknowledged the downside some wish would be more instructive: That brief BTS visit will likely be seen more than anything Biden will do for weeks.
‘He has so much more to offer’
What they agree on in the White House – at least recently – is that Biden’s chances of breaking through go up massively the more he picks fights with Republicans.
They also agree that they’re being held back by the President’s own reluctance to hit harder, steeped in both his attempt to push America back to what he insists can’t be a bygone era of cooperation and his sense that a president shouldn’t get petty.
When he said at the beginning of May that he “never anticipated” that the Trump-style politics would dominate the Republican Party, he was mocked for seeming clueless about a political atmosphere that he spent his whole campaign calling “a battle for the soul of America.”
When he said over Memorial Day weekend that he counted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Texas Sen. John Cornyn as “rational Republicans” whom he could get an agreement with on new gun laws, the forehead smacks among staff and other involved Democrats echoed around the Tidal Basin.
On assault weapons and other priorities, that “do something!” anger is bubbling throughout Biden’s base, but what voters are getting back instead is what the President would call a frank assessment that there’s not much he actually can do.
Aides are facing their own constraints, and not just from the national security officials who’ve assessed that Biden can’t go on TikTok because of security concerns around the Chinese government’s stake in the company.
Lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office, continually on edge over potential violations of the Hatch Act prohibitions around mixing politics and government, needed to review Biden’s new “ultra MAGA” line in order for government-salaried aides to be allowed to repeat it, since having them talk about Donald Trump by name was deemed too political. “Congressional Republicans” was allowed for official statements because the term refers to a specific target, but using “Republicans” generally was also deemed too political.
Many in the West Wing are counting on the recent return of Anita Dunn, who helped both manage Biden and bring a directed sense of mission to the staff during an often otherwise haphazard presidential campaign. She’ll be able to shake the President from patterns that have become ingrained, they believe, and to get everyone else organized ahead of the midterms around a clearer, more connected sense of mission.
A White House aide cited stats to show just how much aides have been able to do with Biden’s online presence when they can get everyone on the same page. The video Biden shot in the Oval Office with BTS to talk about anti-Asian hate crimes racked up over 50 million views in the first 24 hours, the President’s mental health chat with actress Selena Gomez passed 5 million, Jimmy Fallon at the Easter Egg Roll passed 4 million. Pop star Olivia Rodrigo’s video with Biden on vaccines is at over 100 million views, but even a less snazzy YouTube town hall on vaccines is over 2 million views.
The irony, according to a number of top Democrats, is that with the country still battered and shaken from politics, the pandemic, the wobbly economy and just about everything else from the last few years, Joe Biden’s persona has all the pieces to meet the moment – if he came out to meet it.
He’s the empathetic guy. He’s the middle-class guy. He’s the come together and work it out guy.
So, while some Democrats in tight races have started distancing themselves from Biden, others have kept asking aides to get more – so long as he doesn’t bring his podium along for the trip.
Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democratic congressman from Minnesota working to hold onto his seat in the fall, said that he’s struck by how much of a difference there was between the distant Biden whom he knows his constituents are seeing every day and the engaged President he talked with on Air Force One at the end of April, flying to the Land of 10,000 Lakes to attend the memorial service for Walter Mondale.
“I wish every American could have been with us because he was so engaging, empathetic, resolute, and kind. Those are his superpowers,” Phillips said.
“It astounds and disappoints me that the magic of the tools of that office are being so under-utilized. He’s the grandfather of the country at a time we need one more than ever. He should be giving fireside chats, speaking to – and hearing from – Americans directly about their concerns and anxieties. He has so much more to offer America than he has been able to share, and I still hope the country gets to see and feel what I did during that hour with him.”