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About That Biden Article...
The troublesome subtext of today's NBC News report
I really didn’t intend for my Substack to become primarily about politics. I’ve got a bunch of par-baked essay ideas about other, mostly happier topics that I’ve been meaning to write; I was actually planning to get started on one tonight. And while there was a time in my life when I eagerly devoted full blog posts to the daily goings-on of professional baseball, I am loath to set a new precedent for myself of responding to news in real time with more than just a tweet.
Today, NBC News published an exhaustively reported article about the malaise that currently defines Joe Biden’s administration. It’s well worth a full read, but you can get the gist from the title — “Inside a Biden White House adrift” — or at least from this summary paragraph:
An assumption baked into Biden’s candidacy was that he would preside over a smoothly running administration by dint of his decades of experience in public office. Yet there are signs of managerial breakdowns that have angered both him and his party.
The article is depressing enough on its face if you care about ensuring we have capable, progressive governance at the federal level for as long as possible. But beyond that, there were three separate subtextual implications from the article that have been gnawing at me all day to the point where I feel compelled to enumerate them.
The Buck Stops Where?
One of the main themes of NBC’s report is that Biden is frustrated by his own administration. He allegedly blames his staff for not bringing the national baby-formula shortage to his attention until the situation reached crisis levels. He feels his authority is diminished by his aides’ reflex to backtrack from what they assume are policy-shifting gaffes, specifically mentioning his apparent encouragement of a Russian coup in March; presumably this also applies to his frequent comments about Taiwan. Even the potential departure of Chief of Staff Ron Klain, while mentioned as a personal choice, is presented in the context of a desire to shake things up.
The article paints a picture of a President exasperated with the circumstances surrounding him. Reasonable people can debate how surprising Biden’s tribulations have been or to what degree he could have done more to prevent them, but sure, he’s been dealt a difficult hand. Yet one thing he can control — arguably more than anything else within his purview — is whom he entrusts to inform, advise, and support him.
Say you ignore the questionable leadership approach of blaming your subordinates and accept the premise that the White House aides are the problem. Unless he’s implying that Donald Trump was right about the “deep state,” anyone whose job it is to brief him on supply-chain emergencies or to clarify his words after the fact was chosen by Biden (or by someone to whom he delegated the authority) and serves at his pleasure. How could his staff’s incompetency be framed as an obstacle for him to overcome as opposed to a lack of judgment in delegating authority? And if that’s really the problem, why are personnel changes, in NBC’s words, “not about to happen right away”?
The Next Chief of Staff
After noting the possibility that Klain could resign soon, the article relays the scuttlebutt that Anita Dunn is a likely candidate to become White House Chief of Staff. My jaw dropped when I read that passage, thinking that I must have gotten a name confused, or that this was another Anita Dunn. But no, this is the same Anita Dunn who to me — and I don’t think I’m alone in this — is most-famous for helping Harvey Weinstein with “damage control” in the wake of his industry-shaking sexual-assault scandal. Neither Dunn’s proximity to Biden nor her Presidential employment would be new (despite her controversial history), but there’s something stomach-turning about a man with an extensive track record of (at the very least) inappropriate conduct towards women naming a Weinstein advisor as his top aide.
Director of Domestic Policy Council Susan Rice is also speculated as a successor for Klain. Rice was in the news just three weeks ago amidst allegations of “dehumanizing” her colleagues and subordinates — that she is even still part of the administration runs counter to Biden’s Inauguration Day pledge to have a zero-tolerance policy for workplace hostility — and taking a callously aggressive tack on migrant deportations. Another notable name in the mix is Terry McAuliffe, barely six months after his failed gubernatorial campaign in what is normally seen as a safe blue state. If Biden wants to shore up his precarious political standing, surely there must be a Democrat available who’s not fresh off losing an election in Virginia?
What’s Left Unsaid
For as illuminating as the contents of the article are, what’s not mentioned is even more revealing. Biden is reportedly frustrated by his poor poll numbers, which he sees as a function of messaging. He thinks he deserves kudos for a strong economy while housing costs are skyrocketing; he complains that other Democrats don’t defend him on TV, yet his administration couldn’t be bothered to advocate for gun control on the Sunday news circuit in the wake of the Uvalde tragedy; he bemoans that Republicans don’t get enough blame for obstructing reforms — as though it’s a surprise that voters expect a party with trifecta control of the federal government to be able to legislate — even as Biden himself continues to extol the GOP’s reasonableness.
What’s left unsaid (at least from this reporting) is any possibility of acting more boldly. The only new-ish idea in the article is an anti-Trump slogan that the party now fears is backfiring. There’s no discussion of how much (if any) student debt the administration will cancel, or even when the interminable deliberations about it will conclude. There’s no suggestion of revisiting Biden’s own campaign proposals to ameliorate the effects of the very-much-still-ongoing pandemic. There’s no mention of aides urging him to stump for eliminating the Senate filibuster, or to revisit the proposal to rebalance the Supreme Court via expansion.
Perhaps such considerations were left on the cutting room floor (though if anything significant came up in NBC’s interviews it presumably would have been published), or the potential personnel shakeup will bring some bolder voices into the White House fold. But if a team of journalists can talk to 25 people close to the President about the need to change directions and not hear anything about spurring the administration into action? It’s hard not to infer that nobody in Biden’s circle understands the urgency of the moment, that the seven months left of this legislative term are the best chance we have to enact progressive change for quite some time. Maybe it’s not the American people who are having trouble getting the message.
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