Good Friday Morning! I love a good underdog story in sports, except when it comes to my teams. The first round of the conference finals in the NHL gave us early upsets of the Tampa-Bay Lightening. In the NBA, the Celtics shocked the Warriors in game one of the Finals. But in college baseball, the dominance of the Tennessee Baseball team has been consistent all year. We get to see how consistent they are as the number one seed in the NCAA College World Series.
It was a strange week for Joe Biden and his relationship with the media back in the real world. Three outlets, NBC News, CNN, and The Washington Post, came out with harsh, reported stories of his administration this week. The narrative within those stories is worth teasing out–Links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
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[05/23/2022] The tide has turned to the right on gun rights – Conservative Institute
[05/27/2022] The show vote Presidency – Conservative Institute
White House Press Corp declares open season on Biden’s management.
In November, I wrote about an odd dam break in the media. That was when multiple outlets started running negative stories about Kamala Harris at once. One account is intriguing; everyone jumping at once is a signal. After that dustup, things cooled down around Harris’s stories, but she’s gotten sidelined and forgotten in the interim.
We’ve had another dam break of stories this week, but they all center around Joe Biden. The general narrative around these stories is that the Biden White House is “adrift,” consumed with infighting, and lacks a plan or vision.
The three stories are:
- Inside a Biden White House adrift: Amid a rolling series of calamities and sinking approval ratings, the president’s feeling lately is that he just can’t catch a break — and that angst is rippling through his party. – NBC News
- White House scrambles on inflation after Biden complains to aides – Washington Post
- Beneath Biden’s struggle to break through is a deeper dysfunction among White House aides – CNN
Of those three stories, the NBC News article is the most important. These stories tell us that coming out of Memorial Day weekend, the top thing in the White House involves aides gossiping to journalists. The media honeymoon is over for Biden — they’re attacking him.
It’s anyone’s guess whether this is a conscious effort in the press (the Harris stories were that) or everyone jumping ships with the White House to save their hide. One of the working theories on the right is that specific segments of the Democratic Party are trying to push Biden out of running in 2024, and they’re preparing the ground now. I don’t have a dog in any of those theories, but I think it’s notable these stories are coming out.
Let’s walk through them. The NBC News article was first on Tuesday morning, followed by the Washington Post later that day, and then CNN on Thursday. We’re going to start with the Post, though. It’s the only reported piece of the three, relying less on anonymous sources.
The Washington Post story.
The critical passages come early on as the Post frames the actions of the Biden administration this week. If you weren’t paying attention (and I don’t blame you), the White House is making a “pivot” to inflation this month. They’ve finally realized this is an issue, and they’re acting. Here’s the Post:
Aiming to demonstrate to the public that it is responding to its concerns, Biden met with Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell in the Oval Office, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about inflation and sent top aides across major networks to push the administration’s economic message.
The flurry of activity comes after Biden has privately grumbled to top White House officials over the administration’s handling of inflation, expressing frustration over the past several months that aides were not doing enough to confront the problem directly, two people familiar with the president’s comments said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
The flurry of moves reflects a new urgency within the White House as it grapples with the growing likelihood that high inflation will extend through the midterm elections, eclipsing Biden’s agenda and undermining his ability to tout his accomplishments — and that there may be little Biden can do about it.
Over the last week, the White House blitz involved publishing two op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, meant to drive its narrative. The White House then held a meeting with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell. It then trotted out Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to discuss how they missed tackling inflation.
The Post calls this a “flurry.” If we’re being honest, that’s an apt description this week for this White House, which is normally anything but. Buried in the middle of that paragraph is this reported observation:
While not announcing any new measures to combat inflation, the White House insisted the American economy is in strong position for the Federal Reserve to tame high prices, because high growth and low unemployment create a buffer against future interest rate hikes.
The Post added a qualifier to the White House message of its actions, saying they’re “not announcing any new measures to combat inflation.” The Post pokes holes throughout the piece, calling out the White House for poor messaging, mixed messages, and a complicated relationship with the Federal Reserve.
For a newspaper that’s kept a friendly relationship with this White House, it’s a stunning about-face.
The NBC News story.
But the Post story didn’t get published in a vacuum. The critical piece of the week was the NBC News report calling the White House “adrift.” That report covers a lot of ground, but the key takeaway is that people are talking about Biden now. And none of it is good.
The first thing you need to know about this NBC News report is that it has six bylines — six reporters had to help line everything up for this story. That’s excessive — but I don’t think it’s enough. The person they don’t list, who I think very clearly contributed to this report, is former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. She left the White House on May 13, 2022, for MSNBC. And two weeks later, all of a sudden, NBC News is running an exclusive, deeply reported piece on the inner workings of the White House.
My eyebrows are raised.
I’d be curious when Psaki started feeding NBC News information for their reports on her post-White House life. There are a lot of ethical issues with her jump.
Regardless, the report walks through several issues. Let’s take one of them: the Baby formula shortage (which is getting worse as Biden is now “focused” on it). NBC News reports:
Amid a rolling series of calamities, Biden’s feeling lately is that he just can’t catch a break. “Biden is frustrated. If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said a person close to the president.
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.
Biden is annoyed that he wasn’t alerted sooner about the baby formula shortage and that he got his first briefing in the past month, even though the crisis had long been in the making. (The White House didn’t specify when Biden got his first briefing on the formula shortage.) His nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Robert Califf, told Congress last week that the agency was sluggish and that it had made “suboptimal” decisions as parents hunted for formula on empty store shelves.
The White House repeated, during tough questioning, that it refused to say when Biden first got briefed on the baby formula shortage. You can take that two ways: 1) Biden was briefed early on and did nothing, or 2) No one in the White House followed the baby formula shortage, which started in November of last year, and Biden’s first briefing was when they all learned about it.
Neither is good, but the administration’s reaction tells you that those are probably your only options.
The annoyance with aides and advisors is apparent in one utterly bizarre passage.
At a meeting with advisers about a month ago, Biden was surprised to see polling that indicated he had dropped among suburban women, according to two people familiar with the meeting. An adviser said Biden gets weekly polling briefings that delve into “key demographics” and that, because he is kept apprised regularly, he didn’t have that reaction. (At a news conference in September, Biden said flatly, “I don’t look at the polls — not a joke.”)
The White House official denied that Biden is feeling frustrated. “What he’s pushing for is to make a sharper case for all that we have accomplished thus far,” this person said.
Note how this is structured. The first sentence: Biden is surprised at polling. The second sentence argues the first sentence is impossible because Biden gets weekly polling updates. In the third sentence, Biden’s own words reject that the first two sentences ever happened. It’s a Russian nesting doll of contradiction. Presumably, a fourth sentence would contract everything remaining.
Charitably, you can read the first sentence as coming from a Biden loyalist trying to blame bad aides. The second sentence could be sourced from Biden aides who are souring on him. And then the last one is Biden bloviating.
What’s the truth? Who knows. We do know that no one in the White House can get a simple thing like polling briefs right. Either they don’t know, or they’re all telling versions of what happened to flatter their perspective.
The CNN story.
That leaves us with the CNN story. I can tell you who the sources are from CNN: the disgruntled aides. The angle CNN takes makes this quite clear.
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.”
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.
And then CNN goes on at length on the failures of the White House to take any action on anything. The White House will talk about doing something, memos get sent, plans made, and then nothing happens. Everyone blames each other, and the cycle repeats.
From the beginning of the Biden Presidency, I’ve noted how this was a bizarre administration several times. Typically, a President runs to be out in front of an issue. Biden says little and does less.
CNN’s reporting talks about Biden not understanding the new media environment. But Donald Trump had older media habits, too, watching cable television and tweeting incessantly. Trump broke through. Biden does not. That’s not media habits; it’s the man himself.
CNN went even further, posting a “news analysis” piece, which is code for “journalist writing an op-ed,” titled: “Biden looks powerless as crises crest around him.” The headline tells you that it’s open season at CNN.
And I get the flurry of activity. Biden’s poll numbers are awful. The RealClearPolitics average has him at 40% approval and 54% disapproval. FiveThirtyEight sits at similar levels. Those averages were in danger of flipping over to 55% disapproval for a brief moment. Reuters posted an eye-watering poll last week showing Biden at 36% approval and 59% disapproval, which is the worst poll he’s gotten yet.
To say things are bad is an understatement. The ship is sinking. The rats are openly talking to the journalists.
For now, put a pin in these stories. Like the Harris narratives, it could be a setup for something down the road. Or it could be mouthy aides. For now, I’d expect Biden to blame his staff for midterm losses while the team and Democrats blame Biden.
Whatever happens, the media has declared open season on Biden’s management of the White House. And former Biden aides are ready to work with current staff to build that narrative. That’s a new chapter.
Links of the week
One in Five US States Is 90% Out of Baby Formula – Bloomberg
China’s Top Two Leaders Diverge in Messaging on Covid Impact: Premier Li Keqiang acknowledges business impact of lockdowns and touts vaccinations in meetings with foreign executives, marking a contrast with President Xi Jinping – WSJ
Stop Lying about the Historical Understanding of Gun Rights – Charles C. W. Cooke, National Review
Europe’s lost ‘breadbasket’: How Russia’s war in Ukraine is stoking a global food crisis: Farmers across Ukraine are unable to sow their land while also struggling to ship harvested crops out due to a Russian blockade of the country’s critical Black Sea ports. – NBC News
SCOTUS Investigation Demands Phone Records From Clerks, Who Must Sign Affidavits: Leaks about the leaks continue. – Josh Blackman, Volokh Conspiracy
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Thanks for reading!