Aloof, silent and disengaged: Why the Biden White House is in crisis

Does anybody know what's going on in the Biden White House? Do they have a strategy? It doesn't seem like it

By Brian Karem


Published December 16, 2021 9:25AM (EST)

Jen Psaki and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jen Psaki and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

The announcement over the loudspeaker in the White House informed us that a small group of mayors from cities across the country would be "at the sticks" of the stakeout area outside the West Wing in five minutes.

"Who are they and why are they here?" asked a reporter in the basement with a hint of amusement in her voice.

"Exactly," another chimed in.

Honestly? No one knew. Up until the announcement, Biden's communication staff had told us next to nothing about the meeting.

A handful of reporters and photographers dutifully trotted upstairs on Tuesday afternoon, from our tightly-packed working spaces in the bowels of the West Wing, and gathered outside the entrance as seven mayors from six different states walked out to the microphones and began talking.

The first thing we asked was for the mayors to identify themselves and why they were at the White House. In previous administrations, both of those questions would have been answered by a statement from the White House before the mayors took questions. They told us they had met with the Cabinet to discuss infrastructure and other issues the mayors face.

Jim Ross, the mayor of Arlington, Texas, praised the bipartisan atmosphere of the meeting.

"I'm tired of this not-working-together stuff," Ross told me afterward. He made a point of praising President Biden. "I'm conservative," he said. "But we're working together for everyone."

RELATED: Joe Biden's Christmas reboot: A tightly wound presidency badly needs some holiday cheer

The upbeat messaging from a diverse group of mayors from Atlanta, St. Petersburg, Arlington, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chattanooga and Boston also contained a warning for members of Congress. "This is how we get it done. We want Congress to work together the way mayors do. If we can do it, so can they," Ross explained.

The mayors also had an impromptu meeting with the president and a tour of the Oval Office. They were all excited about that. The White House downplayed the event.

Earlier in the day when asked about it, press secretary Jen Psaki was unable to speak about the mayors at the White House. Steve Portnoy of CBS News Radio asked specifically about that, and about the lack of guidance on the president's schedule for Tuesday.

"Can you tell us — the public schedule you guys put out last night is rather thin today. What is the president doing today?" Portnoy asked.

"Well, let's see," Psaki answered. "The president has two local interviews he will be doing later this afternoon. He has a number of internal meetings with senior members of his staff that have happened throughout the course of the day today. His Presidential Daily Brief. And I believe there's some mayors who are visiting today as well."

"What's the purpose of the meeting with the mayors?" Portnoy asked.

"It's not a meeting with the president. … They're here. I'm not going to get ahead of it beyond that. But he has a full schedule today."

It left us wondering if anyone knew what was going on at the White House. During previous administrations such a meeting of mayors would've been promoted, if for no other reason than to give the mayors support and publicity for the local news consumer. You know: "Coming up at six. Our mayor is at the White House. We'll have full details right after this commercial break."

During the Trump administration, someone like Kellyanne Conway would've made the morning shows, preaching about how great Trump was by reaching out to mayors and how he had personally solved all the world's ills by bringing them to the White House. Every day Trump had White House officials on morning shows, talking to reporters and preaching his company line. He never let an opportunity go by to make a public pitch.

Biden? We were in the dark until the mayors showed up to talk to us.

Houston, we have a problem. 

While the mayors put a decidedly positive spin on the activities of the White House, it's hard to tell from recent media headlines that Biden is doing his job. "To defend democracy, Biden must identify its foes," a recent Washington Post headline read. "We're Edging Closer to Civil War," a New York Times headline read on Dec. 12. In the Hill, it was reported that the Biden administration, rattled by bad poll numbers and bad publicity, is blaming the press: "The Biden White House, plagued by low approval ratings that have weakened the president's clout and raised fears among Democrats over next year's midterm elections, is blaming the media for some of its problems."

"Well, that's the Hill," a senior White House adviser said. "What do you expect?"

To be honest, the Biden White House has never blamed the media for its shortcomings — at least not in my experience. But that's also because the White House doesn't admit to any. Another senior White House official said the country is concerned about "COVID and the economy" and the closest this person would come to blaming the media for any public relations problems was to note that only reporters seem concerned about the president's public relations.

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It's true that if you look at social media or watch Fox News you'd think the country is overwhelmed with concern about a flaming Christmas tree, but that's only because that's what the country sees. It's what they don't see that matters. What the president is doing — that matters.

But the White House official who said COVID and the economy are major concerns isn't wrong. Those are the main issues. It's just that Biden's administration continues to be confused in its messaging and often misses great opportunities — like the mayors showing up at the White House — to promote what the administration is doing about major issues. You'd think the White House would benefit from a diverse group of mayors promoting Biden's achievements.

If regional reporters had known ahead of time the mayors were coming, there's a better chance when they walked out to the sticks there would have been regional reporters with regional issue questions ready to greet them. NBC's Peter Alexander, myself and one or two other reporters asked the bulk of the questions. Few were specific to the mayors' respective cities, states and regions.

There's no denying that COVID and the economy continue to be major issues for everyone in this country, but the question of what the president is doing about those issues has people concerned. Unless you're of the anti-vaxxing crowd, the anti-science crowd or the "Only Trump can save us" brand of lunatic, then Biden has done well in dealing with the pandemic. 

But what is killing the president's popularity right now is inflation. Biden hasn't proposed anything as ridiculous as the WIN buttons ("Whip Inflation Now") that Gerald Ford infamously rolled out in the mid-1970s, but the current White House hasn't framed the issue well, nor addressed it well enough to convince voters that Biden knows what he's doing. 

At first, the administration told us in briefings that inflation was a temporary blip on the radar screen. Later the story changed, and it still doesn't appear Biden or his administration understands the difference between appearance and reality. True, inflation isn't as bad today as the 12.3% increases that prompted Ford to invest in millions of useless buttons. But Biden has let his opposition frame the argument, casting him as a classic liberal intent on taxing and spending us into oblivion and also allowing his political opponents to use gas prices as the wedge to destroy his credibility. That is the story dominating a lot of media coverage.

I'm sure this angers Biden. Every president I've covered since Ronald Reagan wants to shoot the messenger. Reagan's deputy press secretary, Larry Speakes, once famously told us that he wouldn't tell us how to report the news and we shouldn't tell the administration how to stage the news.

Every president has fought with us. That's not unusual. It is expected. The president, rightly so, is trying to put his best foot forward. We in the press are supposed to try and dig for the truth. We're not, nor should we be, cheerleaders for the administration. Each administration hires their own cheerleaders.

The Biden administration, smarting from falling polling numbers, the rise of inflation and the orange-hued mosquito that still draws blood (i.e., Trump) is understandably upset. But the administration still misunderstands the problem.

There is no denying there is a problem in the press. Right-wing media has portrayed liberals as drooling over the damage done in Kentucky by tornadoes. A burning Christmas tree is seen as a sign of bad government and gets more airplay on some networks than members of the Republican Party engaging in treason.

Government intervention over the last 40 years (starting with Ronald Reagan and including every president since) has led to  the demonization of the media. At the same time, the government has removed all the guardrails that led to institutional trust. Obama misused the Espionage Act. Reagan killed the Fairness Doctrine. The 1996 Telecommunications Act set off a wave of mergers that have killed independence in the press. George W. Bush's Patriot Act killed independent reporting.

Yes, the press is bad. But it's hypocritical to blame anyone or anything other than our own government for making it that way.

Donald Trump called us the enemy. He was a bully. He tried to marginalize us and demonize us. In doing so, Trump used up all the oxygen in the room as the press tried to deal with a madman running loose through the countryside, taking a hatchet to the Constitution. 

Biden's problem is the opposite: He doesn't take all of the oxygen in the room. He doesn't have to do that by destroying the Constitution. He could do it by showing people what he's actually doing, but his skittish nature in personally addressing the public or sending his surrogates out to the television shows or to "the sticks" in front of the West Wing, has left an unfulfilled demand for news. Since nature abhors a vacuum, there's plenty of room left for Donald Trump and his addled acolytes to preach their poison.

There are some on Biden's staff who believe reporters like Trump more than they like Biden. But many who are at the White House today didn't even cover Trump, and those of us who did are in no way pining for the return of a man who kept us up late every day, having to rewrite stories at the last minute because he had just said something outrageously mean, stupid or dangerous. Most of us spent those years drinking coffee by the gallon and sweating in cheap suits so much that the White House press offices smelled like chicken noodle soup. With Trump's departure, death threats against us abated. I haven't had to sue Biden to keep my press pass and life has returned to a boringly numb routine during press briefings.

But there is continued animosity against Biden. He hasn't had a press conference in a year and has limited interaction with the press. I asked again about that on Tuesday and was told by Psaki that if Biden were to have a press conference I would know and I'd be invited. 

What do I say to that? Thanks?

We didn't come to Washington to cover a press secretary. We're here to cover the president. Most of the animosity against Biden among the press would ebb away should he decide to engage in a news conference or send his people out more frequently to fill up the news shows.

Senior staffers think it's just the press, "and not the American people," who want more interaction. But ratings and polling show otherwise. The electorate needs to be constantly informed. Repetition, as Trump showed, has a strategic benefit. 

After the missed opportunity with the mayors on Tuesday, I'm beginning to wonder if anyone in this administration understands this.

More from Brian Karem on the troubles and travails of the Biden White House:

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Commentary Inflation Jen Psaki Joe Biden Media Pandemic