Pete Buttigieg wasn’t quite feeling it.
It was late and White House aides had given him the cryptic guidance during their prep call for his Sunday show appearances on July 24: “We’re not taking any swings.”
That last weekend in July, the transportation secretary was – like most Democrats – still reeling from the latest death of a reconciliation bill tackling climate change that he and so many others had hoped for. The potential loss of the electric vehicles tax credits he had worked on most closely, and the bigger goals like carbon emissions cuts had Buttigieg feeling dejected, despondent.
The circle of those in the know had been kept so tight that even Buttigieg, one of the Cabinet secretaries closest to President Joe Biden who was managing some of the policies involved – and a top TV pitchman – didn’t know how much was on the cusp of changing.
“There was a sense that things had stalled,” acknowledged a top Biden adviser. “People felt that they weren’t seeing what they thought they were going to see.”
The upside to a year and a half of false starts and breakdowns, Democrats say: They stumbled into having a pile of good news right before midterm campaigning really picks up, and just as the average gas price has fallen below $4 and Donald Trump’s last week included having the FBI search Mar-a-Lago and invoking the Fifth Amendment hundreds of times to the New York attorney general.
Three days after Buttigieg’s TV appearances, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called Biden to tell him that he’d landed the deal with Manchin and brought the President’s agenda back to life.
With that deal, which included deficit reductions and the biggest investments in combating climate change the US has ever made, now through Congress and headed to the President’s desk, Biden and his team are rushing to reset the image they allowed to settle in of a doddering president wiling away his days in the Oval Office as time passed him by.
Three dozen White House aides, members of Congress and top staff as well as top political operatives spoke to CNN about Biden’s race against time to change perceptions of his presidency. It’s a sprint aimed at defying history by salvaging the Democratic majorities in Congress in the November midterms and – just as critically for the President – staving off any more defections from within his own party as he looks toward the reelection campaign that he is indeed planning to launch early next year.
While some even within the administration see the West Wing trying to put a rosy spin on a President who wasn’t doing much, aides who were most deeply involved point to calibrated, multi-dimension, simultaneous strategies often overlooked by those focused only on Biden jawboning his way through Oval Office meetings.
There was making sure Buttigieg held back in those Sunday show interviews. There was deploying Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo for intense national security briefings about China on the Hill to push through the CHIPS and Science Act. There was the group of aides who huddled by the sofa in the Roosevelt Room about how to feed an echo chamber of prominent liberals blasting Senate Republicans for initially refusing to pass the veterans burn pits health bill out of anger at the reconciliation deal – and then get the tweets they helped generate in front of wavering Democrats to convince them to give up their objections for the sake of helping mess with Republicans.
And there was the quiet coordination with Manchin and Schumer as Biden held off declaring the climate emergency that many activists and Democratic officials were demanding, though they knew that would once again mean the President getting raked on social media by his own supporters. Though several options were prepared for how to declare a climate emergency, Biden aides say that gamble captures their approach: As disappointed as many of Biden’s supporters were in the moment, passing a law produced a much bigger result that can’t just be rescinded by a future president.
What came together “was not an overnight thing,” the adviser said. Biden “plays the long game and really does have the ability to look ahead and know you’re going to go through the rocky periods to get there.”
Biden’s caution not to make huge demands on any of the bills – not calling for universal background checks in the gun reform, or for his full Build Back Better agenda to make it through reconciliation, was also key. “This President, by not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, helped make so many of these things happen,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.
The climate provisions are a perfect example of where the White House feels Biden’s role in setting the direction is being under-appreciated: Manchin wouldn’t have been the 50th vote without Schumer, but they say there wouldn’t have been 49 out of 50 votes there without Biden. Obama, they’ll note, didn’t get 50 out of 59 of his Senate Democrats on his cap-and-trade plan.
But by focusing on investments in clean energy projects that brought labor on board – and tending to a network of unions to keep speaking up in support, much like the network of veterans’ groups they were in touch with on the burn pits bill – instead of carbon fees, Biden “built a climate plan that fused 49 (Democrats) together and the fusion stuck all the way,” said a senior White House aide. “Obviously, not enough without Manchin. But without Biden’s approach, you aren’t even one vote away.”
Still, when Schumer finished the negotiations, his first stop was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, telling they had to talk with no staff in the room to keep it secret. She agreed to the terms. Biden, who’d given Schumer his sign off during a call a week and a half earlier, was the next call, to hear that it was done.
Along the way, close advisers say, Biden has proven his theory of his presidency: that major legislation can still actually move through Washington, that it can happen with bipartisan agreement even amid simultaneous partisan fights, that what may seem like outdated rules of governing and politics actually still matter in the age of instant gratification. That the answer to people yelling or threatening isn’t to yell back, no matter what was said about him by Republicans or his own party.
In this wave of momentum inside the White House, aides often bring up the people who called Biden “naïve,” just to swat that notion down. The phrase Biden and his aides return to often is that he and his allies have “met this moment.” Some in the West Wing have been sending around a line from his South Carolina victory speech in 2020, when luck and circumstance and strategy and perseverance suddenly resurrected then-candidate Biden after he seemed like he was finished: “For those that have been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign.”
“We can’t do it all the time, and we can’t do it a lot of the time, but there are occasions when we can come together, and we should. And that’s an important signal for the country,” a senior White House official said late last week.
Before they cautioned Buttigieg against going too hard, Biden’s aides had been planning his own big speech at the end of July, in Wisconsin – until aides to Gov. Tony Evers, who’s in a tight reelection fight, urged him not to come so they could avoid being together. White House aides had decided to go through with it anyway, until they realized that the necessary security measures would force them to cancel the local favorite Oshkosh Air Show.
Now that big Biden speech is being planned for shortly after Labor Day. Aides are preparing a hard-hitting kick off for midterm campaigning, with the President touting tangible, long-talked-about wins like lowering prescription drug costs and gun restrictions while hammering Republicans for being extremists who are in the pocket of special interests.
The hole Biden is hoping to crawl out of is deep, and it’s dark. Around the time when the Wisconsin speech would have happened, top Democratic operatives were quietly passing around numbers that left them depressed but not surprised. Biden’s disapproval rating was higher than his approval rating in Delaware – the state he represented for 36 years in the Senate, where they named the main rest stop and the train station for him years before he was elected president.
The numbers have been worse elsewhere. In state after state, district after district, with as much as a 20- to 25-point gaps between voters’ feelings about Biden and their feelings about the Democratic candidates for governor, Senate and House. For the August special election for a House district where Biden edged out Trump in 2020, the Democratic candidate is ahead in two internal polls, but Biden’s approval is in the mid-30s.
All summer long, Democratic focus groups across the country came back with a consistent complaint about Biden: He didn’t seem like he was even trying to deal with inflation or really anything else.
Approval ratings circled the drain – “there’s no bottom,” one operative in a high-profile race said late last month. Asked about Biden’s numbers, Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly insisted he didn’t know how bad they were. Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, another one of Democrats’ most endangered incumbents, ducked answering a question about whether she’d be dragged down by Biden’s low approval rating by saying, “I can just tell you I don’t take Nevadans for granted.”
“It’s a time where everybody’s has been through so much, and even though their own personal situation may be fine, there’s a lot of anxiety in the country,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, trying to explain how much people had turned on Biden, even as other Democrats and the Democratic agenda remained popular.
In the weeks after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and nothing else was going right, that disenchantment started leeching into the Oval Office too.
“When you’re the president, you’re the vessel for that frustration. And it’s hard, when you’re the most powerful person in the world, and you can’t do anything about it,” said another White House aide.
A change in the political winds
Getting the guns bill passed in the wake of the horrible school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, was an important hinge moment, aides say.
Not only did it show that Republicans and Democrats could make a deal on an intractable issue, but it showed the passion in Biden that had not been evident in prior weeks. The issue has been personally important to the President ever since he was the senator who shepherded through the last major gun legislation 30 years ago.
Killing Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, aides said, was another important jolt internally, though largely lost in the cascade of other news. An adviser called that a “proof of concept” moment for a President whose long résumé lacked much of that commander-in-chief experience.
“The Beltway crowd dismissed him as out of touch,” said New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic Caucus chairman. “The agenda that he oversaw was widely popular with the American people. … Now these wins will only allow President Biden’s approval rating to catch up with the popularity of the agenda he’s put forward.”
If Biden can start to climb up a few points, hopeful Democratic operatives say, then candidates who were holding even against Republicans while he was in the 30s might really have a shot at winning. They’re not sure there’s enough time to turn public perception around, though, and Republicans are still looking to make him an anchor.
“None of them want to say they’re with Biden,” said Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the Senate GOP campaign arm. “I think they’re I think they’re trying to separate themselves from Biden all the time.”
The vibe shift in the last two weeks can be overstated. Pockets of staff dysfunction persist. The close klatch of aging advisers remains largely impenetrable for the rest of the staff, and even several high-level aides say they’re mystified about why decisions are so hard to make or why the President is sticking with his sparse public schedule.
Internal chatter a few weeks ago that the author Jon Meacham was about to officially join the West Wing as a top communications staffer encapsulated aides’ sense of ideas being flung against the wall. A decision on student loan cancellation that was originally promised in the spring will, in true Biden fashion, almost certainly be pushed all the way to the deadline on August 31 and, no matter where it lands, will end up frustrating some on the left for not going far enough.
Still convincing his party over 2024
Raul Ruiz, a physician and California congressman who was a key proponent of the burn pits legislation, stood outside the White House after the bill signing on Wednesday recalling how he’d started talking with Biden about the issue all the way back in 2018, a few minutes before a speech to buck up the House Democrats during the Trump years.
“People are going to start to realize this is Joe Biden’s doing. The difficulty is that, of course, there’s always a lag time to implementation,” Ruiz said. “But he will still be in office for the next two years. And once all these benefits start kicking in and lives have been improved, then he will be in office another four years.”
Biden still has convincing to do even among other Democratic leaders. Two New York members of Congress facing off in a primary against each other were both caught hesitating on supporting Biden for reelection in their primary debate. Both quickly backtracked, but one, Rep. Jerry Nadler, has told people that he believes the question is a Republican trap, getting Democrats talking about the future of an unpopular President rather than the more immediate questions about the Democratic agenda and what he sees as the Republican threat.
Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, meanwhile, told CNN that as excited as he is about all Biden’s recent successes, he stands by comments he made late last month arguing that Biden shouldn’t run for reelection.
He said “tens” of colleagues have reached out to him to say they agreed, with several members also telling CNN privately that they worry about a rush of similar announcements urging Biden to step aside if Republicans still come out of the midterms with big victories.
“It has not changed my perspective or feelings one iota,” Phillips said. “This is the perfect time. The president himself used the term ‘bridge,’ that he would be a generational bridge. I’d like to see Joe Biden go out on top after having served as the most important, remarkable bridge at a time when the country was literally teetering.”
Comments like that leave Biden and his orbit wondering – after winning the presidency when few thought he could and scoring a legislative record few modern presidents can match – what it will take to get his own party to cheer him into reelection rather than continuing to circulate doubts.
“People should take him at his word. He generally is someone who tells you exactly what he’s going to do,” the top Biden adviser said. “This record of achievements and accomplishments—that is the kind of record you run on.”