An NBC News profile of the Biden White House details the classic strategies any listing administration employs to avoid reckoning with its own shortcomings. The president, we’re told, inherited a historic mess from which no mere mortal could extricate the nation. On top of that, new and equally momentous challenges suddenly presented themselves. Biden has been ill-served by his unfit and meddling staffers. And Republicans in Congress, who stubbornly continue to exist, won’t just roll over and die. It’s all rather vexing, and the White House wants you to know it.
Biden is reportedly “unhappy” with staffers who feel that they must “clean up” his comments when those comments undermine longstanding U.S. policy, contradict his administration’s position on issues, or are generally incomprehensible. “Any assessment of Biden’s performance needs to take into account the epic challenges he faced from the start,” NBC’s dispatch conceded, citing one friendly author who claimed the president is contending with “the most daunting set of challenges arguably since Franklin D. Roosevelt.” In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Monday under Joe Biden’s byline, which can only be read as a companion piece, the president lashed out at the Federal Reserve and Congress for failing to curtail inflation.
“I’ve heard him say recently that he used to say about President Obama’s tenure that everything landed on his desk but locusts, and now he understands how that feels,” one unnamed White House official told NBC’s reporters. That’s a revealing admission. Consciously or otherwise, the Biden administration is channeling the Obama White House’s self-indulgence.
“Now, let’s face it,” Barack Obama told a group of Democratic donors at roughly the same point in his presidency, “this has been the toughest year and a half since any year and a half since the 1930s.” In public and private, the former president regularly lamented the circumstances that befell his presidency—from the ploddingly slow economic recovery to the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. In his own telling, Obama was a victim of circumstance. His pursuit of higher tax rates, support for a burdensome regulatory environment, and the ill-considered withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq deserve more credit for the conditions they created.
The former president bristled at the GOP’s critique of his administration’s profligacy. “It’s like somebody goes to a restaurant, orders a big steak dinner, martini, and all that stuff, and then just as you’re sitting down, they leave and accuse you of running up the tab,” Obama told another group of donors. The blame for America’s ballooning debt, which just about doubled under his watch, could be laid at the feet of structural forces, reckless actors in the private sector, and, of course, Republicans. Obama and his team convinced themselves that they could talk Americans into believing their objectively unenviable economic circumstances weren’t that bad after all. Biden’s team seems to have bought into the same myth.
Obama was similarly ill-served by his staff. When the president declared that “the private sector is doing fine” in the summer of 2012 (only to later admit that “the economy is not doing fine”), Obama’s staff did their best to suggest the president had not said what the nation heard him say. From “you didn’t build that” to Obama’s “hot mic” moment confessing to nominal Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” in his second term, the president’s aides (and much of the journalistic establishment) were quick to “clean up” and “contextualize” those remarks. Before White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain was the subject of much second-guessing, it was Rahm Emanuel who was failing the president.
Every president inherits a set of circumstances, some of which are more advantageous than others. Every president encounters unforeseen challenges. Every president is opposed by the party out of power. And although Biden has a talent for malapropisms, every president relies on his communications staffers to mop up after a gaffe or misstatement. The Biden White House isn’t uniquely beset by the forces of history. Indeed, so much of what the president and those in his orbit resent are conditions they either contributed to or incepted into existence.
Like the Obama White House, the Biden administration is projecting indignation and frustration but communicating impotence. Rather than curse the unfairness of it all, the president’s supporters would be better served by encouraging the Biden administration to snap out of it. The self-pitying stage is a signpost on a long road toward an outright failed presidency or at least an unremarkable one.