Looking for a new voice, Biden turns to Obama veteran
Weeks before Ketanji Brown Jackson was tapped as a Supreme Court nominee last year, the White House knew the confirmation process would be a political fight for the ages.
Republicans were already attacking the would-be nominee before Biden had even selected Jackson or publicly uttered her name.
It was then that Biden turned to Ben LaBolt, one of the most respected communications professionals in Democratic circles, to help guide the first Black woman Supreme Court justice to confirmation and lead the messaging wars during one of the biggest fights of his presidency.
Now, a year later, LaBolt, 41, is returning to the West Wing as Biden’s communications director as the president prepares his battle for reelection.
“Ben knows about the art of trench warfare, and that’s the type of person you want for your team when you’re about to be in the fight of your life,” said Democratic strategist Lis Smith, who served as a communications adviser to Pete Buttigieg during his 2020 presidential campaign. “He knows how to take a punch, but he also knows how to land one.”
Democrats say Biden’s selection of LaBolt is particularly noteworthy because the president — who has relied for years on a small, air-tight inner circle — is bringing in a relative outsider for the influential role.
While he worked on Biden’s 2020 presidential transition, LaBolt is known in the political universe as an “Obama guy.” He started with the former president as a communications aide when he was a senator and then moved to his 2008 presidential campaign, before landing in Obama’s White House press shop. Later, he would go on to serve as one of the most prominent faces of the Obama 2012 campaign, making daily television appearances on behalf of the president.
“It shows how seriously the president is taking this reelection fight,” one Democratic strategist said, adding that it’s meaningful that he’s going “outside the family.”
LaBolt starts his new gig on March 1, just as Biden prepares to launch his bid for reelection. Bide is also grappling with a new House GOP majority ramping up investigations, including one focused on his son, Hunter Biden.
“It speaks to the White House’s understanding that they need someone who is smart about governing but also strategic about politics, helming their communications operation,” Smith said. “Republicans are going to be making Joe Biden’s life hell.”
LaBolt’s arrival also coincides with a rash of headlines surrounding the president in recent weeks on issues like unidentified flying objects and the discovery of classified documents at his former office and his Wilmington, Del., home.
The White House has been criticized by some Democrats at times for being too lax in its communications strategy. Democrats were particularly miffed last year when Biden’s team seemed flat-footed in its messaging following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
There have also been complaints from Democrats that the White House should be doing more to boast about the president’s accomplishments, including his economic success stories.
LaBolt can offer new ideas, those around him say.
“You need fresh thinking. You need a different perspective,” said Marti Adams, who served until recently as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s executive secretary and worked with LaBolt on Obama’s 2012 campaign. “The dynamics the White House is dealing with are so complex. I think it would have been a mistake to rely on the same playbook.”
Those who know LaBolt — who will be the first openly gay communications director — say he brings a unique perspective to the role because of the depth of his experiences.
The Illinois native began his political career on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, followed by stints at the Democratic National Committee and in the congressional offices of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio.)
Most recently, he served as a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive in San Francisco, the Democratic firm where he worked alongside Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary under Obama.
“Ben will be a huge asset for President Biden because he has experience in every facet of politics,” said Tommy Vietor, the co-host of the popular podcast Pod Save America who worked with LaBolt in the White House press office under Obama. “Ben knows how to manage complicated, deeply reported stories, and he understands how to lead a team and keep everyone on message.”
Those who worked with LaBolt on Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination process say he was instrumental in leading the overall press strategy, including making sure it was tailored to persuadable senators like Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
He coordinated messaging strategies with outside groups, helping to ensure everyone stayed on message.
And he participated in prep sessions for Jackson, previewing likely questions and lines of attack from Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.
“He is someone who is always on top of things,” said former Sen. Doug Jones, (D-Ala.) who worked alongside LaBolt during Jackson’s confirmation process. “He has good instincts.”
That skillset will be helpful in his new role, Jones said.
“He is politically savvy enough to know everything the White House does has a political overtone, and he will serve the president and the candidate well,” he said.
LaBolt is known among friends and associates for bringing a dry sense of humor and levity to tense situations on the job.
For years, he has been known to frequently respond to bad news, a mundane question from a reporter, or a less-than-ideal predicament with one line: “Best day of my life.”
When he served at the White House and on the Obama campaigns, after receiving press inquiries he regarded as silly or trivial, he famously emailed reporters a photo of a crying mime.
The mime became such a staple and a symbol for LaBolt and his own communications, that the president’s aides hired a real mime to come into their campaign headquarters for the spokesman’s birthday in 2012.
“There were some bad days, but he never lets the moments get to him,” Smith said. “He’s really good at making sure no one on the communications team got down in the dumps with his inspirational and colorful speeches.
“Yes, there were some four-letter words here and there,” she added.
Adams said his demeanor is pitch-perfect for his new role.
“He’s exactly who you want to be in the trenches with,” she said.
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