New crises pose challenge for White House

President BidenJoe Biden 64 percent of Iowans say 'time for someone else' to hold Grassley's Senate seat: poll Philadelphia shooting leaves 2 dead, injures toddler Ron Johnson booed at Juneteenth celebration in Wisconsin MORE entered office knowing he was inheriting dueling crises in the coronavirus pandemic and a massive economic slowdown, but the White House is now grappling with several challenges beyond those at the top of Biden’s mind.

The new challenges are testing the resolve and abilities of the president and his team as they approach the four-month mark of his administration.

The latest is the cyberattack against Colonial Pipeline that’s shaken Americans and prompted fuel hoarding and gas shortages along the East Coast of the United States.


Biden’s national security team is simultaneously trying to ease escalating hostilities between Israel and Hamas while domestic policy officials work to get coronavirus relief out the door as quickly as possible following a disappointing April jobs report.

The lower-than-expected employment gains coupled with a new report showing accelerating inflation is testing Biden’s economic agenda and his plans for spending $4 trillion on infrastructure and social safety net programs. With an eye toward the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans are seeking to weaponize some of the new developments against Biden, having already seized on the increase in migrants at the southern border.

Biden brought on veteran government officials to serve in his White House and broader administration, something that puts him at an advantage in tackling competing crises, and he has been laser-focused on the pandemic since even before taking office on Jan. 20.

In remarks on the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack Thursday, Biden called for calm and patience as operations return to normal, echoing his overall tenor on the pandemic.

“This is not like flicking on a light switch,” Biden said from the Roosevelt Room. “This is a temporary situation. Do not get more gas than you need in the next few days. Panic buying will only slow the process.”

The White House has mounted a concerted effort, externally and internally, to confront the situation, with officials appearing at regular briefings three consecutive days this week to explain the administration’s response to mitigate fuel shortages.


“In many cases with crises, the White House is not the action agent. It’s often a department or agency that is an action agent, but what we demand from the White House is for them to: A, show us that they are in charge … and B, to be accountable to the events as they unfold,” said Tony Fratto, deputy press secretary under former President George W. Bush.

“They have got a sense of how things are supposed to be done and I think they are hitting all of those marks,” Fratto said of the Biden officials. “It is refreshing to see after the past four years when you never knew what to expect from the White House except for an early morning tweet.”

Biden has drawn perhaps the most significant contrast with former President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE in his response to the pandemic. He has set modest, achievable goals on vaccines  often exceeding them ahead of schedule  while clearly communicating public health guidelines. Trump often set lofty goals that he wasn’t able to meet and behaved as if the virus was in the rearview mirror.

The U.S. notched a major milestone on Thursday when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors.

Still, the White House’s attention and resources have been pulled in multiple directions since Biden took office as challenges have mounted beyond the pandemic, both domestically and abroad.

Biden has had to contend with bitter winter weather that left millions without power across the South; two high-profile mass shootings in the span of a week; a surge in migrants, including young unaccompanied children, at the southern border; Russian provocations in Ukraine; and now violence in the Middle East and fallout from the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack.

Ben LaBolt, who served as a spokesman in the Obama White House, said Biden and his team “came into the office battle tested and with more experience managing government than any administration in recent memory.”

“They hit the ground running with an aggressive plan to use executive authority to combat the pandemic while moving quickly to get a historic package through a tightly divided Congress,” LaBolt said. “This team can walk and chew gum at the same time. They know it’s easy to get overtaken by events in the White House and they’ve so far successfully managed incoming on multiple fronts without getting distracted from the core mission of stemming the pandemic while supercharging the economy.”

Some Democrats acknowledge, however, that the administration has been more successful at confronting the pandemic than it has with other unforeseen challenges, such as the situation at the border.

"These kinds of things tend to creep up on you if you're focused too much on one issue," said one Democratic strategist. "They definitely needed to make the pandemic a priority, but I don't see the same focus on other issues facing the nation and that's when they can get into trouble.”

The April jobs report, the strategist said, also showed that "they have their work cut out for them."

Polls show that Biden enjoys strong numbers on his handling of the pandemic, with 71 percent of Americans approving of his performance, according to a recent Associated Press-NORC poll. Fifty-seven percent approve of his handling of the economy, while less than half approve of how he’s handling both gun policies and immigration.


Republicans have regularly attacked the president on the border issue, arguing that Biden’s policies are responsible for the migrant surge. They have also criticized his $1.9 trillion economic relief bill in the wake of the April jobs report, arguing that enhanced unemployment benefits drove down growth, which the White House has disputed.

William Howell, a political science professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, noted that even before taking office Biden pointed to crises like climate change, racial injustice and the pandemic as reasons for a big, bold agenda.

“Crises cut in two ways and I think we’re seeing them both. Pitched that way, they justify and buoy presidential claims to power but crises also can distract and make life really difficult for a president who is trying to methodically advance a policy agenda and can also serve as fodder for his critics,” Howell said.

Biden has tried to balance the demands of the moment without deviating too much from his overall agenda.

After the shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo., in March, Biden interrupted his coronavirus relief victory lap to decry anti-Asian violence and call on Congress to ban assault weapons and strengthen background checks. While the White House accelerated efforts to draft executive orders on gun control, Biden plowed forward on his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan.

More recently, the president and his top officials have engaged with the Israelis, Palestinians and other regional partners in an effort to tamp down the violence between Israel and Hamas over the past few days. Biden has remarked on his conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE in exchanges with reporters but otherwise not commented extensively on the developments.


“Biden wants to continue to keep his focus on the home front,” said Charles Kupchan, who served on Obama’s National Security Council. “That doesn’t mean that the White House isn’t going to engage in diplomacy as needed, but they’re not going to be looking for opportunities to get more engaged in international crises. If anything, they will be treading cautiously.”

Handling unforeseen crises has always been part of the job description at the White House. Fratto, the former Bush spokesman, said the biggest advantage that Biden officials have is that many of them have worked in government before.

“The advantage they have is they know it. They don’t have to be surprised by it. Their families aren’t surprised by it,” Fratto said. “It’s not easy. It’s never going to be easy.”