Changing Joe Biden’s mind is no easy task
It takes a lot to convince President Biden he’s wrong.
After more than 40 years of public service — in the Senate chamber, the vice presidency and now as president — he is firmly rooted in his beliefs, giving him a stubborn streak and even a temper on occasion, those around him say.
Biden’s associates acknowledge he is more than open to other viewpoints — he welcomes them, in fact — but that he is tough to budge.
When it came to the idea of leaving Afghanistan, there was no persuading him, no changing his mind, about the problems arising from the timing, logistics and optics of the withdrawal.
“He wanted to do this from jump street,” said one longtime adviser in Biden World. “I don’t think on this issue there was any way to change his mind.”
“He does have the capacity to change, but convincing him that something is the right thing to do when he’s pretty set against it is hard,” the adviser added. “He surrounds himself with people who have varying opinions and he wants to be proven wrong. He constructs his teams that way on purpose. But after 40 years of foreign policy experience, I don’t want to say he’s set in his ways, but trying to convince him that he’s off the marker is not easy.”
On Tuesday afternoon, much of that ingrained mulishness was on display. Biden used his national address following the end of the Afghanistan war to double and even triple down on how U.S. troops were withdrawn from the country, and the evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies.
The entire debacle had come under fierce criticism for the two weeks leading up to Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline.
While recent polling indicated the majority of the public supported Biden ending the war, his approval ratings nonetheless dissipated when the withdrawal process got underway. Several surveys showed the president’s numbers dipping after a bungled mission.
But rather than admit that reality, Biden chose to do the opposite by taking aim at critics.
“Now some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner and couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly manner? I respectfully disagree,” Biden said from the White House.
The heel-digging approach from the top is becoming a hallmark of the Biden era. The president and his closest advisers often stick with an announced strategy, changing it only at the last possible moment if it becomes untenable. That has mostly been the case even amid times of intense press scrutiny and pressure from his own party.
When many congressional Democrats urged Biden to do more to secure voting rights, for example, he waited weeks before delivering a formal sermon to the public.
After his speech, activists and advocates were not impressed, saying he was merely giving lip service to the idea that voting protections are sacrosanct. When members of Congress pleaded with him to call for eliminating the Senate’s filibuster — the only practical way to guarantee voting protections at the federal level — he did not give an inch.
Biden has also refused to bend on a slew of progressive policies, despite some pressure from the left. He’s carefully talked about criminal justice reform without using alienating slogans like “defund the police” and has not committed to canceling all student debt, a top priority for his party’s left flank. And when some Democrats wanted him to adopt a more expansive universal health care policy, he maintained that building on the 2010 Affordable Care Act was the right way to go.
Still, that’s not to say Biden hasn’t been convinced to change his mind from time to time.
In 2012, as vice president under former President Obama, Biden talked about “evolving” on gay marriage, catching even his old boss by surprise and putting pressure on him to also support what was still seen as a controversial issue at the time within the Democratic Party.
Eight years later, he was rewarded for his stance with support from LGBTQ organizations and voters when he eventually sought the presidential nomination for a third time.
“He’s shown an ability to adapt to change, to take self inventory and to make a moral judgment and a political decision over the years,” said Michael Eric Dyson, the renowned historian and professor who sat in on a meeting with Biden and other academics earlier this year to discuss big issues and ideas involving the presidency.
When it came time for Biden to compete again for the Democratic nomination, he flipped his stance on a restrictive abortion provision known as the Hyde Amendment after he came under enormous scrutiny from rival candidates and activists.
Women’s rights groups were particularly furious that the perceived front-runner for the nomination, a white man in his late 70s, would hold a view so far out of step with his own party.
A few days later, Biden changed course.
“If I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s zip code,” he said in June 2019, in response to the flood of criticism.
For some of Biden’s closest confidants, it was a pivotal moment.
“Thank God a man can grow,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C) said in an interview with The Hill.
Clyburn, one of the most influential figures close to the president who managed to sway him “about one or two things,” as he put it, conceded that “on some things it takes some prompting.”
“Joe is a human being,” Clyburn said. “You have ideas, you have thoughts about things and it’s not easy to give up on that. It’s not easy to give up a long-held opinion about something and it sometimes takes some convincing.”
That can be particularly true when it involves his close associates and allies. In one of the most controversial flip-flops of his early presidency, Team Biden also changed strategies about how to handle an aide who had created a tense situation inside the White House’s communications department.
A Vanity Fair story surfaced in late February, just a month into the president’s term, reporting that TJ Ducklo, the deputy White House press secretary, had reportedly threatened a Politico reporter who was working on a story about a potential conflict of interest regarding his romantic relationship with a reporter who covered the Biden campaign.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki initially said Ducklo apologized and was suspended for a week, the magazine reported. But when she was questioned about Biden’s prior pledge to get rid of any staffers who mistreat reporters — a contrast from former President Trump’s attitude towards the media — the administration backed down and Ducklo tendered his resignation.
Those who know Biden and have worked with him over the years say there typically isn’t one singular person who can sway him, even if he is open to hearing a range of opinions on any given issue.
“He absolutely does listen. He listens to people,” said the longtime adviser. “That’s why his briefings take forever.”
In addition to newer figures in the president’s orbit, Biden trusts top advisers like Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti and Ron Klain. Donilon and Ricchetti had prominent roles in Biden’s campaign, with Donilon often briefing the press corps about his strategy to win the general election against Trump. Klain, meanwhile, has been one of Biden’s closest hands for much of his time in politics.
If the three men are working on issues around policies or political operations, Biden will take advice from them and members of his Cabinet.
“It’s usually a team effort when it’s absolutely necessary,” the adviser added. “It’ll never be one person that changes his mind — unless it’s Jill [Biden].”
Those closest to Biden say he has shown time and again that he is able to understand people and the issues they’re facing because of all the personal tragedies he has endured, including the death of his first wife and baby earlier in his life, and later, in 2015, the death of his son Beau.
Many of those difficult times explicitly shaped his eventual ascent to office.
“I always maintain that people are who and what their experiences allow them to be,” Clyburn said. “I think that Joe Biden is … who he is and what he is because of the experiences he’s had and all of them have not been pleasant.”