Why you shouldn’t expect a Biden shake-up
President Biden is sticking with his White House team despite lagging poll numbers that have contributed to rising Democratic worries about the party’s prospects in next year’s midterm elections.
Biden’s core team has remained largely intact, and there are few signs of a looming shake-up. The White House and its allies have also signaled they see little reason to make changes.
“I don’t think the problem is staffing,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Democratic think tank Third Way.
“I don’t think there’s any need to make staffing changes,” added Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and director of Hunter College’s public policy program.
The end of Biden’s first year in office has been difficult, with the key item in his legislative agenda stuck in the Senate largely because of an impasse with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
The White House is also dealing with a nagging pandemic as COVID-19 case rise and the omicron variant threatens to create a new wave of the virus in the United States. The pandemic has also fed Biden’s economic problems, from inflation to a supply chain crisis that has frustrated businesses and consumers.
Democrats who spoke to The Hill said these are all real challenges but are not symptoms of a staffing problem. They pointed instead to the deep polarization in Congress and a pessimistic electorate that is tired of the pandemic and related economic issues.
Smikle said the 50-50 Senate equally divided between Democrats and Republicans is the reason for Biden’s difficulties legislatively and that staffing would not make much of a difference.
“The challenges with the legislation are less about his own administration and more about the political landscape in the Senate and the small majority there as well as the broader polarization within Congress,” he said.
And Kessler said that while the White House is hearing a lot of criticism on its messaging, Biden’s problems aren’t that unusual.
“Democrats have historically had a hard time crowing about good economic news when they’re in charge because there is a belief that if people think the economy is good then they don’t need democratic programs,” he said. “Meanwhile, Republicans are saying the economy is bad because they want to take power. I just think Democrats need to take a page from Ronald Reagan and be talking about the positives in this economy.”
Biden is not seen as a president who wants to make big changes to his staff.
Sources pointed to Biden’s history as a loyal boss who enjoys a tight-knit inner circle of aides he has known for years, including White House chief of staff Ron Klain, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and senior advisers Steve Ricchetti and Mike Donilon.
Asked about Biden’s legislative team, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a Biden ally, said they “do a great job.”
“I like them personally, I respect them professionally and I think they’re doing a really good job of managing some really tough dynamics,” Coons said. “Our Framers intended the executive and legislative branches to have different priorities and to have a contest of ideas. There are 635 of us over here. It’s not easy. Given that, they do about as good a job as they could.”
Former President Trump presided over unprecedented turnover among White House staff and across his administration. He was prone to firing and replacing high-level officials, cycling through multiple chiefs of staff, press secretaries and national security advisers in his first year, which led to further dysfunction.
Vice President Harris’s office has also seen staff churn during her first year, which has contributed to a perception of dysfunction within her operation.
Biden, in comparison, has seen little change.
Roberta Jacobson, who was tapped to oversee issues surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border, left in April after a brief stint in what she said was a planned departure. Tyler Moran, a senior adviser on migration, is set to leave in January after spending roughly six months in the administration.
Andy Slavitt departed the White House coronavirus response team in June as previously planned, and Anita Dunn, who held a senior role in the communications team, also made a planned exit over the summer. Biden’s first staff secretary left in October and the director of the presidential personnel office left last week for the top job at UNICEF. A handful of lower-level communications aides have also departed. None of the departures so far have been attributed to a deliberate effort by Biden to shake up his staff.
There are Democrats who look at the poll numbers and privately question why Biden hasn’t taken a closer look at replacing some aides around him.
“Voters have had enough and the Biden team keeps doubling down,” said one Democratic strategist, pointing to the president’s low approval ratings. “Begs the question, when does Biden stop listening to a team that has tanked his presidency in less than 12 months?”
Another strategist said the new year would be an ideal time for a transition.
“As they approach year two of the presidency, it might be a good time to change things up and bring in fresh perspectives in order to help with some of the unplanned challenges that have come up in the last part of the year,” the strategist said. “Phase two happens in every administration, and it’s a way they could pivot from the past few months.”
Others dismissed such suggestions. One person familiar with Biden World’s thinking said it was best to “do the opposite” of what anonymous strategists were suggesting.
“Biden has surrounded himself with people he’s worked with for decades,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a book about White House chiefs of staff. “That lends real stability when you’ve got people like that.”
The messy withdrawal from Afghanistan prompted questions about whether Biden would fire one of his advisers, and there were rumblings that national security adviser Jake Sullivan was on rocky footing. But Biden ultimately did not make changes, a signal that the withdrawal was his decision and he would own it.
“I’d say it’s remarkable that in the wake of Afghanistan there were no changes at all,” said Bill Galston, chairman of the Brookings Institution’s government studies program. “That may reflect the fact that almost everything that happened was driven from the president down and not the staff up.”
“What’s he going to do, fire himself?” he added.
Still, some departures could be on the horizon. White House press secretary Jen Psaki has said she expects to leave her post next year, though she hasn’t laid out a timeline.
Others may serve out their positions until at least the midterm elections.
“You try to get the administration through the midterms, make sure their agenda, which in the first two years would be the most ambitious, you try to get that pushed through, especially when you have the House and the Senate as allies,” Smikle said.
Alex Bolton contributed.