When I once profiled Ari Fleischer as George W. Bush’s press secretary, the phone rang and it was the White House operator. She put the president on the line.
Bush took 10 minutes out from leading the free world to answer my questions for a newspaper story, praising his spokesman as someone who „understands the fine line between the need to know and the need to say.“
The deployment of that precious asset–the president’s time–told everyone that despite the slings and arrows Fleischer was taking in the post-9/11 briefing room, the boss had his back.
Now President Biden is offering to do the same for his top aide, Ron Klain. As I reported over the weekend, Biden knows his chief of staff is taking some hits in the press and is willing to talk to a few reporters on his behalf. Whether Biden actually does that is almost beside the point–he’s sent the signal that Klain is his man. Which isn’t surprising, given the years that Klain worked for Biden as vice president and in the Senate.
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain attends an event with governors of western states and members of the Biden administration cabinet June 30, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
With the president down in the polls, losing on voting legislation and the $2-trillion spending bill on life support, Klain and other senior aides obviously share in the responsibility. And it’s not that unusual for an embattled president to do a staff shakeup as a way of jump-starting his administration.
Klain always knew this day would come. Based on my reporting, he likens the job to being an NFL coach who inevitably gets knocked around on talk radio for stupid mistakes. He has consulted with other chiefs of staff and knows the history. Even the negative articles about him have not included any flak from inside the building in the form of searing anonymous quotes (a staple at the incredibly leaky Trump White House).
New York Times conservative columnist Bret Stephens got the ball rolling by writing that based on „political incompetence,“ it’s clear that „the president needs a new team, starting with a new chief of staff.“
He argues that „Ron Klain is a loyal assistant. But the president needs a chief of staff who’s a peer — what James Baker was to George H.W. Bush or Howard Baker to Ronald Reagan.“ It’s hard to see how bringing in some former senator changes the equation.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the debt ceiling during an event in the State Dining Room of the White House, Monday, Oct. 4 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Then Politico piled on by reporting that this was Klain’s „turn in the barrel,“ and was described as a „demanding boss“–considering a compliment in Washington when things are going well. The Twitter-savvy Klain, who’s been on a media blitz, was attacked by one unnamed House Democrat as deserving dismissal for pushing a Bernie agenda. Aren’t those decisions actually made by his boss?
Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor, told me on „Media Buzz“ that White House chief of staff is the worst thing to be in politics because you are „the perfect target to be made a scapegoat.“
So what can Biden and Klain do now? The president told reporters of the Build Back Better plan that „we can break the package up, get as much as we can now.“ That might have been a better idea months ago, given the steadfast opposition of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, but there are no talks going on now.
No other major domestic initiative seems likely to pass the 50-50 Senate in this midterm year.
Ron Klain, former White House Ebola response coordinator, speaks during a House Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Inflation, not to mention grocery shortages, is hitting Americans in the pocketbook, and Biden, having dismissed it as transitory, doesn’t have a quick fix. The stock market dive that deepened yesterday isn’t helping.
And then there are events that Biden has little ability to control, such as whether Vladimir Putin moves his troops across the Ukraine border.
The president could use his media megaphone more, having had decidedly mixed results at that two-hour presser. He certainly isn’t helping himself by snapping at reporters over legitimate questions, as he did again yesterday by calling Fox’s Peter Doocy a „stupid son of a b****.“ He just looks thin-skinned and beleaguered.
Biden is also is vowing to hit the road more to sell his agenda. But it’s clearly a tough slog.
If Klain can help extricate his boss from that quicksand, he’ll really have earned his government paycheck.