By Edward-Isaac Dovere
Debra Messing was fed up. The former “Will & Grace” star was among dozens of celebrity Democratic supporters and activists who joined a call with White House aides last Monday to discuss the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
The mood was fatalistic, according to three people on the call, which was also co-organized by the advocacy group Build Back Better Together.
Messing said she’d gotten Joe Biden elected and wanted to know why she was being asked to do anything at all, yelling that there didn’t even seem a point to voting. Others wondered why the call was happening.
That afternoon, participants received a follow-up email with a list of basic talking points and suggestions of Biden speech clips to share on TikTok.
The call, three days after the decision eliminating federal abortion rights, encapsulates the overwhelming sense of frustration among Democrats with Biden. It offers a new window into what many in the President’s party describe as a mismanagement permeating the White House.
Top Democrats complain the President isn’t acting with — or perhaps is even capable of — the urgency the moment demands.
“Rudderless, aimless and hopeless” is how one member of Congress described the White House.
Two dozen leading Democratic politicians and operatives, as well as several within the West Wing, tell CNN they feel this goes deeper than questions of ideology and posture. Instead, they say, it gets to questions of basic management.
More than a week after the abortion decision, top Biden aides are still wrangling over releasing new actions in response, despite the draft decision leaking six weeks earlier.
White House counsel Dana Remus had assured senior aides the Supreme Court wouldn’t rule on abortion that day. A White House press aide assigned to the issue was walking to get coffee when the alert hit. Several Democratic leaders privately mocked how the President stood in the foyer of the White House, squinting through his remarks from a teleprompter as demonstrators poured into the streets, making only vague promises of action because he and aides hadn’t decided on more.
Then, Biden’s July 1 meeting with governors to talk about their efforts to protect abortion rights was planned so last minute that none of those who attended came in person, and several of those invited declined to rearrange their schedules to appear virtually.
Multiple Democratic politicians who have reached out to work with Biden — whether it’s on specific bills, brainstorming or outreach — often don’t hear anything back at all. Potential appointees have languished for months waiting to hear if they’ll get jobs, or when they’ll be done with vetting. Invitations to events are scarce, thank you calls barely happen. Even some aides within the White House wonder why Biden didn’t fire anyone, from the West Wing or at the Food and Drug Administration, to demonstrate some accountability or at least anger over the baby formula debacle.
Inside the White House, aides are exhausted from feeling forever on red alert, batting at a swarm of crises that keeps growing — enough for White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to make an offhand joke about the constant “eleventh hour” decision-making in the building when under fire at a recent daily briefing.
Several officials say Biden’s tendency to berate advisers when he’s displeased with how a situation is being handled or when events go off poorly has trickled down the ranks in the West Wing, leaving several mid-level aides feeling blamed for failings despite lacking any real ability to influence the building’s decision-making. That’s contributed to some of the recent staff departures, according to people familiar.
Democrats worry the lack of decisions and authority are deepening their own midterm problems and feeding a sense that the President couldn’t truly handle the extra complications of a run for reelection in 2024 — and along the way, reinforcing narratives that he’s an old man not fit for the moment.
The President who campaigned on putting America back together again after four years of deep divisions appears to have stopped trying, supporters say.
“There’s no fight,” another Democratic member told CNN. “People understand that a lot of this is out of his hands — but what you want to see is the President out there swinging.”
‘Throwing spaghetti at the wall’
A year and a half in, the Biden administration is struggling to untangle supply chains and tackle soaring inflation— which is by far the biggest problem facing Democrats up and down the ballot in November.
“It’s got to look like you’re taking actions,” said California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna. “Any economist who says the President shouldn’t do anything on the economy should be fired. They can be at a think tank, they can be a professor. But they shouldn’t be at the White House.”
“There’s not a frontline office out there that isn’t frustrated with the lack of action coming from the White House on inflation,” one aide told a member fighting to hang onto an endangered seat. “At the very least, the President should get caught trying to bring prices down just about every day.”
White House aides say that is exactly what they are doing. In the past few months, the administration has announced a historic release of oil from the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve, invoked the Defense Production Act to address baby formula shortages, and even floated a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax.
But none of these moves have solved the problems: The baby formula shortage persists, inflation remains high and gas prices, though slightly down from their high, are still hovering close to $5 a gallon.
Biden’s support of a gas tax holiday was the subject of months of deliberations among officials — many of whom were against it and privately suggested it was a purely political step to show initiative on gas prices, and only recently put the question in front of Biden directly.
“It had the appearance of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks,” one official said privately.
Bottlenecks and indecision
Sources also say that decisions in the White House are getting bottlenecked, as veteran advisers urge Biden to take the long view, rather than focus on fast responses. Few are trying, and even fewer succeeding, in pushing back against Biden’s infamous inability to settle on decisions, on everything from whether to lift tariffs on Chinese imports or cancel student loan debt.
Biden has been mulling what to do on student loans for more than a year. White House staff drafted a memo on the topic weeks ago, and a final decision is now being targeted ahead of when the current repayment pause expires on August 31 — further aggravating progressives who say Biden’s indecision is hurting people with debt who are trying to make plans, and losing much of the political benefit he could get from it.
“We picked that date for a reason: we’d like to see where the inflation problem is, and we’d like to see where our legislative agenda is. There’s nothing uncertain or hesitating about it: it’s a deadline, and we will deliver on it,” White House spokesperson Chris Meagher told CNN about the timeline.
Taking time on major decisions isn’t a bad thing, White House aides argue, and neither is taking seriously, for example, that independent agencies like the FDA and US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention are supposed to function without the President’s direct interference — something Biden allies say is a key differentiation from the last President.
“This is what separates him from Donald Trump, and it’s an important separation. He says, ‘I am not a dictator. I am not an autocrat,'” said Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor who’s coordinating the implementation of the $1 trillion infrastructure law passed last year.
White House officials also lament not getting more help from their colleagues in Congress, most recently on trying to lower gas prices. If congressional Democrats thought Biden took too long to offer his gas tax holiday proposal, the thinking in the White House goes, they could have easily come up with another idea of their own, and sooner. Aides also eagerly point out how much support multiple polls show for Biden’s proposal.
Landrieu ticked off a number of initiatives the White House has gotten behind and hoped for congressional action by Democrats only to have bills languish.
“The President has called on Congress to pass a reconciliation bill. The President has called on Congress to pass the COMPETES Act. The President has called on Congress to reduce prescription drugs, to reduce costs to health care, to fill in the gap on the challenges with the Affordable Care Act and to continue to basically do everything they can, and Congress has gone, ‘Oh, well, we can’t do anything.’ So it’s just the nature of politics sometimes you just say, ‘I wish somebody else would help,’ when we’re really this is all hands on deck,” said Landrieu.
‘Scapegoating the President’
Throughout, the President’s defenders argue, Biden is the one who’s taking action, even if much of that action is out of view. They hold up the gun legislation passed by Congress as a perfect example of how his approach works even if not always in the spotlight: Biden deliberately left the negotiations to the rank-and-file members to avoid aggravating a delicate situation.
White House aides checked in daily, and Biden spoke several times with Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who led the efforts. “The President’s early attention to this issue was a big part of setting the table for the process that led to the bill’s passage,” Murphy told CNN.
Inside the White House, criticism and proposals from fellow Democrats are often seen as the latest version of, essentially, presidential fan fiction — the kind of visceral, political statement that sounds great from the sidelines but doesn’t actually make sense.
For example, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s abortion reversal, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul have called for the White House to open up federal lands to abortion clinics, a move that lawyers inside and some outside the government believe would backfire by leaving abortion providers and women open to potential prosecution as soon as they stepped off the federal lands.
Fundamentally, Biden and his aides are operating from a very different sense of the presidency. He’s being realistic, they believe, and responsible — not just because his options are truly limited, but specifically because he’s trying to restore the structural integrity of the government and of democracy after four years of Trump. They also see him as taking a more integrated view — moving on canceling student loan debt, for example, they believe, could imperil whatever is left of the legislative agenda that is starting to emerge from Senate negotiations.
Biden has been batting away complaints that he’s out of sync with his party since before he launched his presidential campaign.
“The country didn’t elect Joe Biden because they wanted a Democratic Donald Trump to go out there every day and divide the country more,” said Cedric Richmond, who left his own seat in Congress to serve in the West Wing for Biden’s first year. Democrats attacking Biden are “scapegoating the President, or distracted and not focusing on what they should be focused on. He saved democracy once by beating a tyrant. He’s doing it again, but he doesn’t do it by beating his chest.”
The attacks Biden is facing now are “the same foolishness that got us Donald Trump — ‘Hillary wasn’t good enough,’ ‘She’s not fighting hard enough,'” Richmond said. “That’s what got us Donald Trump. And that got us Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Case closed.”
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CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.