Inside Biden’s bubble: How an insular White House has kept drama and leaks at a minimum

Inside Biden’s bubble: How an insular White House has kept drama and leaks at a minimumApril 28, 2021


When President Joe Biden sat in one of his first Oval Office briefings to discuss the earliest acts of his presidency — impending executive actions — he brought only five people into the room.

The five: Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti, Bruce Reed, Ron Klain and Stef Feldman. Each had been close to Biden for at minimum a decade. Three of them had served at different points as his chief of staff.

That lifers would be with Biden in the early moments of his presidency was not a surprise. That so few of them were there was a sign of things to come.

One hundred days into the Biden administration, the White House is a tight ship defined by insularity, internal power centers and top down micromanagement — interviews with nearly two dozen people across the administration, including senior White House officials, reveal. The result is a unit that doesn’t leak (at least not that often) and that stays on script (most of the time). But it is also one where there is competition to show proximity to the boss and occasional difficulty in moving agenda items along in a timely manner.

“Everybody feels driven to get things right and do right by Joe Biden,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in an interview. “Some of that comes from the fact that there are a number of people here who have worked for him for decades. There’s a personal loyalty and a desire for him to be successful at a gut level, as Americans, but also as people who love him.”

Still, some aides complain Biden is kept in too much of a bubble, one where few people can get his ear outside of a cadre of loyalists he’s cultivated for decades. Exhaustion is setting in amid a punishing — and relentlessly serious — remote work regimen, with little opportunity for the levity breaks of past White Houses. Others concede that the heavy-handedness is mucking up the works.

Hiring remains stubbornly sluggish across the board, frustrating those in the administration. That’s in part because high-ranking Biden appointees weigh in in even some of the lowest-level hiring decisions. The top-down management style has sometimes muddled efficiency, with aides complaining that the upper echelons of power demand the most basic of decisions go through them, including advance team communications.

By and large, however, it is working. Biden has befuddled critics and pleased progressives. He’s taken myriad actions, big and small, using executive orders, the bully pulpit and Congress. He’s done it in a way so drama-free, it couldn’t be more antithetical to his predecessor. There’s little infighting or even signs of internal disagreement.

“They used to say ‘no drama Obama’ but honestly this White House is even more devoid of that,” said one White House official who also worked in the Obama administration.

“Part of Biden’s promise during the campaign was to lower the temperature and not treat the presidency like a reality show and that’s a promise he’s delivered on,” said Ben LaBolt, a former Obama official who is also close to the Biden White House. “I think here you see people who are 100 percent focused on addressing a national crisis and not professional positioning. They’re focused on results.”

LaBolt added that the experience of the people Biden put around him is paying off. “They’re technocrats who understand politics — that’s a powerful combination when it comes to government.”

At the top of the power heap is Klain, the current chief of staff whose philosophy is less about putting out fires but stopping them before they begin. He’s intensely involved in scores of issues from briefing members of Congress to schmoozing progressives to filtering vast amounts of information before he brings it to the president.

Donilon is known as “the Biden whisperer” and often one of the last people Biden consults before making major decisions. Both Reed and Ricchetti have long histories and share a deep trust with the president. Ricchetti is constantly in touch with members of Congress and outside power brokers. Feldman is a longtime policy guru who knows how Biden thinks so well, some joke she knows Biden policy positions before he does. As she had been on the campaign, senior adviser Anita Dunn is a top decision-maker and helps shape messaging. She and Klain have hammered home to staff to keep focused on two goals: Covid-19 and jobs.

Part of the edict of the heavy-handedness is to keep Biden scandal-free, with one of the perceived dangers being the president’s own kin. While Biden family members call the president to talk about sports and grandkids, they couldn’t get involved in operations or with hiring even if they wanted to. “Klain walled off the family,” one person with knowledge of the conversations said. That was a pledge Biden himself made during the 2020 campaign — saying he would erect an “absolute wall” between his presidency and his family’s business interests.

Like every White House, some fiefdoms and power centers have developed, which could kindle future clashes. There is some disappointment among allies of Cedric Richmond, for example, that his role as senior adviser in charge of public engagement hasn’t been empowered the way that they expected. They complain that some members of Biden’s longtime team haven’t truly brought Richmond, his former campaign chairman, into the fold and that he’s “an island unto himself,” as one put it.

“He’s one of the people that the president turns to most often to ask his opinion. If he’s not in the room, the president will say, ‘can somebody get Cedric?’ or ‘Where’s Cedric?’ If he’s out of town, he’ll participate by phone,” said Dunn, another senior adviser to Biden. “He’s one of seven senior advisers … And so that’s definitely not an island. That’s actually like a nice group of people.”

As he was in the campaign, Richmond is in the small, more intimate strategy circle, Dunn said.

“A lot of the important stuff intersects in Cedric’s world, politics, personnel issues, a lot of it lives near the Office of Public Engagement, which he leads, and certainly the president listens to him,” said a White House official who has sat in on internal discussions. “I’ve been in the room, among the super-senior advisory team and anyone the president hasn’t known for a decade or more takes a little time to get your foot in.”

To that end, there is good and bad to Bidenworld having a storied history. The decades of staff loyalties also means decades of baked-in grievances. “But it is remarkably functional,” said one former close adviser.

“People will look for palace intrigue in every administration. What’s actually true here is the West Wing is built with people who aren’t there for themselves,” said Liz Allen, a former Biden senior campaign staffer. “This is not a staff looking to outgun each other. They’re just trying to get the job done, day in and day out.”

Even the fiercest defenders of the Biden White House concede that there are clashes among top advisers. But they describe them as sincere disagreements rather than petty knife fights.

“Biden world isn’t open turf wars,” said one person briefed on internal discussions among top advisers. “It’s more cold wars than hot wars.”

In the presidential personnel office, resumés sometimes flow to a team loosely dubbed a “cabinet of advisers” by some of those involved. It has some of the highest-ranking Biden appointees weighing in on some applications. “These very senior people have to approve – it seems like every position from very small to very big,” said a person close to the process. “There’s a gauntlet you have to go through.”

The White House, however, disputes that, saying there are thousands of jobs in the administration and high-level appointees wouldn’t have the time to get involved in too many of those decisions. An aide added that it wasn’t unusual for senior officials to review some appointees.

A spokesperson, Andrew Bates, later added: “that is absolutely false.”

Unlike former President Donald Trump, who was addicted to watching cable news, Biden is a devoted reader of the newspaper and colleagues have seen him call out for a paper copy of the New York Times to show the people he’s meeting with specific columns or editorials he found interesting.

Klain runs a process where staffers get to provide input and decisions are clear about why they were made, said a White House official. The White House chief of staff also wins plaudits among underlings for being responsive on email and sending out staff emails thanking colleagues for their work.

“He reads memos and then discusses ideas and strategy with teams,” said the official. “He is respected. People want his view. His door is open and he’s approachable.”

Jen O’Malley Dillon, former campaign manager and now deputy chief of staff, is another White House power center. O’Malley Dillon serves as the go-between on everything from signing off on Biden’s public events to handling lawmaker complaints about racial equity in the Cabinet and hiring within the administration, to dynamics between the White House and the Democratic National Committee. She makes sure even the most routine of advance team communications — on subjects like brainstorming event venues — go through her.

At 4 p.m. on Mondays, O’Malley Dillon heads up a call with chiefs of staff in the executive offices, running down White House priorities that week or detailing new initiatives.

While White House staffers are mostly happy with their jobs, some are feeling the effects of the heavy workload that confronts them every day, as the administration rolls out new policies and deals with emerging crises.

“I am so exhausted. I am crushed, but it’s also fulfilling,” said one White House official who worked in the Obama White House. “I think it’s more tiring than it was before.”

With few in-person meetings and frequent Zoom video conferences, the official said Zoom fatigue has also set in.

“It’s tiring staring at a screen and looking good in a screen,” noted the person.

Psaki said there’s a “recognition that we were coming in at a particularly difficult time. There was a lot on all of our shoulders. There’s certainly an expectation of getting things right and holding things to a high standard that’s probably the case in every White House.”

What’s not like previous administrations: Covid-19. Due to health protocols, Biden White House staffers don’t usually socialize at events like after-work drinks, which bring levity to a serious job, said another White House staffer. There’s a smaller footprint on the White House campus and some senior staff still work from home and even out of state.

The communications shop does host bagel Wednesdays and there are often jokes about the mess’ soup of the day. Obama’s bowl of apples in the Oval Office was replaced with homemade chocolate chip cookies that staffers sometimes snag and bring home.

The staffer also noted that he and his colleagues haven’t had the chance to take advantage of some White House staff perks, like using the president’s box at the Kennedy Center, dining at the White House mess (although the takeout window is heavily used), and taking friends and family on White House tours.

“Lord knows if anyone will ever feel if it’s morally appropriate to use the Melania Trump tennis pavilion,” joked the official.

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