Jul 13, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Inside the White House senior staff meeting on CPI day

Illustration of a red carpet leading to a laptop.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

It's become an inside joke in the inner circle of the Biden White House: Chief of staff Ron Klain gathers senior staff daily for an 8:20am ET video call. But on certain mornings — like today — when big economic data is set for public release, Klain stalls for 10 minutes before calling on Council of Economic Advisers chair Cecilia Rouse.

Why it matters: Rouse sees the Consumer Price Index numbers the night before. But, beyond a tight circle, she’s sworn to silence until 8:30.

  • Staffers knowingly chuckle as Klain delays, administration officials tell Axios.
  • Everyone wants to hear the headline number as well as Rouse's analysis. But these kinds of numbers are their own currency. They give whoever has them an advantage in shaping, and potentially winning, the day's internal debates. Only a small group gets to know before it becomes public.
  • It's also information that can move the polls. The state of the economy — and the pace of inflation — will follow Americans into the voting booth in November.

Driving the news: White House officials are girding the public for a hot CPI reading, aligning themselves with forecasts that predict June’s annual inflation rate increased to 8.8% from 8.6% in May.

How it works: Once the numbers are released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at 8:30am, White House staff swings into action for the first public comments on the data at 9:30am, with officials heading to the cameras to explain — and spin — on financial news networks.

  • Rouse, who receives the raw data the night before, has a jump on the numbers. That gives her the first pass at explaining them to the president, senior White House officials and then the broader public.
  • The night before their release, most economic numbers, like the jobs report and CPI, are also shared with the vice president, the Treasury Department, and the director of the National Economic Council. They're also received by the Federal Reserve.

Flashback: Economic data was shared more freely under President Trump.

The intrigue: Klain's 8:20am ET Zoom is actually the second, less exclusive, staff meeting each morning.

  • At 8am, he huddles with a smaller group for a look-ahead strategy session. The group includes Kate Bedingfield, Jen O'Malley Dillon, Anita Dunn, Karine Jean-Pierre, Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti, Bruce Reed, Julie Rodriguez — and now, Keisha Lance Bottoms.
  • Outside of economic data, most of the day’s crucial information is conveyed in the first meeting.

But, but, but: The 8:20am meeting is still a coveted invite.

  • Rouse; Shalanda Young, the director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen are in the second meeting. So are national security adviser Jake Sullivan; Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy Council; and Brain Deese, the director of the National Economic Council.
  • Treasury secretaries typically enjoy more access than other cabinet secretaries. Yellen is often alone with the president and his top aides and is almost treated like White House staff.
  • That has advantages and disadvantages. She has more opportunities to push her arguments on, say, China tariffs, than members of the cabinet. But it also means that she’s often spending her mornings on a White House staff call.
  • At 6pm, Klain hosts an evening Zoom to take stock of the day and give directives for the next day. Earlier in the administration, that meeting was in the 8pm hour, forcing many staffers to work overnight, which ultimately wasn’t that productive.

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