Sep 25, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Biden vs. his advisers

Photo Illustration of Joe Biden speaking at a podium with the presidential seal and an asterisk around him

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty

It's a pattern throughout the Biden administration: The president says something in an interview or makes an unscripted remark in an address, and his staff rushes to correct the record.

Driving the news: This happened twice in last weekend's "60 Minutes" interview — the president declared the pandemic was over, and he vowed to defend Taiwan if China invades the island.

  • The administration's public health officials — led by Anthony Fauci rushed to recast his COVID comments.
  • The White House said U.S. policy toward Taiwan hadn't changed, sticking to "strategic ambiguity" over whether it would respond militarily to an attack on Taiwan.

Why it matters: Biden's instincts are often the popular ones.

  • Many Americans have returned to pre-pandemic routines. Sounding tough on China is a bipartisan cause these days.
  • But with the midterms a month and a half out and Democratic control of Congress on the line, Biden will face a string of last-minute messaging tests that pit his instincts against party or administration lines.

The big picture: Biden's moderate political instincts are at the center of his appeal. He campaigned as a candidate who would return the country to normalcy and built a broad coalition to oust Donald Trump from office.

  • As president, though, he pushed through a partisan $1.9 trillion emergency stimulus package and initially sided with progressives in backing trillions more in additional social spending as part of a Build Back Better agenda.
  • That cost him support with swing voters, especially as inflation worsened throughout the year.
  • His bump in polls coincided with a more pragmatic approach, winning bipartisan support for infrastructure spending and a modest gun control bill while leaning on Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to deliver a climate change and prescription drug plan everyone in the party could agree on.

By the numbers: The Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index this month found nearly half of Americans have returned to their pre-COVID lives — the highest number than at any point since the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds said there's no risk or just a small risk in getting back to normal.

  • An August 2021 poll commissioned by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found a 52% majority of Americans favoring using U.S. troops to defend Taiwan if China invaded the island. It's the highest level recorded since the poll was first conducted in 1982.

Between the lines: Biden initially worried how forgiving student loan debt "would play with working-class people," a Washington Post tick-tock revealed. "[He] said that the federal government should not be bailing out Ivy League graduates."

  • But "a relentless campaign" from first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and senior White House staffers changed Biden's mind, according to the Post.
  • The executive order has divided the country along class and generational lines, according to a recent NYT/Siena poll. A 49% plurality support the move, while 46% oppose it. (Two-thirds of the youngest voters support the move, but only 37% of seniors back the plan.)

Biden also received staff pushback after declaring, "Putin cannot stay in power" during a March speech in Warsaw, Poland. A White House staffer quickly clarified: "He was not discussing Putin's power in Russia, or regime change."

  • But Biden's view on Putin was in line with the American public: A YouGov poll conducted shortly after Biden's speech found 63% of Americans agreed that "Putin can't remain in power," even as the president's rhetoric worried advisers that it could escalate the crisis in Ukraine.

The bottom line: There's a divide in our politics — including within the Democratic Party — between those who rely on expert opinion and those led by their instincts.

  • Like many of his Republican rivals, Biden is a gut-instinct politician, but he is being contained by the technocratic impulses of his administration.
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