Jul 10, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Old yeller: Biden's private fury

Photo illustration of an angry-looking President Biden wearing sunglasses reflecting flames

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

In public, President Biden likes to whisper to make a point. In private, he's prone to yelling.

  • Behind closed doors, Biden has such a quick-trigger temper that some aides try to avoid meeting alone with him. Some take a colleague, almost as a shield against a solo blast.
  • The president's admonitions include: "God dammit, how the f**k don't you know this?!," "Don't f**king bullsh*t me!" and "Get the f**k out of here!" — according to current and former Biden aides who have witnessed and been on the receiving end of such outbursts.

Why it matters: The private eruptions paint a more complicated picture of Biden as a manager and president than his carefully cultivated image as a kindly uncle who loves Aviator sunglasses and ice cream.

  • Some Biden aides think the president would be better off occasionally displaying his temper in public as a way to assuage voter concerns that the 80-year-old president is disengaged and too old for the office.

Zoom in: Senior and lower-level aides alike can be in Biden's line of fire. "No one is safe," said one administration official.

  • Biden aides still talk about how angry he got at Jeff Zients, then the administration's "COVID czar," in late 2021 when there was a shortage of testing kits as the Omicron variant spread. (The rage was temporary. Zients is now Biden's chief of staff.)
  • A spokesperson for Zients told Axios: "I'm not going to speak to what internal convos may or may not have happened between Jeff and the president."
  • The White House declined to comment.

"There's no question that the Biden temper is for real. It may not be as volcanic as Bill Clinton’s, but it's definitely there," said Chris Whipple, author of "The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House."

  • Whipple's book quotes former White House press secretary Jen Psaki as saying: "I said to [Biden] multiple times, 'I'll know we have a really good, trusting relationship when you yell at me the first time.'"
  • Whipple notes: "Psaki wouldn't have to wait long."

Zoom out: Biden's temper comes in the form of angry interrogations rather than erratic tantrums.

  • He'll grill aides on topics until it's clear they don’t know the answer to a question — a routine that some see as meticulous and others call "stump the chump" or "stump the dummy."
  • Being yelled at by the president has become an internal initiation ceremony in this White House, aides say — if Biden doesn't yell at you, it could be a sign he doesn't respect you.

Ted Kaufman, Biden's longtime chief of staff when the future president represented Delaware in the Senate, told Axios that Biden's process is policy-driven, and has made him a strong executive.

  • "If there is something that's not in the brief, he's going to find it," he said. "It's not to embarrass people, it's because he wants to get to the right decision. Most people who have worked for him like the fact that he challenges them and gets them to a better decision."

Some Biden aides argue that the president's rages reflect his high expectations for his staff.

  • "Speaking Biden" is a particular skill, they said. It can take years to learn to navigate his moodiness, and anticipate what information he's going to ask for in a briefing.
  • Some administration officials, many of whom went to elite schools, struggle with Biden's demand to ditch wonky, acronym-filled language and brief him as if they were talking to a close family member who isn't in the D.C. bubble.
  • Biden's defenders acknowledge he can be tough. But they also say he can be more generous and compassionate than many powerful politicians and can make them feel like family. That's partly why so many aides have worked with Biden for decades, and go in and out of his orbit, they say.

The big picture: Biden tries to conceal his temper in public but occasionally has shown flashes of it — and some former aides have written about it.

  • In January 2022, he was caught on a hot mic calling Fox News' Peter Doocy a "stupid son of a bitch."

Jeff Connaughton, a former Biden campaign and Senate aide who was chief of staff to Kaufman when he filled Biden's seat in the Senate, wrote about Biden's temper in his 2012 book on Washington corruption, "The Payoff: Why Wall Street Wins."

  • Connaughton wrote that as a senator, Biden was an "egomaniacal autocrat … determined to manage his staff through fear."
  • He told of a time during the 2008 presidential campaign when a 23-year-old fundraising staffer got into the car with Biden.
  • "Okay, senator, time to do some fundraising calls," the aide said. Biden responded by looking at him and snapping: "Get the f**k out of the car."
  • Connaughton told Axios that Biden "hides his sharper edge to promote his folksy Uncle Joe image — which is why, when flashes of anger break through, it seems so out of public character."

Go deeper: Listen to the Axios Today podcast, where host Niala Boodhoo and Alex Thompson explain why President Biden whispers more in public settings.

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