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Updated Jul 5, 2024, 4:12pm EDT
politics

A ‘scared’ Biden aide sounds an alarm

Elizabeth Frantz / Reuters
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The Scoop

Midday on the Fourth of July, I received a call from a government official with regular access to the West Wing, who said they had reached a breaking point and wanted to sound the alarm.

The person insisted on careful ground rules: No details on the specific policy area they’d work on, no gender, age, or sexual orientation. Their credibility basically depends on my vouching that they’re a serious person, which I can do — though I should also say this person has nothing to say about the president’s physical condition, and was limited to their own experience outside Biden’s tight inner circle.

Here is the assertion this person would like to get across: It’s unclear even to some inside the West Wing policy process which policy issues reach the president, and how. Major decisions go into an opaque circle that includes White House chief of staff, Jeff Zients (who talks to the president regularly) and return concluded. (The big exception to this pattern, they said, is foreign policy.)

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This pattern had already been a topic of discussion, and curiosity, among the high-powered aides who work in and around the White House. The rituals of paperflow are technical, but they say they’re surprised by the lack of briefings to the president, and of readouts from consultations with the president and worry about the possibility of decisions “being made without him.”

My source has no reputation for being involved in factional fights on hot button issues, and no obvious ulterior motive for picking up the phone.

“I’m super proud of the policies,” the person said. “I’m talking to you because I’m incredibly upset and scared for the country and I would like to do what I can.”

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Room for Disagreement

The Biden White House runs policy through a tight inner circle — tighter than the sprawling debates of the Clinton or early Obama years. But White House officials furiously rejected any hint that the president isn’t fully in command, even if some in the policy apparatus don’t see him. There is also wide reporting that Biden has been in the weeds of key decisions beyond Gaza and Ukraine, including issues ranging from trade with China to student loan forgiveness.

Biden “is in the middle of everything. He signs off on everything,” said Bruce Reed, the deputy chief of staff who oversees policy. “Many of us have sat with him as he’s made hundreds of decisions.”

“Nobody has the authority to freelance. Not Jeff, not Ron, not anybody,” Reed told me.

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Other top aides echoed Reed’s account, and further stressed that the president’s age has had no effect at all on his involvement in these issues.

Top White House economist Jared Bernstein said Biden “makes decisions on everything from student debt relief to 301 tariffs to housing policy” and Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi said Biden is “sweating every relevant detail.”

Spokesman Andrew Bates said in an email: “This single source’s claim is directly contradicted by a large body of (even critical) reporting about the policy process, which has continually stressed President Biden’s direct involvement in every major decision.”

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Ben’s view

The question looming over my conversations is how much Biden’s age, so visible in front of the scenes, has affected his governance behind them.

That’s a reporting question, and it’s one on which the media is scrambling right now to make up for lost time. I’m skeptical, as are many journalists, of aides’ insistence that his age has changed nothing about his decision-making process. But there’s also no evidence for the wildest, late Woodrow-Wilson-style speculation.

My source’s call — as they say, from inside the building — is a mark of why the panic inside the Democratic Party is running so deep right now.

Even inside the West Wing, not everyone is sure.

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Notable

  • Semafor’s Dave Weigel explains what happens if Democrats replace Biden on the ticket.
  • The Biden team remains fixated on its longest-running adversary, Semafor’s Max Tani writes. Not Donald Trump — The New York Times.
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