Two Reuters reporters quote unnamed former White House officials who describe President Biden as being frustrated with Vice President Kamala Harris. Those former officials say Biden thinks Harris couldn’t beat Trump if she were the Democratic nominee in 2024, that she isn’t “somebody who takes anything off of his plate,” and that she’s too tentative and hesitant when it comes to engaging on major issues. We don’t know the sources who talked to Reuters, but it’s a very short list of former White House officials who are likely Biden confidantes.
‘Biden Has Frustrations about Some of Her Work’
Sometimes you see a quote from an anonymous source and wonder if a source really said it, or whether the source is being accurately characterized. The term “a U.S. government source” could cover a cabinet secretary or a low-level paper-pusher or a janitor. Heck, a “CIA source” could be the barista at the agency headquarters Starbucks or the clerk behind the counter at the agency gift shop.
But sometimes you see a quote from an anonymous source and find it really easy to believe, and Reuters’ Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose have a few of those quotes in the latest “What’s wrong with Vice President Kamala Harris” story. I observed earlier this year that there are two types of major mainstream-media pieces written about Harris: The first type is a profile piece that concludes, “Harris is in trouble,” and the second type is, “Harris has turned the corner.” Over time, those “Harris has turned the corner” pieces are growing rarer and less persuasive.
The key quotes in the Reuters piece:
If he wins and becomes ill or cannot fulfill his duties, Harris, 58, would succeed him. That reality will hang over their 2024 re-election bid.While the pair have a good working relationship, Democratic sources say Biden has frustrations about some of her work. He is also convinced that neither Harris nor any other Democratic hopefuls would be able to beat former President Donald Trump if he is the Republican nominee, a factor that has influenced Biden’s inclination to run again, one former White House official said.“If he did not think she was capable, he would not have picked her. But it is a question of consistently rising to the occasion,” said the former official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I think his running for re-election is less about her and more about him, but I do think that she and the Democratic bench (are) a factor. . . .”“You cannot replace your first Black woman vice president and think that Black people and women are going to just vote for you,” the former White House official said. “He needs her.”
A little later in the article, a second “former White House official” makes an appearance:
But some who work in or have worked in his West Wing said her engagement on policy was lacking.“A point of tension in their relationship is that I don’t think that the president sees her as somebody who takes anything off of his plate,” a second former White House official said, adding a “fear of messing up” had led Harris to be late to the game on important issues.
The phrasing of the complaint, “Her engagement on policy was lacking” is intriguing because it lines up with a complaint made by staffers to the Washington Post back in December 2021:
Staffers who worked for Harris before she was vice president said one consistent problem was that Harris would refuse to wade into briefing materials prepared by staff members, then berate employees when she appeared unprepared.“It’s clear that you’re not working with somebody who is willing to do the prep and the work,” one former staffer said. “With Kamala you have to put up with a constant amount of soul-destroying criticism and also her own lack of confidence. So you’re constantly sort of propping up a bully and it’s not really clear why.”
Look, every time Harris gives one of her meandering, Hallmark-card, haiku stream-of-consciousness remarks — even loyal Democrat Julia Louis-Dreyfus has had fun with that — she comes across as someone who did not read the briefing materials and is trying to come up with something significant to say, off-the-cuff.
The odd thing is, out of all the problems an elected official can have, this is one of the easiest to solve. Just take the time to read the briefing materials and feel familiar with the topic! Or talk to policy wonks who really know these topics inside and out! There are a variety of learning styles — visual, auditory, kinesthetic — and maybe a big stack of papers isn’t how Harris absorbs information best. The Presidential Daily Briefing gets tailored to the preferences of the recipient. Figure out how Vice President Harris absorbs information best, and orient her briefings to that approach.
We can’t quite figure out which former White House officials spoke to the Reuters reporters. But the list of former officials who would have familiarity with Biden’s concerns and criticisms about Harris must be a short list, unless Biden is venting his spleen about his vice president to anyone who comes into the Oval Office.
Not many of Biden’s top White House staff have stepped down yet. There’s former chief of staff Ron Klain, longtime Biden aide Kate Bedingfield, former Office of Public Engagement director Cedric Richmond, former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki . . . and that’s about it. There are other staffers who have moved on to other government jobs, and there are others who have departed but who seem unlikely to be Biden confidantes.
The on-the-record quotes in the Reuters piece make the familiar, and not-all-that-persuasive, argument that Harris is doing a great job, and that for some strange reason, no one outside of the administration seems to notice:
“The vice president’s job really is to make sure that you carry the mission of the administration forward and she has done that very successfully around the country. Unfortunately . . . I don’t think she gets the credit in the public eye she deserves,” outgoing Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said.
No president wants his vice president walking around with an approval rating of about 38 percent and a disapproval rating of 51 percent. (That’s a little worse than Biden’s 43 percent approval rating and 52 percent disapproval.)
Then again, maybe it isn’t just Harris who is disappointing and frustrating Biden. This morning, Fox Business Network’s Charles Gasparino reports that, “The White House is growing increasingly frustrated with Secretary Janet Yellen over her messaging on the banking crisis, Democratic sources tell Fox Business. The problem they face is that a compromised Jerome Powell can’t really fill the void; look for a new point person if the crisis expands, they say.”
Again, we don’t know the sources talking to Gasparino, but this is the sort of report that sounds and feels plausible. Yellen has been trying to calm the markets and the public, with limited leverage (and sometimes limited information). In the new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs, there is just 31 percent approve of Biden’s stewardship of the national economy. No doubt Biden still thinks the economy is “as strong as hell,” as he insisted last October. Biden may well conclude that the reason the public doesn’t share his rosy assessment and isn’t giving him credit is because Yellen isn’t a good enough messenger.
One of the hallmarks of Barack Obama’s presidency was that he rarely if ever fired anyone; cabinet members such as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki kept their jobs through scandals such as the botched rollout of healthcare.gov and the veterans dying while waiting for care at the VA. One of the very few times Obama fired anyone as president was his dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal for his comments to a Rolling Stone reporter in 2010 — comments that included reporting that McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.’” (Hey, what are the odds of Joe Biden’s preferred strategy in Afghanistan being shortsighted and leading to chaos, right?)
That was part of the philosophy of “no drama Obama”: No matter how bad the situation was, the president was not going to demand anyone’s resignation or make an example out of anyone.
Dismissing a cabinet official is an admission that something has gone wrong, and since taking office, the message from Biden, almost every issue, almost every day, is that things are going terrific or they’re about to go terrific. The surge of migrants is just a routine seasonal pattern, inflation is transitory, “There’s nobody suggesting there’s unchecked inflation on the way — no serious economist,” the Afghan army is as well-equipped as any army in the world, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan,” and so on.
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