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For Presidents, Sometimes the Best Move Is No Move at All

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 17: White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain speaks briefly with reporters at the U.S. Capitol following a lunch meeting with Senate Democrats on February 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. According to White House officials, Klain discussed the upcoming State of the Union and the pending Supreme Court nomination to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer in the meeting with Democratic lawmakers. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) (Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images North America)

One of President Joe Biden’s key skills is avoiding panic when things are looking down. We’re beginning to see just how important his coolheadedness has become to his presidency.

Biden has been getting a wave of positive media coverage over the last couple of months pegged to several events: His signature climate and health care initiative was signed into law along with several other pieces of legislation; gasoline prices are dropping and inflation appears to have peaked, while the job market remains healthy; and his foreign policy in Ukraine is well-regarded and far more successful so far than anyone expected.

Back when things were going badly, pressure began building on Biden to do something to turn his administration around. When an administration is perceived to be in trouble, often the first change presidents make is to bring on a new chief of staff.(1)And sure enough, in late January the Washington Post reported that Chief of Staff Ron Klain’s job was in trouble. At that point, the poorly regarded US evacuation from Afghanistan was still fresh in people’s minds. Meanwhile, inflation was building, and the big Build Back Better spending package (the one that eventually became the climate and health bill) was repeatedly pronounced dead.

Biden, to his credit, did not do something. He presumably knew that the case against Klain was weak and that his administration was reasonably well-organized and well-run. So he kept Klain on. It appears to have been the right decision.

Some caveats are in order, because the connection between how things are actually going within a presidency and how they are perceived is often loose indeed.

For example, the fact that Biden’s approval ratings have improved modestly doesn’t prove that keeping Klain around was a good decision. Indeed, a lot of why a president’s approval ratings rise and fall have to do with things over which the administration has little or no control. That might be the case with Afghanistan, where Biden took a lot of blame that probably should have fallen on former presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. At the same time, Biden may not deserve so much credit for the Ukraine successes — that belongs with Ukraine’s government and people.

Nor is Biden’s improved media coverage proof that all is well within the administration. The tone of media coverage tends to match outcomes — and pundits tend to change their interpretation of the same president’s traits depending on whether things are going well or badly.(2)Looking deeper at how the White House and the administration are being run, most indicators looked solid back in January and look just as good now.

The administration also continues to be as scandal-free as any in the last 50 years, so much so that scandalmongers have had to turn to one of the president’s children, and not White House staff or executive branch figures, to find anything to chew on. It’s hard to know how much credit a president should get for a productive Congress, but there certainly have been quite a few legislative successes, especially given the very small majorities Democrats have in both chambers. Back in January, Klain was blamed for what was said to be a bad White House relationship with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin that was supposedly sinking the legislative agenda. Guess not.(3)

Even when things weren’t going Biden’s way, negative leaks and infighting in the media certainly seemed to be well below average for an administration. Now that things are better, those tensions abated, as they usually do when things go well.

If Biden’s policies wind up failing or Democrats get walloped in the midterms, or even if events beyond his control start to pile up, a lot of assessments of the president and his chief of staff will turn negative again. But Klain has been a first-rate chief of staff, and Biden deserves credit for sticking with a team that was doing good work even when that wasn’t so obvious to outsiders. That’s the kind of presidential skill that’s apt to pay off going forward.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

Do ‘Trump Judges’ Exist? We’re About to Find Out: Noah Feldman

Boris Is Out. The Battle Over His Legacy Continues.: Therese Raphael

Don’t Blame the Chief of Staff for Biden’s Struggles: Jonathan Bernstein

(1) Sometimes, presidents replace a chief of staff because he’s doing a bad job. That was the case when Ronald Reagan replaced Donald Regan in 1986 and when Bill Clinton replaced Mack McLarty in 1994. Often, too, trouble for a president can wind up producing a scandal for the chief of staff that might not have been considered a big deal if things were going better - that happened with Sherman Adams in 1958 and John Sununu in 1991.

(2) Some people will always like or dislike a president for policy reasons. Those who dislike spending money on health care, abortion rights and gun control are going to dislike Biden whatever he does, just as those with the opposite positions will normally dislike any Republican president. Not only that, but partisans are apt to think that politicians from the other party are incompetent, regardless of objective evidence.

(3) Technically, the fact that a version of Biden’s Build Back Better bill passed and several other bills have become law doesn’t quite prove anything. Perhaps even more would have passed, with versions more in line with Biden’s preferences, and more quickly, had the White House’s legislative shop been better. But I’m inclined to believe that legislating is simply difficult, and we should expect a lot of bumps and bruises along the way - with people incorrectly blaming the White House for the normal difficulties of the sausage-making.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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