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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

The politics of Obama’s official portrait unveiling

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1977, the United States and Panama signed agreements under which Washington would eventual turn over control of the Panama Canal to Panama.

The big idea

Ties with Biden, Trump, looming midterms, hang over a typically fun event

A former president’s official portrait unveiling is almost always a lighthearted event, largely devoid of partisan politics, a White House tradition with none (ok, less) of the cringe factor that attaches to the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardon.

The last time it happened, in May 2012, President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, joked around in the East Room and celebrated the unique burdens of office as a kind of bond, one uniting “the only people on Earth who know the feeling,” the Democrat said.

On a lighter note, Obama observed: “George, I will always remember the gathering you hosted for all the living former Presidents before I took office, your kind words of encouragement. Plus, you also left me a really good TV sports package.

Bush joked about the crowd size “at my hanging” and quipped to Obama he was pleased “that when you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask, ‘what would George do?’

A different time

As president, Donald Trump did not hold the event.

But today, it’s back. President Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcome Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama for their official portrait unveilings.

And beyond the corny jokes and the camaraderie of the exclusive club of presidents, it’s a line from Obama’s 2012 remarks that may have seemed saccharine then but is surely salient now.

  • “One of the greatest strengths of our democracy is our ability to peacefully, and routinely, go through transitions of power,” he said. “It speaks to the fact that we’ve always had leaders who believe in America, and everything it stands for, above all else — leaders and their families who are willing to devote their lives to the country that they love.”

The violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which interrupted the certification of Biden’s victory, the current president’s warnings that “pro-insurrectionist” and other election-denying Republicans threaten American democracy, and Trump demanding he be reinstated or have the 2020 election done over invest those remarks with new meaning.

That’s just one of the dynamics shaping the ceremony.

Another is the midterm election contest. Biden has recently thrown himself into campaign mode, attacking Republicans and touting his accomplishments as he tries to make the vote a choice, not a referendum, at a time when his job approval ratings have recovered from record lows but are still a liability. He reportedly plans to travel 2 to 3 times per week.

Obama has also taken the plunge. He did an Aug. 30 fundraiser with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee on Martha’s Vineyard with Eric Holder. He’ll raise money for Democratic Senate candidates Sept. 8 in New York, for their House counterparts in San Diego on Sept. 28 (featuring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) and another in San Francisco Sept. 29 for the DNC.

“He’ll also stump with campaign/GOTV [get-out-the-vote] events as we get closer, with a special focus on roles and states that are important to the administration of the 2024 elections,” according to a person familiar with his plans.

Lingering tensions

The two campaigners could not be more different. Obama the frequently professorial, who built a high-tech online operation that helped him to capture the presidency. Biden more the old-fashioned grip-and-grin retail politician. Democrats need them both.

Which gets us to the final dynamic: the Biden-Obama relationship.

  • My colleague Tyler Pager shared some details Tuesday night about some lingering tensions, including some connected to Obama’s previous visit to the White House, this past April, when he began his remarks with “Thank you, Vice President Biden.”

“Biden laughed and saluted, and Obama walked away from the podium and gave Biden a hug, vowing he was just making a joke. ‘That was all set up,’ he said.”

But for some longtime Biden staffers, the zinger punctured the celebratory mood. They saw the quip, intentional or not, as part of a pattern of arrogance from Obama and a reminder of the disrespect many felt from Obama’s cadre of aides toward Biden.”

In his book “Promise Me, Dad,” Biden chronicled Obama trying to talk him out of running for president in 2016. The most quoted line comes after a face-to-face discussion: “The president was not encouraging.”

And Obama foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes wrote in his own book that “[i]n the Situation Room, Biden could be something of an unguided missile.”

The remarks at the portrait unveiling are more likely to resemble Obama’s words when he awarded his vice president the Presidential Medal of Freedom in January 2017, calling him “the best vice president America’s ever had” and a “lion of American history.”

But at a perilous time for American democracy, the pomp and palling around may highlight rather than mask how much the country has changed since 2012 and how a once-routine celebration now seems like a vestige from a different time. Not that we have to paint you a picture.

What’s happening now

IRS will look into setting up a free e-filing system

The Internal Revenue Service will spend $15 million studying a free, government-backed tax filing system under a provision in the sweeping climate and health-care law Congress passed this summer. It’s a landmark step toward overhauling the way most Americans file their taxes and ending years of domination of tax prep by private corporations,” Jacob Bogage reports.

Maura Healey to face Trump-backed Republican in deep-blue Massachusetts

Maura Healey (D), who made history as the country’s first openly gay attorney general, will face Trump-backed former state legislator Geoff Diehl (R) in the Massachusetts governor’s race this November — a contest seen by analysts as one of the best chances for Democrats to flip control of a Republican-held seat,” Annie Linskey and David Weigel report.

The war in Ukraine

Putin, in defiant speech, threatens Western gas and grain supplies

“Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday called Western sanctions ‘stupid’ and threatened to halt all energy sales to Russia’s critics if they move forward with a cap on oil prices proposed by the Group of Seven industrialized economic powers,” Mary Ilyushina reports.

Russians back war in Ukraine, but report finds notable opposition

“Russian public support for the war against Ukraine, while sky-high, is less solid than statistics generally suggest, according to an analysis by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and has fallen in recent months with some supporters saying they are ambivalent, anxious, shocked or fearful about the ongoing military campaign,” Robyn Dixon reports.

About 20 percent of respondents said they did not support the war, up from 14 percent in March, the analysis found. About 75 percent said they supported the war, compared with 81 percent in March.”

Stoltenberg: NATO countries will ‘pay a price’ this winter for supporting Ukraine

“But chief of the military alliance Jens Stoltenberg still insisted that Europe had a ‘moral responsibility’ to stand up to Russian aggression, Whitney Juckno and Jennifer Hassan report. “There are tough times ahead,” he wrote in the Financial Times. “For Ukraine’s future and for ours, we must prepare for the winter war and stay the course … We do pay a price for our support to Ukraine. But the price we pay is counted in dollars, euros and pounds, while Ukrainians are paying with their lives.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

From border town to ‘border town,’ bused migrants seek new lives in D.C. area

So far, more than 230 buses carrying nearly 9,400 migrants, including families with young children, have arrived in D.C. since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) began offering free passage to the nation’s capital in April, with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) following suit in May. Last month, buses from Texas started heading to New York and Chicago, too,” Antonio Olivo reports.

ICYMI: Material on foreign nation’s nuclear capabilities seized at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago

A document describing a foreign government’s military defenses, including its nuclear capabilities, was found by FBI agents who searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence and private club last month, according to people familiar with the matter, underscoring concerns among U.S. intelligence officials about classified material stashed in the Florida property,” Devlin Barrett and Carol D. Leonnig reported last night.

… and beyond

Elected officials, police chiefs on leaked Oath Keepers list

“The names of hundreds of U.S. law enforcement officers, elected officials and military members appear on the leaked membership rolls of a far-right extremist group that’s accused of playing a key role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, according to a report released Wednesday,” the Associated Press's Alanna Durkin Richer and Michael Kunzelman report.

“The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism pored over more than 38,000 names on leaked Oath Keepers membership lists and identified more than 370 people it believes currently work in law enforcement agencies — including as police chiefs and sheriffs — and more than 100 people who are currently members of the military.”

The latest on covid

U.S. plans to shift to annual coronavirus shots, similar to flu vaccine

“White House coronavirus coordinator Ashish Jha said Tuesday the newly reformulated omicron-targeting boosters mark an “important milestone” in the U.S. pandemic response, moving the country to a point where a single annual coronavirus shot should provide a ‘high degree of protection against serious illness all year,’” Lena H. Sun reports.

The Biden agenda

Clean energy projects surge after climate bill passage

“In the weeks since President Biden signed a comprehensive climate bill devised to spur investment in electric cars and clean energy, corporations have announced a series of big-ticket projects to produce the kind of technology the legislation aims to promote,” the New York Times's Jack Ewing and Ivan Penn report.

Analysis: Biden on pace to buck history

Presidents don’t improve their political standing in midterm election years. That is, they didn't until President Joe Biden came along. And the uptick in Biden’s job approval rating is one factor in Democrats’ renewed optimism about the upcoming elections,” Roll Call's Nathan L. Gonzales writes.

Biden’s Cabinet hasn’t changed, a sharp break from Trump

“When President Joe Biden met with senior members of his administration on Tuesday, the 24 officials sitting around the table were identical to the ones Biden gathered 17 months ago for his first Cabinet meeting,” CNN's Kevin Liptak reports.

“There has been zero turnover among the secretaries, administrators and directors that form the official Cabinet, a level of consistency representing a sharp departure from Biden's predecessor Donald Trump, who had already lost three Cabinet officials at this point in his presidency.”

White House confirms Biden will visit Detroit auto show

“The White House on Tuesday afternoon confirmed that President Joe Biden will attend the North American International Auto Show, which begins next week,” the Detroit Free Press's Todd Spangler reports.

“In a statement, the White House said Biden will travel to Detroit next Wednesday, Sept. 14, to visit the show. No further details about when he would be there, whether he would make remarks or whether he would go anywhere else in metro Detroit were immediately available.”

This summer’s extreme divide in rain and drought, visualized

Like an unhinged seesaw, this summer’s rainfall has teetered between too much and too little across the United States. Record-high rainfall in pockets of the country brought unprecedented flooding; meanwhile, other communities yearned for just a few drops as droughts worsened,” Kasha Patel and Tim Meko explain.

Hot on the left

President Biden is right about MAGA Republicans

“Let’s not be children about what’s going on here. The conservative legal establishment has for decades viewed the legal system as an instrument of partisan power. It produces committed ideologues to be nominated to the bench—from the Supreme Court on down—where they implement conservative policy goals, trampling over precedent, norms, and laws as necessary. [Judge Aileen Cannon] is following that script. She is attempting to prevent Trump from facing any accountability for his numerous crimes; it’s as simple as that. She’s not being subtle about it, either—she said she was going to do it before she even heard the Justice Department’s arguments,” Ryan Cooper writes for the American Prospect.

Hot on the right

Republicans anxious about cash-strapped NRSC amid Scott’s feud with McConnell

“GOP senators are privately alarmed at the cash problems facing Sen. Rick Scott's National Republican Senatorial Committee, uneasy over his feud with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and worried that their internal issues could undercut their already difficult road back to the majority this fall,” CNN's Manu Raju and Alex Rogers report.

“Behind the scenes, GOP senators are maneuvering to make up for the committee's cash shortfall, with discussions underway to take matters into their own hands to circumvent the NRSC entirely and directly help candidates who need critical resources down the homestretch of the high-stakes campaign, according to multiple GOP sources.”

Today in Washington

At 1:30 p.m., Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff will attend the unveiling of former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama’s White House portraits.

In closing

Special masters: An educational experience!

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.

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