A president who prides himself on choreography and planning has seen in recent days a burst of unexpected events that showcase the need for political agility. The White House is approaching the problems — all politically sensitive — with a degree of calm and caution, even as some allies want Biden to be more forceful before events spiral further.
As Biden and his aides seek to project steadiness, many Republicans are offering an alternative interpretation: The world is increasingly engulfed in chaos on Biden’s watch as gas prices surge, crime rates rise, border crossings grow and the costs of consumer goods threaten to spike.
The dueling political messages have created a Rorschach test for voters in upcoming elections: Do they see Biden as an agent of competence or chaos?
Biden’s aides do not deny the problems cropping up on his watch, but they say his response demonstrates his effective leadership and his ability to marshal resources, summon experts and tackle multiple crises.
“If the start of the week was supposed chaos, look where the week ended up,” said Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director. “By the end of the week, he’s saying the pipeline is online and gas is going to be back up to capacity soon, and we’ve gotten so many vaccines in arms that you don’t have to wear a mask in most instances anymore.”
“We’re not interested in a debate about competency versus chaos,” she added of the Republican criticism. “President Biden is doing the work, and the American people can judge for themselves.”
But it’s clear that in many ways, recent days have presented new tests for a young White House.
On taking office, Biden approached his biggest challenge, the coronavirus pandemic, with methodical preparation. He set out goals — critics say modest ones — and has met each one, resulting in a triumphant moment on Thursday when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Americans vaccinated against the coronavirus no longer need to wear masks in most settings.
But it was other moments, ones that came unexpectedly, that created a potentially more treacherous landscape for Biden.
“The Oval Office is the land of unforeseen and unexpected,” said Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor who served as chief of staff to President Barack Obama. “It’s an opportunity to prove you can handle it.”
Much of last week was initially planned around bipartisan meetings to explore whether Biden could find common ground with Republicans on his proposals for roughly $4 trillion in new spending.
But the administration soon found itself scrambling to address an entirely different set of problems.
Biden was briefed Saturday morning at Camp David by several top officials — including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, National Security Council Chief of Staff Yohannes Abraham and presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti — on a threat to the nation’s gas supply. Colonial Pipeline had just reported that a ransomware attack was forcing it to shut down its systems, halting the flow of gasoline through a large swath of the country.
Biden ordered several government agencies to mobilize. Sullivan briefed him twice on Sunday and again on Monday. By Tuesday morning, aides convened a meeting in the Oval Office to focus on what more could be done. Biden authorized waivers so that states could use noncompliant fuel as a way of boosting supply.
With a steady stream of public updates, Biden’s team sought to convey that it was on top of the problem. One official said the White House has a working communications strategy for sudden challenges, and one of its cornerstones is disclosing their actions in real time.
So administration officials last week launched a blitz on local news networks and made frequent calls to governors, with a number of Republican leaders joining them in urging calm.
“Please do not fill up your car unless you need to and do not fill multiple containers,” Gov. Kay Ivey (R-Ala.) tweeted Tuesday after speaking with Biden officials. “Overreacting creates more of a shortage. Please use common sense and patience!”
“My message to you is simple: there is no need to panic,” Gov. Tate Reeves (R-Miss.) wrote the same day. He, like Biden officials, compared the run on gasoline to the frenzy for toilet paper that arose early in the pandemic.
Around that same time, violence was erupting in East Jerusalem. It was a familiar conflict for Biden, who, as vice president, had tried to help broker an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. But the political ground has shifted since then, and some Democrats pressed Biden to be more understanding of the Palestinian cause.
“This is not a moment for tepid statements,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) wrote on Twitter. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) asked bluntly, “Where’s the outrage?”
The context was very different, but Biden’s message again involved calm and restraint.
“Our approach is to work with leaders in the region — whether they’re the Israelis or the Palestinians or leaders from other countries who can play an integral role in influencing Hamas — to de-escalate and move toward a more stable peace,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.
The past week also marked new concerns about inflation, but Biden’s top economic advisers decided no big policy changes were needed. Some are overstating the risk, advisers argue, adding that price increases for items like used cars and airline tickets are directly related to the pandemic and will pass.
Jared Bernstein, a longtime Biden adviser and member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said that as in other matters, the president is determined not to react hastily.
“Don’t overreact, don’t panic,” Bernstein said. “Look at the trend. And if the trend is your friend, steady at the helm.” He added that Biden does not want to react to “the hottest datapoint that Twitter is freaking out about.”
But downplaying problems carries its own risks. Robert Dallek, author and presidential historian, said he was reminded of Herbert Hoover and his attempts to lift the country out of the Great Depression with an optimistic message.
“His assumption was prosperity would be continued, and his slogan was prosperity was right around the corner,” Dallek said. “And of course, it was nowhere near coming to pass. He proved to be, in that sense, a failed politician who couldn’t adjust to the unexpected developments on his watch.”
Dallek outlined the ways in which Biden is unlike Hoover — bringing a deeper set of experiences and, so far, handling moments of crises more effectively — and said the president seems aware of the potential pitfalls.
“He’s watched politics in this country and abroad for 50 years. It’s not as if he’s a total novice,” Dallek said. “But whether that serves him well or ill is going to be determined by what happens, not in the first 100 days, but in the first 1,000 days.”
Republicans are not waiting that long to cast judgment. On cable channels, in the hallways of Congress and in battleground states, they are increasingly gravitating toward one word — chaos — to sum up the early days of Biden’s presidency, suggesting he is failing to rise to the occasion.
“The border is in chaos, there’s a gas crisis, inflation crisis, our allies have been undermined, and trillions in new taxes have been proposed,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tweeted on Friday.
“It is a crisis. It’s chaos. It is a catastrophe,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said at a news conference about the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Biden Administration Creates Country of Chaos,” read an email sent out by the Iowa Republican Party.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former chair of the House GOP campaign arm, urged Republicans to fine-tune their message and focus sharply on Biden’s policies, rather than generally pointing out the chaos in the world. “If there’s chaos, it’s because of their policy,” Cole said, speaking of the Biden administration.
“I think the basic Republican case is going to be, ‘You’re spending way too much, you’re not effective in a dangerous world, and you’re out of sync with the basic values of the American people because you’re governing further to the left,’ ” Cole said in an interview. “Good management doesn’t save you from bad policy.”
The Republican Party faced some degree of chaos itself last week, as GOP House members ousted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her leadership position because she vocally rejects former president Donald Trump’s continued false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Republicans may be turning to the chaos message against Biden because other efforts to go after the president — accusing him of being a radical socialist or seizing on cultural issues, for example — have had a limited effect.
Republicans have regularly tried to portray Biden as beholden to left-wing figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — an implicit acknowledgment that it has been hard to pierce Biden’s less polarizing brand.
It’s not yet clear whether the chaos mantra will be enough for Republicans in next year’s midterm elections, and strategists say much will depend on which issues are motivating voters at the time. Polls show the public broadly approves of Biden’s handling of the pandemic, for example; when it comes to immigration, he gets much lower marks.
Biden’s approval ratings at the 100-day mark of his administration were positive, if less so than other recent presidents. Republicans hope to change that by arguing that Biden is simply not equipped to deal with the current moment and all the crises that are erupting in the United States and abroad.
“What you’re seeing right here with the Biden administration is a group of people that are way in over their heads,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) told Fox News recently. “I mean, look all around the world. It’s on fire.”