(The Hill) – Democrats are growing increasingly frustrated by what they say is a flat-footed White House that is slow to catch up on solving a seemingly never-ending cascade of problems in the face of an unrelenting news cycle.
They point to the recent baby formula shortage as the latest example of how President Biden has failed to get ahead of the story, allowing Republicans to set the narrative as yet another failure for the White House. But they also highlighted Biden’s lag on other issues at the top of voters’ minds: inflation and gas prices.
Democrats were also miffed when the White House was caught off guard when a federal judge in Florida lifted the mask mandate on airlines in April and also when a leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was made public, even though both were events that surprised Washington more broadly — not just the White House.
“It’s really simple: ‘Be the f—ing president!,” said one Democratic strategist frustrated by the administration. “I realize it’s tough and you’re drinking out of a fire hose every single day, but there are things you can do to control the public perception and they haven’t done any of that.”
Democratic strategist Christy Setzer said the White House has shown some naivete in recent months in trying to control the message.
“It may come down to not understanding what they’re up against — both the media environment and today’s GOP,” Setzer said. “Biden did speak out on guns, on baby formula, on inflation … but the traditional tactics aren’t breaking through, and it doesn’t seem as though they’re taking in that information, re-trenching, and trying new approaches when it’s falling flat.”
The White House routinely defends Biden and the administration’s response to the baby formula shortage, highlighting his invoking of the Defense Production Act to have baby formula flown into the U.S. at least five times in recent weeks.
“The President has led with urgency and solutions needed to deliver for American families due to Abbott’s recall,” a White House official said.
Speaking to reporters during a briefing last week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre acknowledged that Biden is juggling “multiple crises” at one time.
Biden’s polling numbers began to fall last August, around the time he withdrew the last military forces out of Afghanistan after 20 years of war. The chaotic and deadly U.S. exit, marked by the Taliban’s swift and sudden takeover of Kabul, was labeled by both Democrats and Republicans as poorly executed. It was compounded by a terrorist bombing that took the lives of 13 American service members.
Biden hasn’t recovered since.
Most polls have Biden’s approval rating stuck in the low 40s. A Reuters-Ipsos poll released last week showed that Biden’s approval rating had jumped up 6 points to 42 percent from a record low the previous week.
After Biden delivered his prime-time address calling for congressional action on an assault weapons ban and other reforms following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Democrats — who praised the tone and tenor of the speech — criticized the timing.
“It should have been done sooner,” one strategist said. “It felt like it was too late by the time he’d delivered the speech. The moment was already passing.”
Biden did deliver a speech the night of the shooting after returning from the White House from a multiday trip to Asia, but it was less focused on pushing for specific legislative actions and more about pleading with the public to find an end to mass shootings devastating the country.
The Biden White House is no stranger to crises. The president came into office with the primary goal of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, a response that has broadly been commended by health experts, particularly when it came to effectively distributing the vaccine to the general public.
Larry Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University, said the White House’s recent hiring of Ashish Jha as Biden’s new COVID-19 coordinator was a “really smart move” and credited him with his ability to speak to the public.
But other problems have piled up on Biden’s desk since his first day in office, many of them as difficult as inflation and gun violence, over which the president has limited control.
The nationwide baby formula shortage stemming from the February closure of an Abbott Nutrition factory is the latest acute crisis to test the White House. In response, Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act to boost domestic production of formula and authorize military flights to transport formula from overseas.
But Biden himself took the attention off those moves when he acknowledged last week in an exchange with reporters that he wasn’t aware of the severity of the baby formula shortage until early April — weeks after the Abbott plant in Michigan was shuttered due to safety concerns and after Americans were already facing empty store shelves.
“My jaw really dropped,” said William Galston, chairman of the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution. “It was someone’s job to warn him, and not some low-level flunky.”
The first Democratic strategist said Biden’s admission that he only found out about the baby formula shortage in April “seems like bad staff work.”
“You should be able to see what’s coming down the pike,” the strategist said.
Still, the White House highlights that officials at the Food and Drug Administration and elsewhere have been working since the plant closed in February to address the issue.
A memo released by the White House earlier this week showed that in-stock rates for formula started to decline in early March from about 90 percent and now stand at about 74 percent. The memo also said infant formula sales have actually increased this year compared to last year, rising about 24 percent than average sales in 2021.
The administration, however, has garnered some praise, particularly for its handling of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the way in which officials have used intelligence, and the fact that Biden has unified allies behind a common approach to punishing the Kremlin.
Galston, a former domestic policy aide in the Clinton White House, noted that the Biden administration has been “consistently ahead of the curve” when it comes to the conflict in Ukraine, something he said has served Biden well.
“Part of competence and good management is setting up a system that to the greatest extent possible — it’s never perfect — to the greatest extent possible enables you to get ahead of events,” Galston said. “The name of the game is to avoid unforced errors.”
The first Democratic strategist suggested Biden needs to “stop trying to put out 20 fires.”
“Pick four or five and do them really well,” the strategist said. “Dive in on baby formula, dive in on gas prices.”
To be sure, the White House is trying to get ahead of other challenges, including the impending Supreme Court ruling expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that said abortion rights were protected by the Constitution.
The White House has been holding listening sessions with state lawmakers, advocacy organizations and other stakeholders to better understand abortion laws on the ground ahead of the decision, which is expected later this month.
And in a sign that the baby formula shortage is likely to ease, Abbott reopened its plant in Michigan over the weekend.
Rodell Mollineau, the Democratic strategist who served as an aide to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said there aren’t “quick fix solutions” to many of the issues Biden faces.
But Mollineau said Biden should be doing what he does best to help drive his message. Mollineau advised that Biden should be hitting the road more to speak directly to the public, something the president has tried to do more of since the start of the year.
“The more he’s out there, the more he’s talking to people, the more he’s visiting real Americans and sharing in their pain and frustration and being Scranton Joe, the better off it is,” Mollineau said. “It’ll remind people again why they voted for him in the first place. It plays to his strengths.”