Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration.
Send tips | Subscribe here | Email Alex | Email Max
JOE BIDEN’s response to an avowed racist killing 10 people at a predominantly Black Buffalo grocery store has been defined, in part, by what’s been left unsaid.
The president has not shamed specific individuals who spread the “replacement theory” dogma that warped the shooter’s mind. Instead, he’s admonished institutions that push the idea that elites are facilitating the mass migration of minorities to dilute the power of white Americans.
But to judge Biden by this standard alone would miss something more important. The language he’s using is incredibly pointed and descriptive for a president. It reflects a sobriety inside the White House about the direction of the country and illustrates one of the main rhetorical contrasts between Biden and his former boss, BARACK OBAMA.
During his speech Tuesday in Buffalo, N.Y., Biden called the shooting an act of domestic terrorism. He used the term “white supremacy” five times and described the killings as “violence inflicted in the service of hate.”
To get a sense of how rare these utterances are, look at the eulogy Obama gave for the Rev. CLEMENTA PINCKNEY after he and eight Black parishioners were gunned down in 2015 by a white supremacist at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
The “Amazing Grace” speech is regarded as one of Obama’s finest. It was an exhortation to find purpose in horror; a call for grace during unspeakable tragedy. But it did not mention either “white supremacy” or “domestic terrorism.” Instead, Obama spoke of the lingering ills of slavery and Jim Crow and the non-linear progress that comes on these frontlines.
An Obama aide said there was never an active discussion about whether to define the hatred of the shooter. It was self-evident. Morever, the speech was a eulogy, not a political address, and it was Obama’s nature to push redemption over recrimination. Notably, he used the moment to laud Republican leaders for taking down the confederate emblems in their state flags.
Of course, things were different then, both for the country and the president.
Obama had internalized the political damage that came early in his presidency, when he admonished a white cop for arresting Harvard professor HENRY LOUIS GATESJR. at his own home. His team was acutely aware that the more it engaged on these matters, the sharper the backlash would be. You can see it in the care with which Obama discussed the TRAYVON MARTIN shooting — repeatedly balancing talk of racial inequities in the criminal justice system with lines about the “need” to think “about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys.”
“There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race,” he said at one point. “I haven’t seen that be particularly productive.”
Biden isn’t calling for a conversation on race either. He’s skipping straight to his conclusions. Part of it is because he doesn’t have to deal with the burdens and hurdles of being the first Black president, which — his and Obama’s team note — is no small matter.
Part of it has to do with coming to office after DONALD TRUMP, when the issues once confined to the far corners of the right have become increasingly formalized in party doctrine or late-night cable script. The march of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville may have compelled Biden to run for president, but the Trump years hardened Obama, too. His response to the 2019 shooting in El Paso included a denunciation of white nationalism.
But another part of it, both camps say, is the internal sense that the non-linear progress so thematically integral to Obama’s politics has become threatened. In a remarkable historical coincidence, both Obama’s Charleston speech and Biden’s Buffalo address came in the shadow of generational Supreme Court news. The former was delivered the exact day that same sex marriage was legalized and the latter was offered under the specter of the likely end of Roe v. Wade.
“The question was, are we going backwards or are we on the same trajectory? And a constant theme for Obama was that progress never moves in a straight line. There are bursts and there is backlash,” said CODY KEENAN, Obama’s former chief speechwriter, whose forthcoming book, “Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America,” details the build up to that speech. “In terms of our immediate trajectory in both of these moments, it’s hard to argue that backlash isn’t winning right now.”
WEST WING PLAYBOOK GOES ON THE ROAD: Alex is going on Biden’s first trip to Asia as president. So over the next several days, West Wing Playbook is going to include several dispatches from the road including a special edition on Sunday afternoon/evening. Anything about the trip we are missing or we should point out? Text/Signal/Wickr Alex at 8183240098.
TEXT US — ARE YOU senior policy adviser MARY WALL?We want to hear from you. And we’ll keep you anonymous. Or if you think we missed something in today’s edition, let us know and we may include it tomorrow. Email us at [email protected].
This question is courtesy of our own ALLIE BICE.
Which president said: “If you live long enough, you’ll make mistakes. But if you learn from them, you’ll be a better person. It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit.”
(Answer at the bottom.)
THE GREAT WI-FI FREAKOUT: Putting a few dozen White House reporters and a handful of White House press aides on a plane and telling them there isn’t Wi-Fi is the kindling of revolutions.
The press charter flight to Seoul Wednesday evening was supposed to have internet — the seats even had a “Wi-Fi” decal. But when the network wasn’t working, West Wing Playbook observed that some people were just not OK. “Have you got Wi-Fi?” people asked each other again and again. At one point, people at the back of the plane walked to the front of the plane — suspicious that the people in the front of the plane were hoarding the internet. One reporter even waved his phone up at the plane’s ceiling in a hopeless effort to log on.
It’s unclear what went wrong. At first the flight attendants said the internet needed to be reset. Then they said that passengers were trying to connect to the wrong network. Then there was something about a satellite and an aurora event. Regardless, the always-online folks who were getting ready to cover the president’s trip to Asia had to spend 15 hours logged off. People talked to each other and read books. We found tranquility in not having to deal with SAM STEIN.
PSAKI QUESTIONS: JEN PSAKI is reportedly gearing up to rejoin the ranks of partisan talking heads in cable news. But she clearly has some reservations about it.
During an appearance on Wednesday at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, the former press secretary questioned the media incentives that amplified her “Psaki bombs.”
“What does it say about the fact that we had that back and forth in the briefing room, and on social media I was cheered for pushing back on PETER DOOCY, and he was cheered for pushing back on me,” she said. “And in many ways, as much as we had a civil, good, professional relationship that does speak to, kind of, the division in society and what social media does and drives.”
GRINER UPDATE: Yesterday, West Wing Playbook reported on the Biden administration’s increasingly public efforts to free Americans and American permanent residents who the U.S. classifies as wrongfully detained. Forbes confirmed a report from the Russian state news organization TASS that the country is attempting to swap WNBA superstar BRITTNEY GRINER for convicted arms dealer VIKTOR BOUT.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: Numbers released on Thursday showed there were 1.3 million people on unemployment insurance for the week ending on May 7. In a tweet, Labor Secretary MARTY WALSH pointed out that the number was the lowest since Dec. 27, 1969.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: This NBC News story by TOM WINTER, SARAH FITZPATRICK, CHLOE ATKINS and LAURA STRICKLER that states HUNTER BIDEN and his company earned $11 million over a five year period via, among other entities, a Ukrainian business now “accused of bribery” and work with “a Chinese businessman now accused of fraud.”
SPOTTED IN THE WEST WING: A tipster told West Wing Playbook that Pentagon press secretary JOHN KIRBY has been an increasing presence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. One person with knowledge said Kirby was at the White House yesterday, and was also in the West Wing several weeks ago. Kirby’s press conferences and media appearances have been well received internally, and his recent trips suggest he could be taking on a larger role in shaping the administration’s foreign policy communications. Kirby and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
FUTURE BUREAUCRATS: MICHAEL LEACH, special assistant to the president and chief diversity and inclusion director for The White House, and BRITTANY LEACH, director of research administration at NYU Langone Health, welcomed twin girls — LELA RENEE LEACH (first born) and NIA MARIE LEACH.
TAI GOES ABROAD: U.S. Trade Representative KATHERINE TAI became the latest Cabinet member to travel abroad in recent days, going to Bangkok, Thailand, to participate in the APEC Trade Ministers meeting. Tai is set to join the president in Tokyo following the ministers meeting.
White House working towards first presidential meeting with Saudi Arabia, which Biden had vowed to make a ‘pariah’ (CNN’s Natasha Bertrand, Alex Marquardt and Kevin Liptak)
A look at the time Tucker Carlson asked Hunter Biden for a favor (WaPo’s Matt Viser)
U.S. Aims to Cripple Russian Oil Industry, Officials Say (NYT’s Edward Wong and Michael Crowley)
He received the President’s Daily Brief.
He met with Swedish Prime Minister MAGDALENA ANDERSSON and Finland President SAULI NIINISTÖ to discuss the two countries’ NATO applications.
Biden, Andersson and Niinistö also delivered remarks in the Rose Garden. Biden then left the White House around 11:30 a.m. to head to Seoul, South Korea.
A hefty list of aides are accompanying the president on Air Force One for this trip, including: Commerce Secretary GINA RAIMONDO, White House deputy chief of staff JEN O’MALLEY DILLON and her senior adviser THOMAS WINSLOW, and…. OK, there are too many to list.
She joined the meeting with Andersson and Niinistö, and attended the remarks in the Rose Garden.
She also met virtually with abortion providers in the afternoon.
Attorney General MERRICK GARLAND was a big comic book fan back in the day, but as it turns out, he had to sell his collection to pay for tuition at Harvard Law.
When former President BARACK OBAMA nominated Garland to serve on the Supreme Court, he dropped the deets: “He put himself through Harvard Law School by working as a tutor, by stocking shoes in a shoe store, and, in what is always a painful moment for any young man, by selling his comic-book collection. It’s tough. Been there.”
BILL CLINTON said this in a 1992 campaign speech.
A CALL OUT — Think you have a more difficult trivia question? Send us your best question on the presidents with a citation and we may feature it.
Edited by Eun Kyung Kim and Sam Stein