As the Election Comes Into Focus, Pressure Builds in the West Wing


A former adviser to President Biden has compared life in the White House to dog years: Every day feels like a week, every year like seven. And then there are times like these when it can feel as though an entire term plays out every few days.

The past couple of months have become a particularly stressful period in the White House. The president is heckled at his speeches and mocked over his age. The secretary of state has protesters camped outside his house throwing fake blood at his car. The defense secretary is in and out of the hospital. The homeland security secretary just got impeached.

As if those were not enough, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who is a scholar of genocide, was confronted by her own employees, demanding that she resign over the U.S. policy on Israel. The president’s son faces trial on criminal charges. And the White House staff is grappling with two intractable wars, not to mention obstructionist Republicans, anxious Democrats and, oh yes, a re-election campaign that, judging by most polls, Mr. Biden is not currently winning — and the fate of the country is on the line.

For some working in the West Wing or its nearby environs, it can be hard just to catch a breath. Meetings are marked by occasional gallows humor about what catastrophe lurks around the corner. Farewell celebrations in the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building are, for those not leaving, reminders of the trade-offs of endless hours of policy, politics and disaster management.

Even to some officials with experience in multiple administrations, this period has felt like one of the most intense ever, made all the more bristling because of sharp internal disagreements over the president’s approach to the Israel-Hamas war. Other officials shrug off the tension, remembering other pressure-filled moments, from the time Mr. Biden’s campaign nearly crashed after early primary debacles to the opening months of an administration that inherited a deadly pandemic and devastated economy.

“Yes, it is an extremely stressful time,” said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the president, “but that is part and parcel of the moment. This White House has never had an easy time. This president has never had an easy time.”

She added that Mr. Biden, who after more than a half-century in politics has seen it all, sets the tone by remaining calm and steadfast through the storms. “He doesn’t panic, he doesn’t lapse into recriminations,” she said.

There are some officials in and out of this building who wish he would panic just a little more, or at least show a little more sense of urgency, given the high stakes of the next eight months. No president wants to lose re-election, but this one, a fall contest with former President Donald J. Trump, has been cast as a choice that will determine whether American democracy endures.

One White House official compares the path ahead for Mr. Biden’s team to the scene in “Top Gun: Maverick,” when Tom Cruise has to fly through a treacherous canyon in enemy territory at supersonic speeds, making every turn with pinpoint precision, at the risk of crashing to his death.

“Look, the stakes for the country couldn’t be higher, and now his entire legacy is on the line,” said Michael LaRosa, a former press secretary for Jill Biden, the first lady. “Fair or not, historians, the media and Democrats will judge the entirety of his accomplishments and his career through the lens of defeating Trump or whether the country is left to face the sequel to another long national nightmare. The pressure is real and couldn’t be more intense on them, so I can’t imagine what it’s like over there right now.”

Mr. LaRosa said that Mr. Biden was the right person for the moment. “Age be damned, he should be running again because he’s been the most consequential president in my lifetime,” he said.

But in private conversations in recent months, some inside the administration have wondered whether Mr. Biden, 81, should run again, given his age and poll numbers, but would never say so on the record.

With all the strain, Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House chief of staff, makes a point of trying to elevate spirits. An original investor in the Call Your Mother chain of bagel stores in Washington, Mr. Zients brings bagels to the office for colleagues every Wednesday and regularly hosts gatherings to foster camaraderie.

Last month, Mr. Zients, a millionaire, dug into his own pocket to rent the State Theatre in Falls Church, Va., for a dance party for hundreds of White House officials, complete with music by the D.J. D-Nice, who performed for free. Mr. Zients played a video highlighting the achievements of the administration during its first three years, including the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court and various legislative accomplishments.

Aides emphasized that Mr. Zients did not throw the party because he felt the staff had bad morale, and in fact he has been known to throw parties in the past, including 1970s and 1980s theme parties. But several aides said it was an important moment to blow off steam amid the strains of legislative gridlock and wars in Europe and the Middle East.

“I’m very happy to be on the other side,” said Kate Bedingfield, a former White House communications director who left last year after many years serving Mr. Biden during his vice presidency, campaign and presidency. “It is exhausting, and ultimately everybody hits their moment.”

Even in the best of times, she noted, the White House is a factory of fatigue. “It’s long hours, it’s eating a lot of bad food, it’s not a lot of sleep, there’s not a lot of time outside the building,” she noted.

Seeing his son Hunter Biden targeted by prosecutors, political opponents and media reports has also taken a personal toll on the president.

“In many ways, he flourishes in moments of heightened pressure,” said Jen Psaki, Mr. Biden’s former press secretary, who makes the comparison between White House years and dog years. But for the president, when it comes to attacks on his son, the stress is “more human than presidential,” Ms. Psaki said. “How do you even define that as a father, and how that weaves into everything else?”

Every presidency goes through periods of peak stress. The White House was especially on edge when Bill Clinton was being investigated by the independent counsel Kenneth Starr and then impeached. The West Wing was even more of a pressure cooker when George W. Bush’s war in Iraq went awry and casualties mounted. Barack Obama’s team felt the weight of the world when it came into office on the edge of a global economic depression. And every single day of Mr. Trump’s term was combustible with a volatile president who encouraged infighting among his own advisers and fired them at whim on Twitter.

Some Biden veterans said the toughest moment for them was probably the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Others point to the initial weeks after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack that killed 1,200 in Israel. Younger staff members, especially, think that Mr. Biden has not done enough to rein in Israel’s military operation, which Gaza health authorities say has killed nearly 30,000.

But while some lower-level officials have resigned in protest, his inner circle has remained relatively stable. Only one of the original 15 statutory cabinet members has left (Martin J. Walsh as labor secretary). Turnover among Mr. Biden’s top advisers has been roughly average, according to the Brookings Institution — well below that during Mr. Trump’s chaotic term, a little less than under Ronald Reagan or Mr. Clinton by this point, the same as under Mr. Obama and a little higher than under Mr. Bush or his father, George H.W. Bush.

Yet those now working in Mr. Biden’s White House volunteered with eyes open and no one wants to look ungrateful. “When you sign up for these jobs, you know you’re signing up for a stressful, thankless set of jobs because only the tough things get to the White House, and only the toughest things get to the president’s desk,” Ms. Dunn said.

Mr. Biden’s team has taken heart from signs that not only is the economy strong going into the election year but also that Americans may be starting to notice, at least judging by rising consumer confidence. And the team has been cheered that a central allegation in the House Republican impeachment inquiry targeting Mr. Biden and his son collapsed with news that the accuser had been charged with making it all up.

Ms. Bedingfield said that Mr. Biden had assembled a team accustomed to the pressure. “They are levelheaded, they are very good at maintaining calm determination,” she said. “They aren’t a team that gets easily rattled.”

The next eight months will test that.

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