President Joe Biden is seeing a series of economic, political and personal challenges pile up on the domestic front as he travels to New York City intent on making the case for American leadership on the global stage.
The White House is confronted by an autoworkers’ strike that Biden himself had predicted two weeks ago wouldn’t happen. Biden’s Republican critics in the House have launched an impeachment inquiry. Administration officials are seeing gas prices rise, taking a wait-and-see approach for now. Biden’s son is freshly indicted on federal charges. And Congress is barreling toward a potential government shutdown at month’s end.
While the president meets with world leaders in New York City, he’s dispatching two top officials – acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and White House senior adviser Gene Sperling – to Detroit “early in the week,” an administration official said, to meet in person with the leaders of the United Auto Workers and the Big Three automakers – Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis.
Su and Sperling have so far engaged with the parties by phone – as has the president, including in the hours leading up to the strike – and officials say the White House emissaries will be in Detroit in a supportive role, not an intervening one.
“I do not believe that the president should intervene or be at the negotiating table,” Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I talk to Gene Sperling multiple times a day and have all summer. … I don’t think they’ve got a role at the negotiating table. I think every one of us that are policymakers and other stakeholders need to understand what these issues are, what we can do to support those discussions at the table.”
The impasse presents fresh economic and political tests for the president. Questions remain about the ultimate effect the strike could have on the economy, including repercussions for supply firms working with the auto companies. Biden is still trying to convince Americans the economy is on solid footing at a time when recent polls show a majority of Americans believe his policies have worsened economic conditions.
The president’s “pro-union” reputation is also facing its stiffest test of his time in office. Even after Biden made a strong show of support for the striking workers on Friday, the union has withheld its endorsement and its combative leader described the White House as “afraid.”
“Our endorsements are gonna be earned. We’ve been very clear about that,” UAW President Shawn Fain said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We expect action, not words.”
A litany of challenges
The autoworkers strike is just one of the fresh challenges facing Biden as he enters a busy stretch of official and political events.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy announced last week he was opening an impeachment inquiry into the president, a move that didn’t surprise the president but made him seem “exasperated,” one person who spoke to the president said. Two days later, as he prepared for a marquee economic address, the president was dealt another personal blow as his son Hunter Biden was indicted on federal gun charges with the possibility of tax charges right around the corner.
Amid the fierce personal and political headwinds, Biden is adopting a head-down strategy, proceeding with his plans even as the challenges facing his reelection effort mount.
On Sunday, he arrived in New York to attend the annual meetings of the United Nations General Assembly, one of the busiest stretches on the presidential calendar. He’s scheduled to embark on a major push for campaign cash as the fundraising quarter ends. And he’s soon planning to deliver a major address on threats to democracy, hoping to lay down a marker as the campaign season begins in earnest.
That is not to say the setbacks have not affected the president or his family.
His son’s indictment, while expected, reflected the evolution of a troubled chapter the Bidens once hoped was closing. The negative attention on Biden’s family – which also extends to the impeachment inquiry, though Republicans have failed so far to produce any evidence of wrongdoing – has worn on the president, according to people familiar with the matter.
While Biden remains focused on his domestic and foreign agenda, he has appeared at moments emotionally drained in private to some people, who say he remains deeply concerned for his son’s well-being. The collapse of Hunter’s plea deal this summer threw the president for a loop, one person familiar with the matter said.
That development came as a deep disappointment because it meant the legal saga would be prolonged indefinitely. In addition to the gun case, special counsel David Weiss is still weighing whether to charge Hunter Biden with tax crimes. Weiss said in a court filing last month that “a trial is now in order” on the tax offenses and that he “may bring tax charges,” possibly in California or in Washington, DC.
Biden keeps his head down
Meanwhile, intensifying questions about the wisdom of Biden’s run for a second term have generated fierce rebuttals from the president’s team. Biden himself was silent last week when questioned about calls for him to withdraw, hoping instead to proceed with his meeting on finding ways to beat cancer in the Cabinet Room.
The moment reflected Biden’s longtime playbook on rocky days: Stick to the plan and attempt to tune out distractions.
That will continue as he’s in New York. His schedule includes delivering a speech to the assembly on Tuesday, meeting with nine world leaders, hosting a reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and attending four campaign fundraisers, including one on Broadway featuring famous performers.
Biden returns to Washington later in the week for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is in town in part to persuade Republican lawmakers to approve more aid.
“You don’t have to take it from me,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday. “You heard directly from the president that he’s focused on delivering for the American people.”
In Friday morning’s presidential daily briefing, Sullivan, said Biden did not appear consumed by his son’s legal issues or Republicans’ impeachment threats. Instead, Biden was “dialed in on the key issues that we’re confronting and will continue to be as we head into the New York week next week.”
“That’s what he’s focused on,” he said. “That’s where his mindset is.”
Biden has worked arduously to separate his family’s personal struggles from his job as president, and White House aides do not discuss them in public. Even in private, discussions of political strategy surrounding Hunter Biden are mostly off-limits, given how sensitive the matter is for the president.
For some Democrats, that has proven frustrating. Many told CNN earlier this month they were looking for a clearer strategy to address GOP allegations against the president’s son.
Speaking Wednesday evening, Biden told Democratic donors in Northern Virginia he was focused on his work – not on Republicans’ impeachment inquiry.
“So look, look, I got a job to do. Everybody always asked about impeachment. I get up every day, not a joke, not focused on impeachment. I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got to deal with the issues that affect the American people every single solitary day,” he said.
White House tries to compartmentalize
All presidents find themselves weathering tough stretches. Some become consumed in their attempts to reverse course. Former President Donald Trump himself acknowledged that his first impeachment “probably” distracted him from early efforts at fighting Covid-19.
Biden’s White House has sought to compartmentalize its response to McCarthy’s impeachment inquiry, walling it off from the ongoing work of the administration. That includes building a team of two dozen lawyers, legislative staff and communications advisers to push back against a potential impeachment while the rest of the staff focuses on the regular day-to-day.
The White House on Monday began a more concerted effort to contrast Biden’s efforts at governing with what they see as Republican stunts.
“In the last week we’ve seen a stark split screen in priorities. On one side: President Biden, who is focused on delivering for the American people. On the other: extreme congressional Republicans whose priorities are a reckless, partisan laundry list beholden to the far-right ideologues in their caucus,” a White House official said. The official said one split screen on display this week comes as the president prepares to “demonstrate America’s global leadership on the world stage” while House Republicans disagree over a path forward for the defense spending bill.
Biden is no stranger to the swing of the political pendulum. After being written off as a candidate in early 2020 and later reading obituaries of legislative objectives that eventually passed, the president and his team are more than comfortable looking beyond short-term hurdles.
So, too, Biden is accustomed to attacks on his family. He has told donors about weighing the potential toll on his family of running in 2020, only to be persuaded by one of his grandchildren.
“Being the son or daughter or granddaughter of a senator, a vice president, a president … everybody thinks it’s a great thing. But you get a lot of downside for that,” he said at a fundraiser in June, about a month before his son’s plea deal on tax and gun charges collapsed during a dramatic court hearing.