Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With Allie Bice and Nick Niedzwiadek
As the Biden administration takes an increasingly muscular approach to Covid-19 safety in the American workplace, it’s facing internal divisions over its own Covid protocols for White House personnel.
White House officials have clashed over the on-site medical unit’s testing policy and transparency around breakthrough infections among personnel, according to four officials familiar with the disputes.
The internal conflicts highlight the difficulty of implementing safe, responsible Covid protocols at offices across the country — even offices filled with policymakers helping set the standards for others.
Noting President JOE BIDEN’s pledge to expand testing access nationwide, some White House aides have argued that there should be on-demand testing for workers in the building — who have been required to be vaccinated, wear masks and submit to regular testing. The president announced a more stringent vaccine mandate for federal employees, including White House staff, last week.
Testing at the White House is largely done for people experiencing symptoms, those identified by the contact tracing team, or via the regularly scheduled testing. But the medical unit does not always provide a test if someone asks for one, even if the staffer requesting it believes they’ve recently been exposed. Some people who have asked for tests have been directed instead to local testing sites at places like CVS.
KAVITA PATEL, who helped design the health care plan for KAMALA HARRIS’ presidential campaign, criticized the White House’s internal handling of the issue. “If this were the Trump administration, we would be talking about how they were putting staff and the health of their potentially unvaccinated household members in jeopardy,” said Patel, who is now at the Brookings Institution.
A White House official defended the unit’s testing program and said that their entire system was designed in consultation with the nation’s top doctors. “Our medical unit fields inquiries from many individuals every day, and works with each individual to create a custom plan based on the specifics of their situation,” the official said. “White House staff with questions about our testing program are always encouraged to ask them to the operations team.”
There is also tension within the White House over disclosure — or lack thereof — of breakthrough cases. White House officials are notified of a breakthrough case if the contact tracing team has identified them as having been exposed.
In practice, that means some officials aren’t told if there are breakthrough cases in adjacent offices, information some White House staff feel they should know. Some at the White House suspect the information isn’t shared widely because the senior aides are concerned about the headlines that breakthrough cases would spawn.
The same White House official said in a statement that, “Information is shared exclusively with those who may be at risk in order to support individual employee privacy, while still effectively keeping all members of our campus community safe.”
Earlier this summer, many White House officials first discovered there had been breakthrough cases among vaccinated White House staff when press secretary JEN PSAKI told reporters from the podium, as West Wing Playbook first reported.
Do you work in the Biden administration? Are you in touch with the White House? Are you video editor ERIC BRAVO?
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Which Super Bowl-winning quarterback attended the same college as JOE BIDEN?
(Answer at the bottom.)
BUILD BACK BETTER (THAN OBAMA) — Friday’s edition noted how Biden’s ambitious social spending agenda hasn’t ignited a groundswell of blowback like the fight over the Affordable Care Act did in 2009. On Monday, STEPHANIE CUTTER, a top adviser to the pro-Biden outside group Building Back Together who worked in the Obama administration in 2009, made the case to reporters that that’s because the Biden administration has learned from the Obama administration’s mistakes.
Cutter argued Democrats were caught off-guard by the onslaught they saw back in 2009. “Simply put, we were not prepared on the outside to take on the fight,” she said. “What we’re seeing now is night and day compared to what we saw with the ACA.”
Cutter credits this to the White House and progressive groups doing a far better job communicating to the public what is and — perhaps more critically — what is not in the president’s proposals, rather than allowing the GOP to define and “distort” the terms of the debate. (Case in point: the “death panels” hullabaloo.)
“[Biden’s] agenda is popular, and Republicans haven’t really been able to put a dent in it,” said Cutter, who was deputy campaign manager for Obama’s 2012 reelection. “The only reason this happened is because we took collective action and were aggressive.”
SPEAKING OF THE BBB: A coalition of major progressive groups and labor unions is sending a memo to Democrats on the Hill arguing that passage of the president’s so-called Build Back Better agenda is the key to a non-bloody midterm election.
“The only path to success next November hinges on passing the Build Back Better Act in full,” reads the memo, which comes on behalf of Center for American Progress Action Fund, SEIU, AFL-CIO, and MoveOn.
Notable in the memo is a straight dismissal of the idea that the bill’s price tag is a liability. In recent weeks, Sen. JOE MANCHIN (D-W.Va.) has been blitzing the op-ed pages and cable news circuit insisting that he can not back a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. “In the end, Democrats can be assured that Republicans will attack them for this bill no matter the size,” the memo reads. “But the question for Democrats is whether they did everything possible to help rebuild our middle class, tackle the threat of climate change, and make corporations and the ultra-wealthy pay their fair share.”
PROCRASTINATION EXPLANATION — Principal deputy press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE was at pains to sidestep questions about why the president waited until the final day before California’s recall vote to campaign alongside Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Jean-Pierre offered a lengthy response about how Biden’s cross-country trip was also planned to address the recent devastating wildfires out West that veered defensive toward the end.
“I’m not going to go into speculation about anything further than that,” Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One. “As you know, we endorsed the governor — the vice president and the president — and I’ll leave it there.”
Asked if Biden could have provided a bigger boost had he come out earlier, Jean-Pierre responded that all presidents “do several things at the same time.”
“But I’m not going to go into any reasoning why he’s going now instead of two, three weeks ago.”
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: This New York Times story noting the cognitive dissonance of the GOP governors who are making noise about Biden’s vaccine mandate plan while their own states continue to enforce an array of largely uncontroversial vaccination requirements that have been in place for years. ANDREW BATES, JENNIFER MOLINA, CHRIS MEAGHER and KATE BERNER each retweeted NYT White House Correspondent PETER BAKER’s tweet promoting colleague SHERYL GAY STOLBERG’s piece.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: This research paper published in The Lancet that argues current science does not support providing boosters to the general population, and that the shots would be better utilized instead on the unvaccinated. The paper’s co-authors notably include two senior FDA regulators, MARION GRUBER and PHILIP KRAUSE, who recently announced they would be leaving the agency — departures that some have interpreted as stemming from disagreements with the Biden administration’s booster boosterism.
Read LAUREN GARDNER’s coverage of The Lancet paper fall-out HERE.
OLICK’S QUICK EXIT — KAREN OLICK, chief of staff to Department of Homeland Security Secretary ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS, announced that she will be leaving for an undisclosed opportunity, Alex and DANIEL LIPPMAN scooped. JENNIFER HIGGINS, the associate director of Refugee, Asylum and International Operations at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, will step in temporarily until a new appointment is made. Olick plans to leave DHS at the end of the month.
ANOTHER TRANSITION: SCOTT MULHAUSER has returned to Bully Pulpit Interactive after wrapping up his time-limited role as a senior advisor to Commerce Secretary GINA RAIMONDO.
BEDOYA MAKES THREE FOR FTC — Biden will nominate privacy advocate ALVARO BEDOYA for a seat on the Federal Trade Commission, people familiar with the White House’s plan told POLITICO’s LEAH NYLEN and ALEXANDRA S. LEVINE earlier today. Bedoya, a professor at Georgetown University’s law school, specializes in privacy law and founded the school’s Center on Privacy & Technology in 2014.
If confirmed, Bedoya will be one of three Democrats on the five-person commission. He would replace Democratic Commissioner ROHIT CHOPRA, whom Biden has tapped to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
MORE NEW NOMS: Biden is also nominating RETA JO LEWIS to chair the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
And the president tapped affordable housing expert ALANNA McCARGO to be the next president of Ginnie Mae. KATY O’DONNELL has more on that pick for Pros.
KELLIE MEJDRICH has the details for Pros on ROSTIN BENHAM, Biden’s nominee to lead the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and fellow CFTC nominees CHRISTY GOLDSMITH ROMERO and KRISTIN JOHNSON.
They were all part of a list of ten nominees the White House released this afternoon.
GETTING THE CLEMENCY PROCESS STARTED — The Biden administration is asking former inmates sent home because of the pandemic to begin commutation applications, SAM STEIN reports. White House spokesperson Andrew Bates confirmed that the president “is exploring the use of his clemency power for individuals on CARES Act home confinement. The Administration will start the clemency process with a review of non-violent drug offenders … with four years or less to serve.”
New book reveals how Biden’s family used his position for profit (POLITICO’s Ben Schreckinger with a book except in the New York Post)
Meet 52 rising Democratic stars working in the VP’s’ office (Insider’s Robin Bravender and Nicole Gaudiano)
FEC: Twitter didn’t violate election laws vis-a-vis New York Post article (New York Times’ Shane Goldmacher)
Family of Taliban hostage Mark Frerichs urges Biden to fire Afghanistan envoy (Reuters’ Jonathan Landay)
A day of traveling for the president — he first stopped in Boise, Idaho, where he was briefed by federal and state fire agency officials and toured the National Interagency Fire Center. Idaho Gov. BRAD LITTLE joined him.
He then headed to Mather, Calif., where he surveyed the Caldor Fire damage and met with officials to be briefed on the wildfires burning across the state.
Biden also delivered remarks on wildfires and climate change in the evening, before heading to Long Beach, Calif. for a rally with Gov. Newsom.
No public events scheduled.
Agriculture Secretary TOM VILSACK didn’t have the smoothest pickup line when he met his wife, CHRISTIE, back in their college days.
Vilsack went up to Christie in the cafeteria at Hamilton College in upstate New York in October 1968 and asked which presidential candidate she favored at the time.
“Are you a Humphrey or a Nixon supporter?” he asked, according to a 2004 article from the Des Moines Register.
She said she supported Humphrey, and, naturally, the two have been together ever since.
Former Baltimore Ravens quarterback (now at the Eagles) JOE FLACCO, attended the University of Delaware, Biden’s alma mater,
Some think the connections go even further. Last fall, SB Nation wrote that “Joe Biden is Joe Flacco.” The comparison wasn’t exactly meant to flatter.
“Both, in fact, are famous for being among the very most gaffe-prone figures in their respective lines of work,” wrote JON BOIS. “Biden plagiarizes a speech from a British MP; Flacco is strip-sacked after holding the ball four seconds too long. Biden blurts out ‘listen, Fat’ to a guy whose name is probably not Fat; Flacco airmails an absolute turd that would qualify for intentional grounding were it not intercepted. We could do this all day, but let’s leave it at this: their mistakes all seem to happen because they are either far too impatient or far too patient.”
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Edited by Emily Cadei
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