Welcome to POLITICO’s West Wing Playbook, your guide to the people and power centers in the Biden administration. With help from Allie Bice.
President JOE BIDEN’s address to the nation last night may have been an effort to outline specific gun policies he’d like enacted in response to a slew of recent mass shootings.
But below the surface, it was a nod to political realities: He’ll take what he can get.
Twice during the speech, Biden proposed reforms he’d support should his preferred ones be rejected. He bemoaned that any bill would require the support of 10 Senate Republicans and called it “unconscionable” that those Republicans would filibuster debate. But he didn’t dare broach rules changes — he doesn’t have the votes, after all. Of equal note, he applauded the bipartisan talks currently underway on a compromise bill incorporating modest reforms to background checks, red-flag laws, and school safety measures.
It’s a “failure is not an option” approach to governance. And if that wasn’t clear, Biden made it so. “We can’t fail the American people again,” he explained.
Of course, failure is very much an option here. And more than anyone else in politics, Biden knows how narrow the line is between that fate and success when it comes to gun reform.
He helped secure passage of the last major gun-related legislation: the 1994 crime bill that included the assault weapons ban. But that legislative effort would be utterly unrecognizable to consumers of modern politics. Dozens of House Republicans supported the bill while the chief opponent of the assault weapons ban was one of the longest-serving Democratic members of the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman JACK BROOKS (D-Texas). Then-Speaker TOM FOLEY (D-Wash.) privately lobbied President BILL CLINTON to get rid of the ban and negotiators agreed to sunset it after 10 years to win over Rep. JOHN DINGELL (D-Mich.) and others. Biden, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, won over chamber Republicans, not just by pleas to common decency but by procedural gimmickry.
Eighteen years later, he had no such luck. Granted the gun portfolio by President BARACK OBAMA following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Biden convened a task force to come up with a slew of policy recommendations.
But the group took its time. In retrospect, that proved to be a misstep — though not one that Biden’s allies have conceded. They insist it was vital to work through the specifics of the executive actions to ensure they’d pass legal muster. They argue he had needed the space to try and win over a conservative Senate Republican (his main target, TOM COBURN of Oklahoma, ultimately said no). And they stress that, in the grand scheme of things, he moved fast.
“We ran at a breakneck speed, but we had literally dozens and dozens of meetings,” VALERIE JARRETT, Obama’s senior adviser, told our EUGENE DANIELS.
But the weeks it took to unveil the legislative suggestions zapped political momentum. The effort to renew the assault weapons ban only got 40 votes in the Senate. The background checks reforms didn’t clear a filibuster either.
This go around, Biden has seemed to internalize the lessons from both ’94 and ‘13. Rather than centralize the legislative process in the executive branch and go big on reforms, he’s giving Congress the space and implicit go-ahead to aim at low-hanging fruit — though he insists his team is in close touch with negotiators.
No one is optimistic that it will work. There is no secret sauce left unmixed, no legislative lever that Democrats have somehow failed to recognize, let alone pull. But for veterans of the past battles, there is a weird comfort that Biden, and Democrats writ large, are not pretending as if policy nirvana is on the horizon. They’ll take what they can get.
“What they recognized this time around is that time is your enemy on guns. And that if you don’t get something done quickly, legislators and the public get distracted,” said JIM KESSLER, a longtime operative in this space who worked on both the ’94 bill and the post-Sandy Hook efforts. “I think there is realism there.”
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Today’s question is taken from the new book “Undelivered” by former Biden speechwriter JEFF NUSSBAUM.
Presidents have long relied on help for drafting speeches going back to ALEXANDER HAMILTON assisting GEORGE WASHINGTON. But who was the first president to hire someone expressly for speechwriting? We will give you a hint: it’s not a president known for his speechifying.
(Answer at the bottom.)
TGIF. It’s cartoon time! This one is courtesy of JACK OHMAN of the Sacramento Bee. Our very own MATT WUERKER also publishes a selection of cartoons from all over the country. View the cartoon carousel here.
OVERHEARD: Things are getting chippy between the White House and the reporters who cover it. Last night after the president’s somber address on gun violence, several reporters shouted questions as Biden walked away. One person there told West Wing Playbook that a press aide in the back row turned to another and whispered “classless.”
WH V. MUSK: The White House once again is jousting with a high-profile tech billionaire. Asked during an appearance Friday about a report that ELON MUSK has a “super bad feeling” about the economy—which could compel him to lay off 10 percent of Tesla’s workforce—Biden listed off other car companies that are creating jobs. “So, you know, lots of luck on his trip to the moon, I don’t know,” Biden said.
The president’s comments about Musk — who has not been shy in his agitation that Biden more often touts other electric car manufactures and not Tesla — was clipped and tweeted out by deputy press secretary ANDREW BATES. It came just weeks after the White House, and Bates specifically, picked a fight with Amazon CEO JEFF BEZOS over his comments about inflation.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS YOU TO READ: The numbers from the new jobs report. While Americans still feel gloomy about the economy due to the high price of gas and goods, the Department of Labor on Friday shared positive statistics showing that employers added 390,000 jobs last month. The numbers reflect the 17th straight month of jobs gain, and showed unemployment remaining at lows not seen in nearly half a century.
Biden touted the jobs numbers during a media appearance from Rehoboth Beach, Del., while other administration officials like Vice President KAMALA HARRIS and Labor Secretary MARTY WALSH shared the figures on Twitter.
WHAT THE WHITE HOUSE DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ: This Bloomberg story about corporate America throwing cold water on happy talk about the economy.
RICK RIEDER, global fixed income chief investment officer at BlackRock Inc., said the May jobs numbers are likely “the last solid report you’re going to get for a long time” as the pace of hiring slows.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. President JOHN WALDRON also said it’s now the most complex economic climate of his life. “The confluence of the number of shocks to the system to me is unprecedented,” Waldron said.
MRS. MCAULIFFE AT STATE: DOROTHY MCAULIFFE, the wife of former Virginia Gov. TERRY MCAULIFFE, will serve as the Department of State’s special representative for global partnerships, the department announced Friday.
DEPARTURE LOUNGE: TIM MANNING has left the White House, where he was Covid-19 supply coordinator, DANIEL LIPPMAN has learned. He is returning to academia and the private sector.
CLIMATE POLICY OFFICE PROBS: Nine Democrats outside and inside the administration told our ZACK COLMAN that the White House Climate Office, led by GINA McCARTHY, is holding up progress on the president’s climate agenda, saying that the office is more focused on political considerations and relations with Congress.
The office’s political plays have “weakened the Interior Department’s efforts to rein in oil and gas leases on federal lands, stalled a redo of federal ethanol policies and slowed White House efforts to address pollution in low-income and minority communities,” Zack writes.
McCarthy responded in a statement: “President Biden directed us to ensure the entire government does more than ever before to tackle the climate crisis… If we are pushing hard, that means we’re doing exactly what the President directed — leaving no stone unturned.”
Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Forces Biden to Rewrite US Security Plan (Bloomberg’s Peter Martin and Jennifer Jacobs)
Voters Say They Want Gun Control. Their Votes Say Something Different (NYT’s Nate Cohn)
U.S. Lobbies U.K. to Reconsider Chinese Chip Factory Deal (WSJ’s Stu Woo and Yang Jie)
Senior adviser to the president GENE SPERLING on “FOX News Sunday” with anchor JOHN ROBERTS on Sunday at 9 a.m. ET
He received the president’s daily brief and delivered remarks on the May jobs report.
She and second gentleman DOUG EMHOFF traveled to Reno, Nev., where Harris delivered remarks on the economy and inflation at the 90th Annual Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
From there, she and Emhoff headed to Los Angeles.
When he was a high school student, Agriculture Secretary TOM VILSACK ran for student council president — but he lost against one of his closest friends, DOUGLAS CAMPBELL.
According to a September 2021 alumni profile on Vilsack, Campbell ran his campaign on repairing water fountains so students wouldn’t have to get so close to drink the water. Though Vilsack lost the election, Campbell, being the friend he was, made him vice president.
“He learned his first lesson in politics,” Campbell joked.
WARREN G. HARDING was the first president to hire someone expressly for speechwriting. JUDSON WELLIVER’s title, however, was actually “literary clerk.”
A CALL OUT — Do you 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
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