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Monday, June 14, 2021

Beneath Joe Biden’s folksy demeanor, a short fuse and an obsession with details

Interviews with more than two dozen current and former Biden associates provide an early look into how Biden operates as president. What emerges is a portrait of a president with a short fuse, who is obsessed with getting the details right.

By: New York Times | Washington |
May 15, 2021 10:54:22 am
The White House on Monday said it is "closely monitoring" the violence in Israel.

Written by Michael D. Shear, Katie Rogers and Annie Karni

The commander-in-chief was taking his time, as usual.

It was late March, and President Joe Biden was under increasing pressure to penalize President Vladimir Putin of Russia for election interference and the biggest cyberattack ever on US government and industry. “I have to do it relatively soon,” he said to Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser.

Biden had already spent the first two months of his presidency debating how to respond to Putin, and despite his acknowledgment in March that he needed to act quickly, his deliberations were far from over. He convened another meeting in the Situation Room that stretched for 2 1/2 hours, and called yet another session there a week later.

“He has a kind of mantra: ‘You can never give me too much detail,’” Sullivan said.

Quick decision-making is not Biden’s style. His reputation as a plain-speaking politician hides a more complicated truth. Before making up his mind, the president demands hours of detail-laden debate from scores of policy experts, taking everyone around him on what some in the West Wing refer to as his Socratic “journey” before arriving at a conclusion.

Those trips are often difficult for his advisers, who are peppered with sometimes obscure questions. Avoiding Biden’s ire during one of his decision-making seminars means not only going beyond the vague talking points that he will reject, but also steering clear of responses laced with acronyms or too much policy minutiae, which will prompt an outburst of frustration, often laced with profanity.

Let’s talk plain English here, he will often snap.

Interviews with more than two dozen current and former Biden associates provide an early look into how Biden operates as president — how he deliberates, whom he consults for advice and what drives his decisions as he settles into the office he has chased for more than three decades.

What emerges is a portrait of a president with a short fuse, who is obsessed with getting the details right — sometimes to a fault, including when he angered allies and adversaries alike by repeatedly delaying a decision on whether to allow more refugees into the United States.

On policy issues, Biden, 78, takes days or weeks to make up his mind as he examines and second-guesses himself and others. It is a method of governing that can feel at odds with the urgency of a country still reeling from a pandemic and an economy struggling to recover. The president is also faced with a slim majority in Congress that could evaporate next year, giving him only months to enact a lasting legacy.

Biden signs executive actions in the Oval Office on Jan. 28, 2021, as Vice President Kamala Harris looks on. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Those closest to him say Biden is unwilling, or unable, to skip the routine. As a longtime adviser put it: He needs time to process the material so that he feels comfortable selling it to the public. But the approach has its risks, as President Barack Obama found out when his own, sometimes lengthy policy debates led to infighting and extended lobbying, and made his White House feel process driven.

Biden could fall victim to the same fate, though he has far more experience governing than Obama did in 2009. So far, the Biden administration has moved quickly to confront the nation’s challenges even as Biden’s own deliberations can linger, often prompting calls as late as 10:30 or 11 p.m. as he gets ready for the next morning.

Quick temper

The president arrives in the Oval Office for a series of scheduled meetings around 9:30 a.m., after exercising and making the short stroll from the residence, often flanked by his German shepherds, Champ and Major.

In March, as the decision loomed to impose sanctions on Russia for its election interference and its SolarWinds cyberattack, Biden was true to form, repeatedly insisting on hearing directly from his experts.

At one point, Biden lectured a group of veteran Foreign Service officers and policy advisers on the nuances of Putin’s personality and tried to channel the Russian leader’s thinking. His conclusion: Putin wants his rivals to be blunt with him.

In the end, Biden called Putin directly and then delivered a public statement on Russia sanctions that lasted only five minutes and 49 seconds. For as much as Biden projects an aura of ease — with his frequent backslapping, references to Irish poetry and liberal use of the phrase “c’mon, man” — his aides say it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work to prepare him to project an assured demeanor.

Biden is gripped by a sense of urgency that leaves him prone to flares of impatience, according to numerous people who regularly interact with him. The president has said he expects to run for a second term, but aides say he understands the effect on his ability to advance his agenda if Republicans regain power in Congress next year.

He never erupts into fits of rage the way President Donald Trump did. And the current president rarely exhibits the smoldering anger or sense of deep disappointment that advisers to Obama became familiar with.

But several people familiar with the president’s decision-making style said Biden was quick to cut off conversations. Three people who work closely with him said he even occasionally hangs up the phone on someone who he thinks is wasting his time. Most described Biden as having little patience for advisers who cannot field his many questions.

“You become so hyperprepared,” said Dylan Loewe, a former speechwriter for Biden. “‘I’ve got to answer every conceivable question he can come up with.’”

Biden and Harris speak with reporters at the start of a meeting with a group of republican senators in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on May 13, 2021. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times)

Earlier in March, the president’s top immigration advisers gathered to brief him on the growing problems at the southwestern border, where thousands of children from Central America were crossing without adults. After a drawn-out conversation, Biden asked members of the group whether any of them had been to the border in recent days.

He was met with silence, which prompted the predictable reaction: frustration. Four days later, the advisers — including the secretary of homeland security, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, and Susan Rice, the director of Biden’s Domestic Policy Council — arrived at the border to assess the situation.

‘I want the details’

As a senator for 36 years and as vice president for eight years, Biden has assembled a tight circle of friends, family and advisers from which he draws personal support and counsel.

In addition to his wife, Jill Biden, their grandchildren — described as the center of the first couple’s world — are often at the White House, spending long weekends or parts of their week there. They have been known to show their grandfather apps like TikTok. One adviser said he had sent the grandchildren money using Venmo.

For political advice and policy direction, he turns to the group one White House aide called the “Biden historians” — Ron Klain, the chief of staff and longtime aide; Bruce Reed, a top policy adviser who sometimes ran his vice president’s office; Mike Donilon, his political counselor and alter-ego; and Steve Ricchetti, his legislative guru and longtime friend.

Outside of that core group, Biden draws on a sprawling constellation of the administration’s in-house experts, including, among others, Rice and Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council.

On a Zoom call on a Sunday in December, Biden, then president-elect, asked for a debate about the wisdom of deploying active-duty troops to battle the pandemic. He had long said his aides should consider themselves on a wartime footing against the virus. But exactly what did that mean?

He grilled his newly appointed coronavirus task force adviser, Jeffrey Zients, with questions: How would Americans react to active-duty personnel being deployed onto the streets? Had anything like it been done before? How big was the scale of the effort, and how fast could it be scaled up?

Biden did not want to be spared any incremental detail. After the president took office, his defense secretary deployed 1,100 troops in five teams of nurses, vaccinators and other medical staff. He eventually deployed 4,000 more.

On Jan. 21, Biden’s first full day in office, he met with his coronavirus team again, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, in the State Room, where the group presented him with what it called the “comprehensive plan.”

After the meeting, he pulled Zients aside and gave him a set of instructions: “Bring me the news, good, bad and ugly. It’s going to have big moments and not so good moments, and I want to know about every one of them,” the president said. “I want the details.”

Over time, the president’s staff has learned the routine. They have padded his schedule with 15-minute breaks because they know he will not finish on time. He is allowed 30 minutes for lunch — a rotation of salad, soup and sandwiches — and because of the pandemic, rarely eats with people other than Vice President Kamala Harris, with whom he has a weekly lunch.

One item not on the daily agenda?

Watching hours of cable news. The television that Trump installed in the dining room next to the Oval Office is still there, but aides say it is rarely on during the day.

The loyalists

Biden is usually back in the residence by 7 p.m. for dinner with the first lady. The president likes pasta with red sauce, while the first lady prefers grilled chicken or fish.

After dinner, the president sometimes continues his deliberations on the phone with a circle of senior aides that has expanded over time to include Kate Bedingfield, his communications chief; Anita Dunn, a veteran Obama-era adviser; Jen Psaki, his press secretary; Cedric Richmond, the public engagement chief; and Jen O’Malley Dillon, the operations guru.

But most evenings, Biden is in regular contact with the so-called historians, who have been by his side for decades: Donilon, Klain, Reed and Ricchetti.

In a White House that is more diverse than any before it, aides say those four white men are the ones the president goes to for a final gut-check before making a decision.

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