The White House isn’t a fun place when things go wrong

White House staffers may find it difficult to keep their heads down as critics clamor for Mr. Biden to bow out. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein (REUTERS)
White House staffers may find it difficult to keep their heads down as critics clamor for Mr. Biden to bow out. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein (REUTERS)


Long days, constant texts, lack of sleep—a crisis like this will have staffers on edge.

Every day brings more bad news for the Biden White House. As the president’s team is learning, when things go wrong, problems can snowball. Former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan noted the dread of the daily “whump" of the Washington Post landing at his front door. Today, thanks to 24-hour news, the once-a-day whump has been replaced by never-ending smartphone pings.

When bad news hits, it compounds, and unexpected things tend to go wrong. As John Podhoretz, who tracked the tragicomic mishaps of the George H.W. Bush White House for his book “Hell of a Ride" (1993), observed: “Something weird happens when presidencies go wrong—presidents become incompetent at doing the things they were always able to do in their sleep, and their aides follow suit."

I learned this firsthand in George W. Bush’s White House during Hurricane Katrina. In those days, it seemed nothing could go right for the administration, as every effort the White House made to fix problems failed. President Bush’s attempt to show concern by flying over New Orleans backfired spectacularly. The picture of the president looking down from his plane became one of the worst images of his tenure.

I had my own awkward moment in that period when I was supposed to brief a group of rabbis on what the administration was doing to help the affected area. The typically skillful White House operators somehow messed up the conference call. Instead of opening my channel and muting the participants’, the operators put me on mute and allowed the rest to speak. You can imagine what I heard, mostly along the lines of, “If they can’t get a phone call right, how are they going to solve the problems in New Orleans?" The episode, though quickly resolved, was typical of the reeling White House’s inability to catch a break.

My experience was challenging, but it also happened in a second term. Many first-term White Houses have had to worry about their boss’s re-election prospects amid the chaos. Some have recovered; others haven’t.

When Bill Clinton’s administration got off to a rough start, the press was already labeling it a failed presidency—“you know, 10 days into Bill Clinton’s first term," Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers lamented. Another Clinton aide, George Stephanopoulos, has noted that exhaustion in the face of constant crises can lead to unforced errors: “When you’re brain-dead, you make mistakes." Barack Obama’s first term brought the swine flu, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and, perhaps most surprisingly, Somali pirates menacing a U.S.-flagged ship.

Messrs. Clinton and Obama both recovered and won re-election. Contrast that with Jimmy Carter, whose administration faced a host of challenges. Mr. Carter’s infamous 1979 “malaise" speech so cemented his reputation that when a statue of the former president was unveiled on an episode of “The Simpsons" 14 years later, its pedestal displayed the words “Malaise Forever." Mr. Carter and George H.W. Bush, of whom Mr. Podhoretz wrote, both lost their re-election bids.

White House staffers may find it difficult to keep their heads down as critics clamor for Mr. Biden to bow out. As Mr. Buchanan suggested, Nixon endured repeated tidal waves of bad news in 1973 and 1974 until he finally recognized he had to resign. His White House learned that it’s hard to run the country during a crisis. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, illustrated this phenomenon when he referred to an ordinary day, April 16, 1973, as “another all-Watergate day, as they generally tend to be now."

In such conditions it’s also difficult to avoid thinking about an exit strategy. After Nixon resigned, his loyal speechwriter—a Jesuit priest who would achieve fame in the 1980s as an obstreperous television host—had no idea what to do next. Mr. Buchanan wired National Review editor William F. Buckley on the speechwriter’s behalf, asking for help. Buckley’s reply might give Biden staffers a sense of the cold world that could await them once their boss is no longer in power: “Dear Patrick: Intending no disrespect, who is the Rev. John J. McLaughlin, S.J.? Cordially, Bill."

Mr. Troy is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former senior White House aide. He is author of “The Power and the Money: The Epic Clashes Between Commanders in Chief and Titans of Industry," which will be published by Regnery on Aug. 20.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.