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The White House has faced a slew of departures recently, with several top officials announcing at once they are moving on after 18 months in the administration during a time when President Biden’s job approval rating continues to sink amid consistently poor marks politically.
While 18 months in is typical for staff turnover in the White House, it comes at a perilous moment for Democrats ahead of crucial midterm elections.
“Given the complex challenges that the administration is facing, these departures are coming at an inopportune time,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne.
Still, Payne added, “at this point in an administration, it is not abnormal to experience attrition.”
One senior administration official acknowledged that many aides are “tapped out.”
“It’s been a long few years,” the official said. “The burnout is real. It might not be the ideal time to leave with everything going on, but it’s the right time.”
The official explained the early summer months are considered the best time to leave before midterms season begins. “And then you’re really locked in.”
The departure of White House Counsel Dana Remus, who is set to leave next month and be replaced by her top deputy Stuart Delery, was this week’s most major announcement. Remus oversaw the selection of Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve on the Supreme Court and the filling of a slew of federal judicial seats while she served in her role, which is considered one of the most challenging jobs in the West Wing.
Her departure comes ahead of what is expected to be a GOP takeover of the closely-split House and Senate chambers after November’s midterm election. The White House counsel’s office would be in the spotlight to respond to requests expected by Republican lawmakers who would lead probes into the administration.
Former Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a Biden ally and senior policy adviser at Nossaman LLP, argued that Remus’ departure offers good timing for the White House to prepare for such investigations.
“I think it would be more surprising if she left in the fall. I think that her timing now provides Delery more than ample time to get prepared for the kinds of onslaught they expect from Republicans in the fall,” he said.
Still, others see the host of departures as a precarious situation for the White House with a president facing consistently low approval numbers, increasingly high gas prices, and stubborn inflation.
“It doesn’t look good,” said one Democratic strategist. “The perception from the outside is that it’s not the place you want to be. There’s a lot of finger-pointing going around right now. It doesn’t seem like it’s humming the way it should be.”
But some new and familiar faces have already begun replacing those who have left.
This week, Keisha Lance Bottoms, the former mayor of Atlanta, was named senior adviser to the president for public engagement and will replace former Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who left the White House last month.
Bottoms will take on a top adviser role in the West Wing after serving as vice chairwoman of civic engagement and voter protection at the Democratic National Committee, bringing some political chops to the job while Biden looks towards the midterms.
“I think bringing Lance Bottoms on was kind of a genius stroke and I’m very glad that she agreed to do it. She does have a very broad background in Democratic politics. Her positions in politics, and in Georgia politics in particular, will be very helpful going into the midterms but also going into 2024,” Carney said.
Julie Chavez Rodriguez was promoted this week to senior adviser and assistant to the president and plans to continue serving as director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Chavez Rodriquez, who will be the first Latina to ever hold a top West Wing staffing role, also has political experience after working on Biden’s 2020 campaign and on Harris’ campaign. She’s also the granddaughter of farm worker leader Cesar Chavez.
Her promotion comes as concerns mount among Democrats about their chances to win over Hispanic voters, particularly in Florida where Biden struggled in the 2020 election.
The comings and goings of White House aides come as Biden’s approval rating dropped for its third straight week at 39 percent, with 56 percent of Americans disapproving of his job performance.
Stewart Verdery, a former aide in the George W. Bush administration, argued that tough polling for Biden isn’t at the fault of officials inside the White House.
“This administration actually has had a ton of stability at its senior levels. The cabinet is intact and most senior staff are still in place, especially compared to the roller-coaster of personnel changes we saw in 2019 and 2020,” he said, referring to the tumultuous Trump administration.
“The dismal poll numbers for the Democrats are more about angst about their local policies – school shutdowns, prosecutors who don’t prosecute, homelessness – and the worldwide energy market than anything specific White House political staff can affect,” he added.
The White House has also seen a cluster of departures from the press office, most notably former White House press secretary Jen Psaki who left last month to take a job at MSNBC. She was replaced by Karine Jean-Pierre, who made history as the first Black and first openly LGBTQ person to hold the role.
But when it comes to losses, Biden’s rapid response director Mike Gwin, who has served in the White House since Biden took office, left for a role at the Treasury Department and press wrangler Michael Kikukawa also left this week for a role at Treasury.
Vedant Patel, who had served as an assistant press secretary since Biden took office, left for the State Department, and Amanda Finney, former chief of staff in the White House press office, left for the Department of Energy.
While bidding farewell to Finney, Jean-Pierre joked about the multiple departures at the top of a recent press briefing earlier this month.
“I know every day, every day I’m going to be doing these little goodbyes but I promise we will have a press shop,” she said. “But not everyone is leaving.”