The pipeline hack and Mideast violence challenge Biden’s agenda

President Biden speaks at the White House
President Biden speaks Thursday at the White House about the Colonial Pipeline hack.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press )

This is the May 14, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Presidents and their staffs typically devote enormous energy to shaping and controlling the public agenda. Sooner or later, however, outside events crash into even the most carefully developed plans.

This was the week that happened to President Biden. After a first 100 days in office in which news events seldom forced him to rewrite his script, Biden faced the shutdown of a major gasoline pipeline because of a ransomware attack, plus threats of war in the Middle East.

Those events tested the new administration. And, as is often the case with crises, the White House responses provided insights into how Biden’s team views the world and its challenges.


Setting the agenda and sticking to it

Recent history provides repeated examples of how events outside of White House control can upend a presidency.

President Clinton lost control of his agenda almost immediately as the issue of whether to allow gay men and women to openly serve in the military pushed aside his preferred focus on the economy and led to an early, and high-profile, defeat.

George W. Bush‘s tenure in office was entirely redefined by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In his second term, the slow federal response to the devastation that Hurricane Katrina visited on New Orleans fed a public sense that the administration had lost its way.

President Obama wanted to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, but events in the Middle East kept pulling him back in.

On this, as on so many other topics, President Trump‘s administration provided the exception to the rule: Holding forth on whatever topic dominated the news wasn’t a distraction for Trump; more often than not, it was the main event. Trump didn’t have much of an agenda of his own and was happy as commentator in chief.

Biden, by contrast, does have an agenda, and it’s a long one. The administration is trying to move two multitrillion-dollar spending packages through Congress — one on infrastructure, the other to provide financial support to middle- and low-income families — along with big tax increases on wealthy Americans and corporations to pay for them.

At the same time, Biden is combatting the COVID-19 pandemic and pursuing significant moves on climate change and healthcare. Congressional Democrats want, in addition, to advance legislation on policing, voting rights and gun regulation.

The huge megaphone of the White House — what President Theodore Roosevelt dubbed the bully pulpit — gives its occupants a powerful tool to advance their agendas.

It’s not that the platform allows a president to persuade the other side. As often as not, especially these days, a president’s efforts to focus attention on an issue evokes a partisan response — increasing both support and opposition.

But presidents can rally support within their own party and sometimes can gain ground with less partisan voters. The key to doing so is to keep the public’s attention on the issues the president cares about.

When outside events threaten to divert that focus, a White House can respond in one of two ways, by keeping its distance or by trying to turn the event to its advantage. This past week, the Biden White House illustrated both techniques.

On the Mideast, distance has been the order of the day.

As Hamas fired rockets from Gaza into Israel and Israel bombarded Gaza with airstrikes, Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken made brief public comments expressing concern for the loss of life on both sides while espousing Israel’s right to defend itself. The White House and State Department let it be known that top officials were on the phone with their counterparts in Egypt, Qatar, Israel and elsewhere to advocate deescalation.

But unlike several previous administrations, there’s been no effort so far to dispatch high-level envoys to the region to engage in shuttle diplomacy or other steps to assert U.S. influence. Rather than sending Blinken or a top deputy, the administration assigned Hady Amr, a deputy assistant secretary of State, to meet with Israeli and Arab officials.

That arms-length approach has sparked protests from some Democrats who want Biden to do more to restrain Israeli attacks. But so far, Biden’s political and foreign policy interests are pushing him to stay out of the fray.

Politically, any deeper involvement in the conflict would divide Democrats, pitting pro-Israel constituencies against those who favor more support for the Palestinian side. And even before the most recent flare-up of violence, the administration’s foreign policy officials had made clear that they didn’t believe the current situation offered much scope for Mideast peacemaking. Unless that changes, they’re committed to keeping the region’s fires from consuming their time.

By contrast with the Mideast, the administration sought to put its mark all over the response to the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline, the main line that supplies gasoline, diesel and jet fuel to the Atlantic coast.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Environmental Protection Agency chief Michael Regan, White House officials in charge of cybersecurity, and the president himself all took turns making public statements this week designed to convey the message that the administration was on top of the situation.

Officials announced a series of temporary regulatory measures designed to minimize shortages of fuel, and on Wednesday the White House announced a new cybersecurity policy that had already been in the works, designed mostly to improve the security of the government’s own computer networks.

Beyond conveying an image of activity and coordinated planning — “whole of government approach,” the administration’s favorite buzzword, made multiple appearances — Biden was able to use the cyberattack as an argument for his legislative package. The attack illustrated the need for upgrading the nation’s infrastructure, he said.

By Thursday, Colonial had reopened its pipeline network; officials said fuel supplies should return to normal within days.

How much the administration’s very public activity helped ease the problem is hard to know. The reopening of the pipeline came only after the firm reportedly paid nearly $5 million in ransom to the hackers.

In the end, however, presidents get to take credit for things that go well, just as they often receive blame for problems outside their control.

Biden’s critics say he simply enjoys good luck. They’ve been saying that, however, almost since his campaign began. It may be time to look for a different explanation.

The latest from California

Opposition is growing to the recall aimed at Gov. Gavin Newsom, while Caitlyn Jenner and other GOP candidates are generating little support, according to a new UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies poll that was cosponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

Just 36% of registered voters in the state say they would vote to recall Newsom, while the share who oppose the recall has risen to 49%, Phil Willon reported.

The poll also found that Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s approval among Californians continues to lag, but newly appointed Sen. Alex Padilla gets positive marks, Melanie Mason reported.

And Californians see Vice President Kamala Harris as ready to step into the presidency, the poll found. Harris has retained a strong base in her home state, which would be crucial for any effort she might make to seek the presidency in 2024 or later.

Biden has given Harris several high-profile assignments, including overseeing diplomatic efforts with Mexico and Central America aimed at slowing migration to the U.S. Harris has been keen to emphasize that assignment doesn’t include responsibility for the border, but Republicans aren’t the only ones saying Harris should visit the border, Noah Bierman reports.

Kevin Faulconer, the former San Diego mayor who is among the Republican candidates seeking to replace Newsom, has proposed eliminating the state income tax for individuals earning less than $50,000 and couples with incomes below $100,000, Seema Mehta reported.

Meanwhile, Newsom has made several new proposals of his own, including adding a full school year before kindergarten. John Myers, Howard Blume and Sonja Sharp reported on how the governor’s plan would work.

The governor also proposed COVID grants up to $25,000 for thousands more small businesses as part of his annual budget, Patrick McGreevy reported.

Those proposals illustrate a big difference between this recall and the last one, George Skelton writes in his column: Newsom gets to play Santa Claus to California voters while Gray Davis, ousted by voters in 2003, was the grinch during a period of economic trouble.

Federal officials are predicting another tough fire year for California and the West, Anna Phillips reported.

And Mehta reported on allegations that the state’s independent redistricting commission has been violating California’s open-meetings law.

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The latest from Washington

House Republicans ousted Rep. Liz Cheney from her leadership post, Jennifer Haberkorn reported. On Friday, the GOP replaced Cheney, who has been critical of Trump, with Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who has turned herself into a Trump loyalist.

In doing so, the GOP eliminated a discordant voice from their leadership, but at the price of elevating the voice of anti-Trump Republicans, Janet Hook reported. The anti-Trump wing of the party is a tiny faction within the House but represents a significant slice of the electorate that the GOP can’t easily afford to alienate, Hook wrote.

Mark Barabak, in his column, looked at how Trump and other sore losers are making our nasty politics worse.

Biden and Republican leaders met but built no bridges in their discussions over the administration’s infrastructure proposal, Chris Megerian wrote.

A fund of $28 billion to keep restaurants from going out of business is running out, Sarah Wire reports. The money was part of the $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan that Congress passed in March and was designed to act as a lifeline until people started eating out again. But the Small Business Administration got requests for twice as much money as the law provided, and industry officials are already asking Congress to provide more.

And the latest economic statistics show that inflation is back, Don Lee wrote. The big questions now are how high and how long will prices go up?

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