As the election comes into focus, pressure is mounting in the West Wing

A former adviser to President Biden compared life in the White House to dog years: every day seems like a week, every year like seven. And then there are moments like these when it can feel like the entire term plays out every few days.

The past few months have become a particularly stressful time in the White House. The president is teased for his speeches and mocked for his age. The Secretary of State had protesters camp outside his house and throw fake blood on his car. The Secretary of Defense is in and out of the hospital. The Secretary of Homeland Security has just been impeached.

As if that wasn’t enough, the director of the US Agency for International Development, which deals with the study of genocide, was faced with its own employees, demanding that he resign over America’s policy toward Israel. The president’s son faces criminal charges. And the White House staff is fighting two intractable wars, not to mention obstructionist Republicans, worried Democrats and, oh yes, a reelection campaign in which, according to most polls, Mr. Biden is currently not winning — and the fate of the country hangs in the balance.

Some who work in or near the West Wing may find it hard to catch their breath. The meetings are punctuated by occasional gallows humor about what disaster lurks around the corner. Farewell celebrations in the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building are, for those who do not leave, reminders of the compromises of endless hours of policy, politics and disaster management.

Even to some officials with experience in multiple administrations, the period appeared to be one of the most intense ever, made more tense by sharp internal disagreements over the president’s approach to the war between Israel and Hamas. Other officials play down the tension, recalling other pressure-filled moments, from when Mr. Biden’s campaign nearly collapsed after an early primary debacle to the first months of an administration that inherited a deadly pandemic and a devastated economy.

“Yes, this is an extremely stressful time,” said Anita Dunn, senior adviser to the president, “but it’s part and parcel of the moment. This White House has never had it easy. This president has never had it easy.”

She added that Mr. Biden, who after more than half a century in politics has seen it all, is setting the tone by remaining calm and steadfast through the storms. “He doesn’t panic, he doesn’t engage in accusations,” she said.

There are some officials inside and outside this building who want a little more panic, or at least a little more sense of urgency, given the high stakes of the next eight months. No president wants to lose re-election, but this fall’s contest with former President Donald J. Trump is set to be the one that will determine whether American democracy survives.

One White House official compared the road ahead for Mr. Biden’s team to a scene in the movie “Top Gun: Maverick,” when Tom Cruise must fly through a treacherous canyon in enemy territory at supersonic speeds, making every turn with extreme precision, at the risk of crashing to death.

“You see, the stakes for the country couldn’t be higher, and now his entire legacy is at stake,” said Michael LaRosa, former press secretary to first lady Jill Biden. “Fair or not, historians, the media and Democrats will judge the totality of his accomplishments and his career through the lens of defeating Trump or whether the country is left to face the continuation of another long national nightmare.” The pressure is real and it couldn’t be more intense on them, so I can’t imagine what it’s like there now.”

Mr. LaRosa said that Mr. Biden is the right person at this time. “Damn year, he should run again because he was the most important president in my lifetime,” he said.

But in private conversations in recent months, some inside the administration have questioned whether Mr. Biden, 81, should run again, given his age and poll numbers, but he would never say so on the record.

Despite the effort, Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House chief of staff, is trying to lift spirits. The original investor in the Call Your Mother bakery chain in Washington, Mr. Zients brings bagels to the office for colleagues every Wednesday and regularly organizes gatherings to foster camaraderie.

Last month, Mr. Zients, a millionaire, dug into his own pocket to rent the State Theater in Falls Church, Va., for a dance party for hundreds of White House officials, with music by DJ D-Nice, who performed for free. Mr. Zients played a video highlighting the administration’s accomplishments during its first three years, including the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court and various legislative accomplishments.

Associates emphasized that Mr. Zients didn’t host the party because he felt the staff had poor morale, and in fact he is known to have hosted parties in the past, including themed parties in the 1970s and 1980s. But several aides said it was an important time to vent amid the tension of legislative gridlock and wars in Europe and the Middle East.

“I’m very happy to be on the other side,” said Kate Bedingfield, the former White House communications director who left last year after serving Mr. Biden for many years during his vice presidency, campaign and presidency. “It’s exhausting and eventually everyone hits their moment.”

Even in the best of times, she noted, the White House is a fatigue factory. “The hours are long, you eat a lot of bad food, you don’t get much sleep, you don’t have much time outside the building,” she noted.

Having his son Hunter Biden targeted by prosecutors, political opponents and media reports has also taken a personal toll on the president.

“In many ways, he flourishes in moments of heightened pressure,” said Jen Psaki, Mr. Biden’s former press secretary, who draws comparisons between the White House years and the dog years. But for the president, when it comes to attacks on his son, the stress is “more human than presidential,” Ms. Psaki said. “How do you even define that as a father and how does it mesh with everything else?”

Every presidency goes through periods of greatest stress. The White House was particularly on edge when Bill Clinton was investigated by independent counsel Kenneth Starr and then impeached. The West Wing was even more of a pressure cooker when George W. Bush’s war in Iraq went awry and casualties mounted. Barack Obama’s team felt the weight of the world when he took office on the brink of a global economic depression. And every day of Mr Trump’s tenure has been incendiary with the volatile president encouraging feuds among his advisers and firing them on Twitter.

Some Biden veterans said the most difficult moment for them was likely the disastrous withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Others point to the initial weeks after the October 7 Hamas terror attack that killed 1,200 in Israel. Younger staff members, in particular, feel that Mr. Biden has not done enough to rein in the Israeli military operation, which Gaza health authorities say has killed nearly 30,000 people.

But while some lower-ranking officials resigned in protest, his inner circle remained relatively stable. Only one of the original 15 statutory cabinet members left (Martin J. Walsh as Secretary of Labor). Turnover among Mr. Biden’s top advisers was about average, according to the Brookings Institute — well below that during Mr. Trump’s chaotic tenure, a little less than under Ronald Reagan or Mr. Clinton so far, the same as under Mr. Obama and a little more than under Mr. Bush or his father, George HW Bush.

Still, those who now work in Mr. Biden’s White House volunteered with open eyes, and no one wants to appear ungrateful. “When you apply for these jobs, you know you’re applying for a stressful, thankless series of jobs, because only the hard stuff makes it to the White House, and only the hardest stuff makes it to the president’s desk,” Ms. Dunn said.

Biden’s team was encouraged by signs that not only is the economy strong in an election year, but that Americans may be starting to take notice, at least judging by rising consumer confidence. The team was delighted that the central allegation in the House Republican impeachment inquiry against Mr. Biden and his son had collapsed with news that the defendant had been accused of making it up.

Ms Bedingfield said Mr Biden had assembled a team accustomed to pressure. “They’re level-headed, they’re very good at maintaining a calm resolve,” she said. “They’re not a team that gets rattled easily.”

The next eight months will test it.

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