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Former White House chiefs of staff weigh in on how Biden can avoid a midterm disaster


The dissatisfaction the president is facing among Democrats has driven his approval rating with the public down to just 36% in our new poll. That could make midterm elections brutal for the Biden White House. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson talked with three former White House chiefs of staff about what, if anything, Biden can do to help his party avoid disaster this fall.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: There's no shortage of advice for Joe Biden these days. Move left. Move to the center. Be bolder. Fight harder. Pass legislation. Sign more executive orders. Leon Panetta has lived through a lot of difficult election cycles, but this one may be the toughest.

LEON PANETTA: Look, there's no question that there are serious problems out there facing President Biden and the Democrats. I think 85% of the American people think that the nation's headed in the wrong direction.

LIASSON: There's inflation, mass shootings, a war in Europe and conservative Supreme Court rulings on abortion, guns and climate change. Panetta, who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff, thinks Biden's biggest problem isn't any one of those things; it's something more fundamental.

PANETTA: The worst part of this administration is that they have just failed in terms of the message to the American people. You know, the president tries to address each of these crises, but it gives the impression that it's kind of a hit-and-miss process. The key is to try to develop a very simple and coherent message about just exactly what is Joe Biden, and the Democratic Party for that matter - what are they trying to do for the nation?

LIASSON: John Podesta, another former Democratic White House chief of staff, says that simple message has to communicate that Republicans have gone too far.

JOHN PODESTA: Whether that's the conspiracy that led to the violence that caused January 6 or whether it's issues that are more central to people's individual lives - perhaps like Roe, like guns, like environmental protection, worker safety, etc. - I think that people get a sense that this is a party that really has gone to the extreme. And Biden can, I think, be quite helpful in making that case.

LIASSON: Podesta thinks there's still time for the president to make a forceful argument that will help energize Democrats. Republicans, not surprisingly, disagree. John Sununu was George H.W. Bush's chief of staff. He thinks there's little Biden can do at this point.

JOHN SUNUNU: And I don't think they have either the capacity or the time to make the changes necessary to try and salvage 2022.

LIASSON: What would those changes be? According to Sununu...

SUNUNU: Deal with the energy issue by incentivizing aggressively domestic production. No. 2 - not go to expansion of government spending. And No. 3 - recognize that the border issue is a real issue.

LIASSON: What about inflation, the No. 1 issue for voters? There's not much Biden or any president can do about that. It's a global problem, mostly caused by supply chain issues. But, says John Podesta, the president should surely be caught trying.

PODESTA: The job of getting inflation down is largely with the Fed. But to the extent that the president can do everything he can to show that he's fighting to get inflation under control, I think that's another useful avenue for him.

LIASSON: If Democrats want to turn what is usually a referendum on the party in power into a clear choice between two parties, Leon Panetta thinks Biden has to make that choice as big and consequential as possible.

PANETTA: What Joe Biden has to say is we can lead, we can make things happen, and we can deal with these challenges. I think that sense of confidence is what's lacking right now. Biden has to say, we are strong enough as a country to deal with these challenges.

LIASSON: Convincing the public to be confident is hard, especially since Biden has not been able to restore the sense of normalcy he promised in the 2020 campaign. But Panetta thinks he has to try since the stakes are so high.

PANETTA: In the end, this really is a decision about whether our democracy is going to be governable and whether or not we're going to be able to deal with the challenges that we're confronting, or are we just going to have more chaos the way we had chaos the - in the four years of Trump?

LIASSON: Democrats will try to make that chaos-versus-competence argument. It'll be easier if Donald Trump announces before November that he's running for president again. That would also be a reminder that what happens in November may not determine what happens in 2024. After all, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan all lost one or both houses of Congress in their first midterms but wound up winning reelection to become two-term presidents.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.