political animals

How the White House Polices Language in Washington

Migrants cross the Rio Grande near Roma, Texas, on April 22. Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

At Wilmington Country Club recently, after playing his first round of golf as president, Joe Biden engaged in another cherished pastime: He made a gaffe. Speaking to reporters, Biden used the term crisis to refer to the state of the U.S.-Mexico border, where historic numbers of desperate migrants have arrived — urged, in some cases, by smugglers who promise that the new president is unlike the old one, that this one will let them in. “We’re gonna increase the numbers,” Biden said. “The problem was that the refugee part was working on the crisis that ended up on the border with young people, and we couldn’t do two things at once.”

This was a casual (and not entirely articulate) break with months of linguistic contortions from his administration, whose officials have insisted the word crisis does not apply to the border. “We’ve been calling it ‘challenging,’ and it is,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki told me. The issue — can we call it an issue? The White House probably prefers subject — has provided a glimpse into the messaging machinations surrounding the president and the unusual degree to which his staff seeks to control the narrative (and often succeeds) by controlling the press and the president himself. It has also emphasized how a highly particular and rigid approach to language is a form of governing itself, just as a careless and inflammatory one was under Donald Trump.

Challenge connotes a problem for which its solvers may bear no blame. Original sin is a challenge. Crisis implies contemporary fuckups. It suggests spiraling, breakdowns in the system, and the people who work for the new president happen to love systems. This is the return to normalcy: The professionals are back in the building — hyper-sensitive and type A — and Washington sure feels tense. “We are just not going to get pulled down in the muck of right-wing-driven arguments about word choice,” Psaki said. Semantics debates, she added, keeping with the swamp imagery, are a form of “crocodile wrestling.”

Trump called the media the enemy of the people, but all politicians hate the media who cover them. Biden’s PR professionals like to think of themselves as killers, and they still resent the harsh coverage the president received during the Democratic primary. The biggest staffer scandal this White House has endured to date involved a deputy press secretary threatening a female reporter and taunting her about her sex life. (He eventually was given the opportunity to resign, which is how you spin firing someone to make it sound less scandalous.) That slowed them down a bit. But the attitude that leads to such an incident remains pervasive; the same spirit of joylessness and bitterness that defined the campaign didn’t go away once they won.

During the Trump years, it was amusing how often it was possible to report with a straight face that the president said one thing while the White House said another, as though he was just some guy who happened to hang around there. But this odd dynamic persists into the Biden era. The day after the golf outing, Psaki attempted to clarify: It was not the position of the White House that the border was in crisis; Biden had meant to refer to the circumstances everywhere prior to migrants’ arrival at the border. Psaki and other White House officials carefully explained to me the distinction: The conditions that compel migrants to the border are crises, and the conditions of the journey are a crisis, but the border itself is not a crisis because the Biden administration has not sown chaos as Trump did, and the policy response to the challenge has not been chaotic. It’s a crisis until it reaches American soil, in other words, then it’s a challenge.

Reporters and opponents were quick to call this spin “backtracking,” an incremental and mildly interesting development that passes for high drama in the new boring season of Washington. Mitch McConnell mocked Biden for getting “overruled by his own staff.” But the White House pressure on language continued. On April 19, the administration circulated memos to immigration agencies dictating official changes to terminology. Alien would become noncitizen or migrant, assimilation would change to integration, and illegal would be replaced by undocumented. As far as superficial tweaks to governmentspeak go, this seemed mostly innocent, even if it created an ugly contrast with Trump administration policies — like Title 42, which shut the border against CDC recommendations — that Biden has kept in place. More overt changes are afoot, too, creating an eerie sense that virtue-signaling control over The Narrative is creeping in, whether it’s the CIA’s Girl Boss ad or Interior Department Zoom sessions that begin with oaths of “acknowledgment” from white officials about the stolen land they’re beaming in from.

At a certain point, the White House’s strict jargon rules had the Streisand effect: The insistence that the border wasn’t a crisis led to more talk of a crisis. Few fair critics would have blamed Biden, in the early months of the administration, for a problem that has stumped presidents of both parties, but bossing people around over word choice opened him up to criticism. The crisis crisis, one person close to the White House said, reflects the way things tend to work around the president. Orders come down from the few people in his inner circle, and the officials who implement them are often left with no way to alter their approach when something doesn’t work. It’s a cliquish and secretive environment, a social club of sorts for people who have been in D.C. for decades. Biden remains a stranger even to some senior members of the White House staff — someone they not only may not be frank with but may barely know at all.

“The problem in general with the kind of top-down micromanagement that is a hallmark of Bidenland is that small problems like this can’t easily be solved because you’ve got to run it up the flagpole,” the person close to the White House said.

But sometimes dumb tactics yield desired outcomes. In March, the Associated Press distributed a memo advising reporters to “avoid” or “use caution” when using the word crisis. “One very real possibility is this strategy works,” the person added. “They may get criticism in think pieces about it, but at his hundred-day mark, Biden is the most liberal president we’ve had — and the public thinks he’s a moderate. That’s a winning strategy to me. They’re willing to accept that you’re gonna write this piece as long as they know that swing voters in Colorado aren’t gonna read it.”

There’s a certain sadness to the fact that Biden, whose mythology is neatly organized around speech — his journey from childhood stutterer to veep who wouldn’t shut up — had to tame his essential self in order to finally become president. “Everybody’s strength is their weakness, in politics as in life,” the strategist David Axelrod said. “His strength is he’s always spoken his mind. There’s a genuineness to that. There’s also a danger. In politics as in sports, you want to maximize your principal’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses. They’ve effectively maximized his earnestness and decency. They’ve not allowed him to be in situations where he can stray.”

Axelrod was speaking to me ahead of a scheduled interview with Psaki for his podcast. He said he had tried for three years to book Biden, but the communications staff had blocked him at every turn. “I was frustrated,” Axelrod said. “But stepping back from my own selfish interests, I understood and admired their discipline. They were going to control his interactions. Their job is not to serve us. Their job is to serve him.” This reminded me of something William Safire once wrote describing how the administration of George H.W. Bush had screwed him over to neuter a damaging story: “What a joy it is to see really professional media manipulation.”

How the White House Polices Language in Washington