Washington (CNN)President Joe Biden was at the wooded Camp David retreat in Maryland when he first heard Colonial Pipeline had been hacked.
Briefed in one of the mountainside lodges by senior advisers and aides from the National Security Council, Biden quickly realized the incident — and subsequent shutdown of the company’s pipeline supplying fuel to the Eastern Seaboard — could easily devolve into a major problem.
Long lines of cars at pumps and handwritten “no fuel” signs make for potent political imagery, a fact Biden experienced firsthand when as a young senator he saw an oil crisis help deprive President Jimmy Carter of a second term.
The pipeline shutdown was the first in a string of unexpected events in the past week that have tested the President and his aides. A day later, violence would begin rapidly escalating between Israelis and Palestinians, lighting up telephone lines between Washington and the Middle East and thrusting Biden back into a conflict riddled with failed US efforts at brokering peace.
Alarm bells for the still-recovering economy began ringing in new inflation numbers midweek, setting up fresh political hurdles just as Biden was entering a critical stretch of negotiations with Republicans over his $4 trillion in new spending. Before the pipeline shutdown, aides said the President had been planning to spend the weekend getting updates from advisers on the labor market — including on why the jobs report the previous Friday proved so disappointing.
Thursday brought a more welcome surprise, albeit one that still caused a scramble. The timing of new mask guidelines for vaccinated Americans from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caught some aides off guard and have prompted a confusing rush in states to update their rules. White House officials had been anticipating the CDC would soon make changes, but many believed it would take the notoriously slow-moving agency until later this month to decide on the new recommendations.
Until now, Biden had mostly been spared the types of quickly spiraling foreign crises or surprise domestic emergencies that compose any presidency. His plate has instead been filled with longer-term issues — like recovering from the pandemic — or tenacious problems, like a surge of migrants at the Southwestern border.
But the past week amounted to a reality check for a President who has placed nearly all of his political capital in ending the pandemic and enacting a boldly progressive agenda, having spent months focused on getting shots in arms and stimulus checks in Americans’ bank accounts.
The simultaneous foreign and domestic crises would challenge even the most seasoned president, let alone one charged with navigating the country from its worst health crisis in a century. They serve as a reminder that any manner of crises can intervene to throw the trajectory off course.
‘You have to be prepared’
Publicly, the White House assumed a calm demeanor toward the developments, even as concerns about the potential political fallout pervaded. Aides said Biden is no stranger to surprises, having witnessed and responded to them for eight years as vice president.
“That’s what we’re made for here,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.
“We certainly know that — and the President knew from having served as vice president for eight years — that when you walk in and you’re the leader of the free world and you’re overseeing a country that is still working its way through a pandemic and an economic recovery, that you have to be prepared to juggle multiple challenges, multiple crises at one time,” she said.
An energy crunch is near the top of that list. Aside from watching Carter struggle to contain a nationwide gas shortage in 1979, Biden saw firsthand how President Barack Obama strove to manage the political fallout from the BP oil spill in the early days of his presidency.
After his initial briefing on the hack last Saturday at Camp David, Biden asked for updates every day by members of his staff. The White House’s concern over the issue was plain as Cabinet secretaries came to cameras each afternoon with new measures they were taking to alleviate shortages.
Republicans seized the opportunity to compare Biden to Carter, even though the pipeline shutdown was prompted by Russia-based ransomware hackers who penetrated a weak private-sector network.
Biden himself chose to deliver an update Thursda
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