LOS ANGELES — Kevin de León, the Los Angeles City Council member who became politically radioactive after a leaked audio scandal, is running for reelection — a brash bet that voters will salvage his once-ascendant career.
His Wednesday announcement, first reported here, settles the speculation that has consumed Los Angeles politics for nearly a year: whether De León would appear again on a ballot after a chorus of calls for his resignation last fall, including from President Joe Biden.
The taped backroom conversation — rife with disparaging and racist language — exposed deep fissures in the city along ethnic and ideological lines, and piled on fresh embarrassment to a City Council already decimated by ethics scandals. As the only participant still in office, De León has been the most visible emblem of an ugly chapter in the city’s history.
Now, he is counting on voters to bring him back from the political wilderness.
“When a lot of people that I called my friends and allies turned away from me, my constituents had my back,” De León said in an interview. “I understood in a deeper way the relationship that I had with my community and how that motivates and drives me. That's why I'm still here. And that's why I'm running.”
The contenders seeking to replace De León, including two former colleagues in the state Legislature, insist the city needs new blood on the council to fully move on. They say voters want nothing to do with the embattled Democrat, not to mention fellow council members and major political players like organized labor.
But De León is staying put as he tests the limits of the modern-day scandal survival playbook: outwait your loudest opposition, win over voters with meat-and-potatoes constituent work and dilute the opposition with a crowded field of challengers.
Shunned by most of the Democratic establishment, De León has ensconced himself into the neighborhoods of his eastside Los Angeles district — cutting ribbons for new playground equipment, giving away free food boxes, sampling aguas frescas and a spicy tuna “sushi burger” at a local street food fair. He has few advantages in this race, but as an incumbent, he has plenty of chances to meet with voters, one by one.
As he visited an El Sereno neighborhood this month to tell neighbors that a homeless encampment behind a nearby tire store had been cleared and power-washed, nearly everyone recognized him at the door. The leaked audio scandal did not come up once.
He will need that community goodwill. Most of his former political allies have denounced him, and it’s unclear how he’ll raise money for the race — a stark turnaround from his last City Council bid in 2020, in which he brought in nearly $1 million and won the contest outright in the primary, with 52 percent of the vote.
The 2024 race was destined to be a referendum on De León — whether or not he was on the ballot. The two top-funded contenders, Democratic Assemblymembers Miguel Santiago and Wendy Carrillo, both said prior to De León’s announcement that it was the scandal that prompted them to run. Neither pointed to a single policy that would differ from his.
“Our public values are in alignment,” Carrillo said. “But often, it is what is said behind closed doors that shares who you really are. That’s why we’re in this situation now.”
Ysabel Jurado, a tenant rights lawyer who aligns herself with the city’s emboldened progressive flank, also casts her candidacy as a break from years of bad governance in the district.
“Kevin was the last straw,” she said.
De León’s rise to power played out primarily in Sacramento, where he established a reputation as an ambitious, if polarizing, state Senate leader. He was the darling of progressives in his losing campaign against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in 2018, proving to be a more tenacious underdog than many expected. He placed a distant third in the 2022 Los Angeles mayoral primary but retained his influence as a high-profile council member.
But last October, it was unclear if De León’s political career would make it past the holiday season. He was one of four participants in a secretly recorded conversation about redrawing the City Council’s political district. The inflammatory conversation included racist remarks about a fellow council member’s Black son, disparaging comments about Oaxacans and a zero-sum political outlook that prioritized Latino power above all else.
City Council President Nury Martinez and Los Angeles labor leader Ron Herrera resigned from their posts after the tape became public. Another City Council member, Gil Cedillo, was already slated to leave the Council, after losing his reelection bid in the primary earlier in the year.
De León has expressed remorse for not rebuking Martinez and others for their offensive statements during the conversation. He also has apologized for agreeing with Martinez calling the Black adopted son of a fellow Council member a prop, adding the child’s presence at a political event was “just like when Nury brings her Goyard bag or the Louis Vuitton bag." He later described his comment as “a flippant remark.”
But he did not back away from his comments about Black political representation relative to Latinos, in which he likened the former to the “The Wizard of Oz” — projecting a presence that is much larger than their actual numbers.
“The context of our conversation was about redistricting and ensuring equal representation,” he said. “You have to look no further than the maps that were drawn. Are they fully reflective of the demographics of the city? Not really.”
Latinos are the largest ethnic group in Los Angeles, making up nearly 48 percent of the population, while Black residents comprise 8 percent. There are currently five Latino members on the 15-member council (four when the recording was made) and three Black members.
De León is the only participant who remains in his job, making him a target for lingering fury about the recording. Activists camped in front of his home for weeks demanding his resignation, and his colleagues stripped him of committee assignments in a bid to pressure him to step down — a punishment that continues nearly a year later.
The controversy is at the heart of his rivals’ campaigns. Santiago’s pitch is that the district needs to move beyond the drama of De León and his predecessor Jose Huizar, who was caught in a bribery scandal.
Unlike De León, his challengers don’t believe residents have moved on. They see a district still wounded by De León’s stumbles and an opportunity to oust a politician who was once among the most powerful Democrats in the state.
“So when you're talking about our district, this district is hungry for change,” Santiago said.
Santiago’s challenge to De León is particularly striking given they used to be close collaborators in the Capitol. Their relationship has deteriorated so much that last month, the state lawmaker balked at appearing on-stage with his former pal at a press conference, an awkward incident that played out publicly and quickly got attention in Spanish-language media.
Carrillo, the other Democratic state lawmaker vying for De León’s seat, argues the council member’s poor standing has blunted his ability to serve. She said her district office has fielded increasing calls for basic city services like tree trimming or other public works, requests that in normal circumstances would be referred to the council office.
“Constituents said they didn't want to have anything to do with the office or the council member,” Carrillo said.
That line of attack gets under De León’s skin. He counters that his office is still effective, whether it’s getting shade structures installed in city parks or helping find temporary housing for hundreds of people on the streets. (His office produced a four-page list of his post-scandal accomplishments when asked about the criticism.)
“It’s a complete false narrative that is perpetuated to meet the opportunistic needs of those who are politically ambitious,” De León said with barely-disguised anger for his one-time friends.
Democrats in Sacramento have divided their allegiances between their two colleagues, with Carrillo pulling roughly double the campaign contributions from legislators than Santiago. But Santiago has been more successful in scooping up support from labor, including SEIU 2015, the long-term care workers union where Carrillo once worked.
Santiago also leads the money chase, raising nearly $240,000 as of June 30, while Carrillo has pulled in roughly $116,000.
In an early sign that organized labor was willing to go up against an incumbent it once backed, SEIU 121RN, which represents more than 9,000 nurses, endorsed Santiago just days after he entered the race in April.
“We have supported De León in the past — obviously before that recording,” said Monica Hernandez, the local’s vice-president who also acknowledged Carrillo’s union-friendly record. “But when it comes to Miguel Santiago, in every single thing there's never been a question on his support.”
Still, the biggest labor players, such as the Los Angeles Labor Federation, are staying on the sidelines for now. There is a growing concern among some Democrats that De León benefits from having multiple challengers — that fractured opposition gives him a better chance to win.
“There have been private urgings of every candidate to seek another office,” said one former Los Angeles labor leader, who was granted anonymity to speak bluntly about behind-the-scenes efforts to winnow the field.
Already, some unions are considering a prospect that seemed outlandish just months ago — that De León wins another term.
“There’s an absolute chance he could win,” the former labor official said. “He’s out in the community. … He's got a very aggressive constituent mailing program on everything going on in the district and everything that the city is doing. He's got the benefit of time since the scandal.”
Government funding lapses in less than 11 days, and a shutdown has never seemed so certain — especially to House Democrats.
Thursday's floor meltdown, where five Republicans conspired to tank a procedural vote on Pentagon spending, confirmed for many Democrats that they had already suspected: There will be a shutdown, and the only remaining question is how long it will be.
According to conversations with multiple Democratic members and aides, they believe the dynamics are simple: Any solution to the spending standoff will, by definition, involve Democrats, and McCarthy is in no position to do anything with Democrats in the next 11 days — and, maybe, for many weeks after that.
Yes, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries has been in frequent contact with McCarthy (not negotiations, just contact). Yes, Jeffries is meeting today with the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is trying to assemble a bipartisan deal to keep the government open.
But those moves are more about ending a shutdown than avoiding one, the Democrats said. There’s been no meaningful work toward a solution.
“If [McCarthy] has to let some blood out and shut the government down, OK. But we all know that ultimately what's going to happen is going to be some sort of bipartisan deal here,” one Democratic member told us.
Democrats are now strategizing about what that deal ultimately looks like, and they’ve agreed on one thing: It’s going to look a lot like what Republicans already agreed to.
As Jennifer Haberkorn and Adam Cancryn write this morning, White House aides “have settled on a hard-line strategy aimed at pressuring McCarthy to stick to a spending deal he struck with Biden back in May rather than attempt to patch together a new bipartisan bill.”
Those spending levels were hailed by McCarthy as “the biggest spending cut in American history” and a “major victory” for the GOP before a conservative backlash forced him to walk away from it.
“The White House and Democrats negotiated in good faith with Speaker McCarthy, shook hands, and reached a deal this summer to prevent the very quagmire in which America now finds itself,” another House Democrat said in a text message. “The only thing Democrats should be more vocal about is our disgust that the deal was so brazenly breached.”
With Democrats on the Hill happy to sing from the Biden administration’s hymnal, partisans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are sitting back, watching the chaos and working to make sure that no matter what happens, Republicans bear the blame for the shutdown.
The messaging memos are starting to fly: The White House on Wednesday morning sent a missive to the Hill laying out the tangible costs of a shutdown, from unpaid servicemembers to delayed infrastructure projects.
And in previously unreported talking points sent out yesterday, House Democratic leaders boiled things down to a phrase: “Extreme MAGA Republicans are plotting a shutdown, pursuing partisan impeachment. … House Democrats are putting People Over Politics to grow the middle class.”
The bigger question facing Democrats on the Hill revolves around the other big threat looming over the House — the promise that McCarthy’s critics will file a motion to remove him as speaker should he cut a deal with Democrats to fund the government.
Democratic insiders described chatter about what a lifeline might look like: securing passage of a clean stopgap and a bipartisan 2024 appropriations process, for instance, in return for Democrats standing down on a motion to vacate the speakership.
But such a deal remains unlikely. Even if McCarthy were inclined toward such an agreement — which would poison his ability to lead Republicans — Democrats are hardly in alignment.
There might be “a world where people vote present or vote to table,” one member told us, but Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) put it this way: “I like him as a person, but why would I want Kevin McCarthy to continue as speaker?”
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A major conservative group is ramping up its push into congressional primaries and endorsing GOP candidates early in the hopes of avoiding the losses of 2022.
Americans for Prosperity Action, a super PAC established by the Koch Brothers network, is backing five more Republican House candidates, the group told POLITICO exclusively. Four of those candidates are running for seats that the National Republican Congressional Committee is targeting to flip in 2024.
Republicans in Washington have blamed candidate quality issues for the party underperforming in the 2022 midterms. To prevent a repeat, AFP Action is making the case that it’s necessary to support candidates even during contested primaries. The group had already thrown its weight behind eight other House and Senate candidates in June, earlier than normal.
“Electing strong candidates to Congress is critical to advancing good policies that will improve the lives of all Americans,” AFP Action Director Nathan Nascimento said in a statement. “AFP Action is mobilizing our grassroots network from coast to coast to help the strongest candidates win their 2024 primaries — and go on to win in the general election.”
AFP Action is adding to its endorsement list Pennsylvania GOP challengers Ryan Mackenzie, of the 7th district, and Rob Mercuri, of the 17th, as well as second-time candidate Tom Barrett, who is running in a Michigan open seat currently held by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, and Craig Riedel in Ohio’s 9th district. Those four seats are currently occupied by Democrats and considered top targets for Republicans.
The group is also backing Riley Moore in West Virginia’s 2nd district, a safe Republican seat where the primary winner will almost certainly win the general election.
“AFP Action is proud to back these policy champions in their House races to help provide the new leadership and fresh ideas our country needs to move forward,” Nascimento said.
Republicans are worried about candidate quality next year. The largest GOP super PAC, Congressional Leadership Fund, shared a similar sentiment in a letter to donors last month. CLF President Dan Conston wrote that Pennsylvania Democratic Reps. Susan Wild and Matt Cartwright “only won because of top-of-ticket drag from Doug Mastriano,” who was the GOP’s nominee for governor and a supporter of former President Donald Trump’s election denial claims.
AFP Action boasts a rolodex of millions of Republican voters, and Nascimento said the organization has reached out to 4.3 million potential GOP primary voters already this election cycle in battleground states. It also has deep pockets, which allowed it to spend almost $80 million in 2022. So far this cycle, the group has raised almost just as much, according to Open Secrets, and it says it aims to bring more people into the GOP primary voting process.
AFP Action has also endorsed candidates in key Senate races, including Sam Brown in Nevada and Dave McCormick, who is set to announce his Pennsylvania campaign Thursday.
In the last midterm cycle, Americans for Prosperity Action said its campaign arm and non-profit knocked on a combined 7 million doors and sent more than 100 million mailers to voters across the county.
Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is overhauling its strategy to fight misinformation on social media in the 2024 race, recruiting hundreds of staffers and volunteers to monitor platforms, buying advertising to fight bogus claims, pushing its own countermessages out through grassroots allies — with a bulldog aide helping lead the effort.
The change is driven by concern that social media companies are less willing to police political misinformation, and also by the risks of mistruths and attacks from Republican rival Donald Trump and other GOP candidates, according to interviews with five Biden campaign officials over the past several weeks.
One of the leaders of the fight against what it expects to be a flood of misinformation will be a controversial figure: Rob Flaherty, the former White House director of digital strategy, whose combative emails to social media firms have become part of a Republican-led federal court case and a congressional investigation. He’ll work with the campaign’s legal, communications and digital teams to fight false narratives during the race.
The new strategy offers a window into how campaigns will handle the fast-shifting online landscape of the 2024 election — and the increasingly precarious politics of pressuring social-media platforms to police misinformation.
Biden’s reelection campaign is expecting to combat a barrage of false claims by Trump and other GOP candidates about Biden’s past record; the White House’s Covid-19 vaccine push; and alleged efforts to suppress voter turnout.
Under pressure from conservatives to allow more open speech, platforms like X (formerly known as Twitter) have reinstated numerous far-right conservatives who had previously been kicked off for spreading false or harmful information, including Trump himself. Facebook and YouTube have followed suit. This past summer, YouTube announced it stopped removing content falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen.
In that environment, Biden’s campaign advisers say they plan to rely less on companies’ willingness to police misinformation, and more on their own resources to counter it.
“The campaign is going to have to be more aggressive pushing back on misinformation from a communications perspective and filling some of the gaps these companies are leaving behind,” Flaherty, a deputy campaign manager for Biden’s 2024 reelection bid, told POLITICO.
The Biden administration is currently under scrutiny when it comes to social-media company outreach: White House employees, including Flaherty, are the subject of both a court case and a House committee investigation over the administration’s aggressive urging of platforms to take down posts on Covid-19 and the 2020 election.
Katie Harbath, previously Facebook’s public policy director and a Republican National Committee staffer, cautioned that the campaign needs to be careful in how hard it comes after social platforms — in part because GOP investigations in Congress are asking “very legitimate” questions about the White House’s past pressure on platforms to remove content.
“It doesn't feel great to have anybody trying to threaten their control or force platforms to be making moves,” she said.
A lightning rod gets a new role
Flaherty, who was promoted to the campaign leadership role in August, stands at the center of the political controversy around the fight against online misinformation. According to emails disclosed in a case filed in Louisiana by GOP state attorneys general, Flaherty harangued employees at Facebook and YouTube when he was at the White House, insisting the companies do more to combat rhetoric against the Covid-19 vaccine.
His aggressively worded messages have made him the target of conservative allegations that the White House and other Biden officials wrongly pressured private companies to take down internet speech.
The case itself is still a live issue: Several weeks ago, a federal court agreed that the Biden administration likely violated the First Amendment by coercing platforms to remove Covid-19 and election content, and issued an order limiting government officials from contacting the companies. Justice Samuel Alito temporarily paused that ruling last Thursday as the administration works on a formal request for the Supreme Court to block the order.
Republican House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan is also demanding Flaherty sit for a deposition as part of a separate probe by his subcommittee on the same issue.
The Biden campaign said it couldn’t comment on the ongoing federal court case or the Jordan investigation.
Despite the controversy, Biden has continued to back Flaherty as his social media attack dog since he started as the digital director of his first campaign in 2019. Flaherty has found new ways to make his boss more engaging to young voters by recording TikTok and Instagram videos with celebrities like the Jonas Brothers and Olivia Rodrigo at the White House. Biden has continued to elevate Flaherty, making him the first digital strategy director to be named as an assistant to the president. He praised Flaherty when he left in June, saying he “operated with unparalleled creativity, innovative spirit and a bias toward action.”
Public shaming and countermessaging
As the campaign gets rolling, the Biden campaign’s legal team still plans to use the traditional playbook of reaching out to social media companies, and flagging content that violates the platform’s policies.
But campaign staff said the better strategy has been to publicly shame companies for not enforcing their own misinformation policies. They plan to use Facebook to run paid ads countering false messages, something they began doing in the 2020 campaign after the platform stopped fact-checking politicians’ lies in 2019, but will significantly amplify this effort in 2024.
According to campaign officials, the overhaul includes bulking up their ranks to hundreds of people by next spring, this includes expanding their own communications, legal, digital and rapid response teams — and working with staff from the Democratic National Committee, state Democratic parties and on-the-ground volunteers — to monitor and quickly correct misinformation. They also plan to create and push out paid ads targeted at susceptible voters to counter any disinformation against Biden as a candidate. They’ll also rely on grassroots organizing and volunteers to refute false claims from opponents that are intended to suppress voter turnout, as well as work with media outlets to fact-check untruths, the Biden campaign staff said.
The campaign is particularly focused on combating misinformation from leading Republican candidates, including Trump, whose campaign, supporters and personal accounts have consistently pumped out lies about the 2020 election results, as well as more personal attacks on Hunter Biden, who’s currently indicted on gun charges. The campaign is also homing in on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Covid anti-vaccine rhetoric, including his latest push against the CDC’s recommendation for everyone under 65 to get the updated Covid vaccine.
Tech industry observers aren’t surprised with the Biden camp’s switch in strategy. “The content moderation winds have shifted since 2020,” said Nu Wexler, who previously worked in policy communications for Google, Facebook, Twitter and for Democratic lawmakers.
Given the shift in the industry — and the political risks of heavy-handed pushback — both Wexler and Harbath suggested that counter-messaging is a better use of the campaign’s time and resources than directly pressuring platforms to enforce their policies.
The campaigns of Trump and DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment on their own mis- and disinformation policies headed into 2024.
Another misinformation threat that’s evolved since the 2020 campaign is the sudden explosion of generative artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT. Generative AI can be deployed by campaigns to produce deep fakes — manipulated images or videos intended to deceive a viewer — which could be used to sway voters in 2024. And the threat isn’t even hypothetical — a pro-DeSantis super PAC has alreadyused generative AI in an ad this summer.
So the campaign is preparing for what it sees as a likely deluge of misinformation from candidates and AI tools. Said Maury Riggan, the campaign’s general counsel: “As bad as the issue was in 2020, it’s only gotten more complex.”
This is the first story of a five-part series","_id":"0000018a-a8cd-d776-a3ce-eefd4b780000","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">a five-part series diving into the rise of the anti-vaccine political movement.
A Biden administration that vowed to restore Americans’ faith in public health has grown increasingly paralyzed over how to combat the resurgence in vaccine skepticism.
And internally, aides and advisers concede there is no comprehensive plan for countering a movement that’s steadily expanded its influence on the president’s watch.
The rising appeal of anti-vaccine activism has been underscored by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s insurgent presidential campaign and fueled by prominent factions of the GOP. The mainstreaming of a once-fringe movement has horrified federal health officials, who blame it for seeding dangerous conspiracy theories and bolstering a Covid-era backlash to the nation’s broader public health practices.
But as President Joe Biden ramps up a reelection campaign centered on his vision for a post-pandemic America, there’s little interest among his aides in courting a high-profile vaccine fight — and even less certainty of how to win.
“There’s a real challenge here,” said one senior official who’s worked on the Covid response and was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “But they keep just hoping it’ll go away.”
The White House’s reticence is compounded by legal and practical concerns that have cut off key avenues for repelling the anti-vaccine movement, according to interviews with eight current and former administration officials and others close to the process.
Biden officials have felt handcuffed for the past two years by a Republican lawsuit over the administration’s initial attempt to clamp down on anti-vaxxers, who alleged the White House violated the First Amendment in encouraging social media companies to crack down on anti-vaccine posts. That suit, they believe, has limited their ability to police disinformation online. In addition, Congress is clawing back Covid funds once earmarked for vaccine education and outreach. And Biden himself has opted to largely ignore Kennedy’s campaign, concluding there’s no political benefit to engaging with the increasingly longshot challenger or his conspiratorial views.
The approach has given conservative influencers and lawmakers who have embraced Kennedy and other vaccine skeptics more space to promote their views and tout themselves as free speech warriors doing battle against the Biden administration.
And the impact is clear: As another Covid vaccination campaign gets underway, fewer Americans than ever have kept up to date on their shots. Child vaccination rates against the flu are measurably lower than before the pandemic. Even standard childhood inoculations to prevent diseases like the measles are subject to deepening partisan divisions, with recent polling showing Republicans are now more than twice as likely to believe the shots should be optional than they did in 2019. Democrats, by contrast, remain overwhelmingly in favor of childhood vaccine requirements.
“We can see a long-term future where kids aren’t going to get vaccinated in schools, diseases that we once thought had ended will roar back and kids will get sick and die from 100 percent preventable conditions,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University public health professor who has advised the White House. “This will cost lives in the long term."
Anti-vaccine sentiment isn’t new: in 2019, the U.S. reported the most measles cases in 27 years, an outbreak fueled by unvaccinated communities in parts of New York, California and Oregon. But its appeal was turbocharged by the pandemic, where political opposition to the Covid vaccines has melded in some corners with broader skepticism of immunizations as a whole.
The White House and Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the record. But in a statement, an HHS spokesperson said the administration knows "how important it is for people to have accurate, science-based information to protect themselves and their loved ones."
"Science-based information has been and continues to be the Biden-Harris Administration's North Star, and we will continue to work to share accurate information to protect the American public," the spokesperson said.
HHS also outlined a range of activities that it said is aimed at reinforcing that vaccines are safe and effective and promoting factual information, including monitoring social media for misinformation, working with local health officials to identify and correct misconceptions and publicizing its own set of online resources meant to address common questions and concerns.
Yet as Biden’s attention shifts to the 2024 race, administration officials and others close to the process say there is waning focus on the politically divisive public health issues that consumed his first two years.
The White House dissolved its Covid response team earlier this spring in favor of a new office focused on broader pandemic threats and is no longer deeply involved in combating the vaccine conspiracy theories flourishing daily online. When top officials mention the pandemic, it's now mainly to tout the nation’s emergence from its crisis phase. As for Biden, he openly defied his administration's Covid guidance earlier this month, declining to wear a mask in public on multiple occasions after being exposed to the virus.
Biden aides have instead delegated much of the responsibility for ongoing public health work back to HHS. But combating anti-vaccine sentiment on a large scale is not considered a top priority within the department, where Health Secretary Xavier Becerra has at times indicated he believes the administration has done all it can do.
“If you’re dying of Covid today, you didn’t take precautions,” Becerra said during a POLITICO health summit in June, taking an oblique shot at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other prominent Republicans who have advanced anti-vaccine theories. “If you listened to someone who said you didn’t have to take that precaution, it’s not just your fault, it’s the fault of that leader who doesn’t give you the best information. If leaders choose not to take care of their people, that’s on them.”
The CDC, under new director Mandy Cohen, has sought to be more vocal in countering disinformation of late. After DeSantis' state surgeon general advised healthy residents not to get the most recent booster, Cohen called the decision "unfounded and, frankly, dangerous."
Yet the Biden health department no longer has the resources to run the sprawling network of community-level initiatives that proved effective in boosting trust in the vaccines early in the Covid response, as congressional support for Covid funding has dried up. Those still trying to make headway lamented the inability to keep up with fast-moving conspiracies spreading across social media, leaving them overwhelmed by the flood of myths and misconceptions that gain traction before the government can mount a response.
“This is asymmetrical warfare by definition,” said one former health official who worked on the administration’s public health messaging. “We will need the people who have the levers to change that equation to focus on this issue. Being right is wildly insufficient to win a public debate.”
The administration’s scaled-back approach to the anti-vaccine movement represents a notable shift from early in Biden’s presidency, when the success of his agenda hinged on vaccinating the nation against Covid.
Back then, senior aides leading the pandemic response saw combating misinformation as a critical priority. The White House spent months pressuring social media companies to stringently enforce rules against misinformation and flagging false claims from prominent vaccine skeptics — Kennedy among them. Its Covid team spent millions of dollars on public education programs. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy used his first official advisory to label health misinformation an “urgent threat."
The early focus extended to Biden himself, who declared in June 2021 that platforms like Facebook were "killing people" by allowing Covid conspiracies to spread. The denunciation was so harsh that even some aides leading the administration's misinformation battle thought it went too far, and Biden soon backtracked.
Still, health experts credited the aggressiveness of the campaign for helping get the vast majority of adults their first Covid shot in just seven months. But the virus’ resurgence later that summer caught the White House by surprise, scrambling its carefully planned vaccine messaging and allowing anti-vaxxers to elevate doubts about the shot’s effectiveness.
The administration’s disinformation fight never recovered.
The 2022 lawsuit led by Republican attorneys general that targeted the administration's work with social media companies dealt a major blow, quashing the prospect of a sustained effort to push back on anti-vaccine campaigns or target influential figures responsible for spreading conspiracy theories.
The suit set back the administration for months, according to three people familiar with the matter, as White House lawyers discouraged any initiatives that might add to the allegations.
Despite trying to not provoke a judicial rebuke, a federal judge in Louisiana nevertheless sided with the GOP plaintiffs in a July ruling. The judge banned a range of Biden officials and agencies from talking with social media companies, though the prohibition has since been paused while the administration seeks an intervention by the Supreme Court.
The administration also found itself mired for months in a standoff with congressional Republicans over more Covid funding. During that time, it pared back its ambitions and messaging, maintaining during the most recent vaccination campaign last fall that its role was primarily to ensure the vaccine was available for those who wanted it. Just 20 percent of adults got last year's shot, according to CDC data through May 11, down sharply from the 79 percent of adults who received their initial series of vaccinations in 2021.
The White House has since dropped its push for more Covid money in the face of solidified Republican opposition, instead agreeing earlier this year to let Congress claw back more than $27 billion of unspent funds in exchange for salvaging $5 billion earmarked for next-generation vaccines.
"It's become now a politically motivated movement," said Peter Hotez, a virologist at the Baylor College of Medicine who has written extensively about the anti-vaccine movement, arguing that vaccine skepticism has become more embedded in conservatives' worldview than ever before. "But I can't get any engagement out of anybody."
Hotez isn’t the only one arguing the administration could be doing more to combat the conspiracies and falsehoods, especially as they emerge more prominently during the current presidential cycle. DeSantis has made opposition to Covid precautions a central element of his campaign, most recently claiming without evidence the latest vaccine isn't safe or effective. And even Trump, who oversaw the record-fast development of the initial Covid vaccine, has acknowledged that fact is doing him no favors with GOP voters, vowing that he's "not going to talk about it one way or the other."
"I would like to see the surgeon general really take this on, and the HHS secretary as well," Gostin said. "They could both do worlds of good in approaching this from the health and medical point of view, not the political point of view."
Top health officials could double down on their work with local health departments to rebuild trust, experts said, eschewing the high-cost ad campaigns the government traditionally relies on in favor of sustained partnerships with community organizations that aren’t viewed as inherently political.
Health and disinformation experts have long called for establishing a cross-government task force focused on monitoring and organizing responses to misinformation. Others wondered why the White House has not kept up communications with the network of outside public health experts it cultivated during the height of the Covid response, and who could more freely dispute anti-vaccine arguments as they arise.
“Vaccines just saved this country’s ass, and there is no counter,” said another official who was involved with the Covid response. “What is it going to take to make the case that’s obvious?”
But as the administration pivots toward Biden’s reelection platform and leaves the Covid crisis further behind, there appears little concerted new energy going toward defending the vaccines behind its success.
In June, Hotez declined an invitation on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, from podcaster Joe Rogan to debate Kennedy and his vaccine claims. It prompted a multi-day torrent of abuse from anti-vaxx accounts that amplified misinformation across the platform.
A range of colleagues, fellow health experts and even celebrities publicly joined the fray in Hotez’s defense. Others privately reached out to offer support. But, Hotez said, he never heard a word from anyone in the administration.
“It would’ve been nice if there was a call from the White House, Office of Science and Technology Policy, CDC or anybody to say hey Peter, we’ve got your back, and here’s what we’re doing about the [misinformation] issue,” he said. “Mark Hamill said I got your back. So at least I got Luke Skywalker. But nobody from the government.”
Speaker Kevin McCarthy is struggling to pass a bill to fund the government — and the White House isn’t about to throw him a lifeline.
With just days to go before the government runs out of money, Biden’s team is watching Congress steam toward a shutdown, resigned to the reality that there’s little they can do now to fix the situation and confident the politics will play out their way.
President Joe Biden has steered well clear of the chaos engulfing the House, where Republicans are battling each other over a government funding bill. Within the White House, aides have settled on a hard-line strategy aimed at pressuring McCarthy to stick to a spending deal he struck with Biden back in May rather than attempt to patch together a new bipartisan bill.
“We agreed to the budget deal and a deal is a deal — House GOP should abide by it,” said a White House official granted anonymity to discuss the private calculations. Their “chaos is making the case that they are responsible if there is a shutdown.”
Biden world’s wait-and-see approach comes against the backdrop of an increasingly likely shutdown, which would be the first of the Biden era.
On Tuesday, GOP leadership canceled plans for a procedural vote on a short term funding bill, wary it had the numbers to pass. Hours later, hard-right conservatives tanked a procedural vote related to a defense spending bill. Moderate House Democrats have been working on a last-ditch fall back option to avert a shutdown, but any final product will need approval from the Senate.
For now, the White House is staying out of the mix, trying instead to draw a contrast between the House majority that can’t complete the task of keeping the government’s lights on and Biden, who on Tuesday addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It’s also highlighting the price of the latest GOP plan, such as, in their estimation, cutting 800 Customs and Border Protection agents and 110,000 Head Start positions for children.
The administration has hitched its wagon to a Senate effort widely supported by members of both parties in that chamber. The top Republican and Democratic appropriators are working on long-term, bipartisan funding bills that adhere to the agreed upon spending levels, although they have accepted that a stop-gap funding bill will be needed. There is a sense in the White House and on Capitol Hill that support for the Senate bill would increase if it becomes evident that McCarthy can’t steer his conference.
Getting involved now, White House officials reasoned, would only lend credibility to an attempt by conservative lawmakers to effectively rip up the Biden-McCarthy deal agreed to during debt ceiling talks in the spring and extract deeper cuts from the administration. It also would risk further angering progressives, who already didn’t like the funding levels in that spring agreement.
"The White House is there. The House Democrats are there, and the Senate Democrats and Republicans," said Rep. Rosa Delauro (D-Conn.), the Democrats' top appropriator. "It's just this recalcitrant group of House Republicans."
The administration is not entirely hands off, though. Senior administration officials, chiefly OMB Director Shalanda Young, have been in touch with lawmakers in both chambers and parties.
It’s not clear how Biden’s involvement would help the effort. House Republicans are sparring among themselves on the shape of a government funding bill. So far, there is no clamoring among them for the White House or Biden to be at the table.
“The drama is always, can Kevin McCarthy pass a bill and keep his job,” said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. “And Biden can’t solve that problem.”
The hands-off approach is not without risk.
The president may have to step in at the last minute to smooth over a final agreement. Biden has a history of engaging in talks even after first striking a posture that he won’t negotiate, like during the debt ceiling dispute.
Even though some Republicans have openly called for a shutdown, the public could end up holding the White House responsible for the delayed paychecks to federal workers and Social Security recipients and the national park closures that come along with an extended government closure.
“Shutdowns are incredibly damaging,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), who described how it took a year for a hotel operator in his district to make back the money it lost when the last government shutdown closed a nearby national park. “I’m less concerned about the politics and more concerned about my constituents.”
Biden's involvement now would likely only thwart negotiations among congressional leaders, because any proposal that draws a modicum of White House support would prompt immediate opposition from House conservatives.
"You just have to let the House have its temper tantrums, have its fits, prove that it's incapable of doing anything before you can step in and offer a path out of it," said Brendan Buck, a former top aide to then-House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner. It may just take a shutdown before McCarthy feels comfortable coming to the table, he added. "He's going to need to show folks that he's willing to go full length on this — whatever that may look like in their minds."
But even as small groups of lawmakers hold tentative bipartisan conversations about a path forward, Rep. Richie Neal (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, cast aside any concern about political fallout — for his fellow Democrats, at least.
“The entire federal government expenditure is being held hostage by about 25 Republicans in the House,” he said. “If you talk to Republicans privately here, genuinely and sincerely, they know they cannot win a government shutdown.”
Buoying the White House’s position is the increasing isolation of House Republicans, a sharp contrast from when McCarthy had the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans during the debt talks. Now, they want to see the House boost defense spending and share little appetite for the House’s ambivalence about walking to the edge of a shutdown.
DeLauro was among the skeptics of the debt ceiling deal the White House cut with McCarthy in May, believing at the time that its spending limits were too stringent. But like it or not, the two sides' leaders struck a deal both sides had little choice but to follow.
"I did not vote for the budget agreement," she said. “But now it's the law of the land, let's go. We have a template. Let's go, let's move."
Dearborn, Mich., is home to the largest Muslim population per capita in the nation. Yet it didn’t elect its first Muslim mayor until 2022 with the victory of Abdullah Hammoud, a 33-year-old who has big plans for his hometown.
Hammoud, a former member of the Michigan House, is rising within the ranks of a Democratic party that shocked the nation when Democrats flipped control of the state Legislature last year, handing the party a ruling trifecta for the first time in 40 years. Michigan and the rest of the Midwest are crucial to the success of Democrats’ 2024 electoral strategy.
“We have to be talking about these wins in a much more tangible way for people to actually see,” Hammoud said. “Let’s go city to city and say, ‘Hey, that highway you constructed, that sinkhole you had fixed, this new water or sewer infrastructure that came in to help prevent water coming into your basement, that was funded because of Democratic leadership and their priorities putting you first above politics.’ We have to be bolder in our messaging.”
Hammoud applied his background in epidemiology early on by creating a local health department, the first city in the state to voluntarily do so. He sees a future for Dearborn that draws upon its diversity to be more fair and effective in policing, advanced in technology and savvy about climate change.
Hammoud is also a member of POLITICO’s Mayors Club, a roundtable of 50 mayors from across the country convened to discuss the challenges their communities are facing and what they’re doing to solve them.
Hammoud recently sat down with POLITICO to discuss electoral politics, thorny policy issues and the challenges of being a political pioneer.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
A lot of attention has been paid to your status as the first Arab American and Muslim mayor of Dearborn. Do you ever feel like your status as a “first” translates to extreme pressure to exceed expectations?
The short answer is yes. The way I look at it, we never set out to be the first, we set out to be the best. However, in being the first, although cool and all that, what I would add is it’s far more important for me to know how to be successful so that the next time somebody who looks a little different, has a different name, maybe prays in a different direction, that they run, that my tenure as mayor doesn’t frown on them.
Barack Obama was our first Black president, but the question I have for us as a nation: We only did it once in 200 years, and if it takes us another 200 years to elect a candidate who happens to be a minority, did we really accomplish anything as a country? I really want to challenge that we have to make sure that we celebrate first, but truly when it becomes normalized for us to have candidates of color in office, that’s really the success level.
Democrats flipped the state legislature in November, handing the party a trifecta for the first time in 40 years. How has having Democrats in total control of Lansing changed your job?
We’re seeing a lot more assistance in terms of dollars coming down to the municipalities. As mayor and as a former legislator, what I will tell you is those closest to the problem are best positioned to tackle the issue. When you’re in Lansing, you’re several degrees away from what’s actually happening on the ground. So the fact that we’ve been getting additional resources and revenue sharing and grant opportunities, that’s helping us do our jobs on a daily basis.
What do you see as the single biggest accomplishment by Democrats this session?
I look at two. My time in Lansing, I really became fond of appropriations and the budget. That has a far more direct impact than just legislation. What we saw right now was record-breaking budgets for our public school system. We had one of the largest per-pupil increases in history, and that is going to have a direct impact on educating the youth and people of tomorrow.
Two, the repeal of right-to-work. I’m very pro-union. Many of us in Dearborn are here because of our union roots and because of Ford Motor Company. So just the fact that we have a more union-friendly environment, that’s going to give way to just a more promising middle class.
Flipping that question, what was left on the table? What did they fail to achieve that you wanted to see done?
What I would love to see more of is more resources allocated to water and sewer infrastructure for the purpose of mitigation of flooding. That to me is the highest priority here in the city of Dearborn. We were devastated by floods in 2021. Almost two-thirds of our homes were underwater.
Dearborn has the fastest population growth in the entire state. Why?
That is largely attributed to the fact that we’re a welcoming city, and we’re the capital of immigration in the state of Michigan. So what you see is a very diverse group of residents coming to live and they understand that Dearborn has this welcoming feel.
Also, that we're a younger community: 40 percent of our city is under the age of 24. The average age in the state of Michigan is close to 40; the average age in Dearborn is close to 30. That’s also an advantage for us.
How do you convince those young people to stay in Dearborn?
What we’re trying to do is make sure we’re making the right investments and what we’ve dubbed “the Dearborn advantage.” What is the advantage to being a Dearborn resident? We’re trying to lay down that value argument.
So we’re doing free books for kids between the ages of 0 and 5 mailed to your doorstep every month through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Foundation. We have 45-plus parks, five community pools, so probably more parks and pools per capita than any other city in the state of Michigan. We’re doing a $30 million investment in our parks and green spaces.
An early action you took as mayor was to establish a Department of Public Health for the city and have since brought several lawsuits against companies. Do you see a new, aggressive role for cities in fighting environmental threats?
Absolutely. The EPA and the state level can only do so much. There are certain things even they do not regulate. … Municipalities have to take this onus on them. Each and every decision we make as a city is a public health decision, and that’s what our public health department focuses on. It’s less the 1.0 model of delivering direct health care and services, and this is more the 3.0 model where we are ensuring that every zoning of a parcel contributes to the health of the overall community.
Reinvesting in community pools and green spaces and parks, that’s a public health decision.
Holding these companies accountable and forcing them to make investments, that’s a public health decision.
You set out to address racial disparities in traffic ticketing in the aftermath of a police accountability group finding that Dearborn police were arresting Black suspects and issuing citations to them at significantly higher rates compared with white suspects.
Have you found it difficult balancing requests from the community to address policing issues with appealing to the rank-and-file within the police department who may be resistant to change?
No. I have faith with who I appointed to lead that department. That’s really where it starts. What we found was when we shifted our efforts, you can do both. You can keep a community safe and you can also do it in an ethical and sound way which is not disproportionately impacting communities of color, just by shifting our focus on things that people care about: speeding and reckless driving, running a red light or stop sign.
We actually dropped the proportion of tickets issued to Black drivers within one year by 50 percent. What we actually do with it is we significantly decreased the number of car accidents in the city of Dearborn by 10 percent. So we have a safer community, less people speeding, less accidents and we addressed the racial disparities, not by changing who the officers were, but by changing how we measure success.
Success was no longer enforcing dangling ornaments, expired license plates and broken tail lights. As long as you measure success in the right way, the rest falls in line.
What other structural changes do you have planned for the police department?
From a hiring practices perspective, we eliminated some policies which we think prevented us from having a more diverse police force. For example, there was a no beard policy. For many men in the Muslim community, a beard is something they do have and for some they believe to be a religious obligation. So by doing that and by being the home of Arab America, we actually increased the number of officers that we hired from the Arab American community.
We had a no tattoo policy, we got rid of that.
The third was you had to have your hair tied into a bun if you're on the force, which is an anti-Black woman hair policy.
By eliminating all that, what we found was our most recent recruits are one of the most diverse in the city’s history.
To what extent are you taking climate adaptation and mitigation into account in city planning?
Extremely. Every time we have a developer coming forward with a proposal, we’re asking how many parking spaces do they actually need versus how many would they like. We’ve had some negotiations already where developers have come forward and we’ve given signoff on their projects with the caveat that they will convert acres of their parking lots into green spaces to help with the absorption. We require 100 percent of retention on your parcel to make sure it doesn’t impact our water and sewer system.
Last year we actually authorized the first-ever two-year study of our water and sewer system for us to understand the impacts of climate change and what that means for the resiliency of our infrastructure in the long term. Our results come back in 2024, and that’s going to help us devise our 10-year investment plan for water and sewer infrastructure to ensure flood mitigation is taken care of taking into account the impacts of climate change in the long run.
Michigan is at the center of the political world this year. How should the party utilize this renewed energy in the Midwest?
We need stronger communication around the successes that we’re delivering. … We have to be talking about these wins in a much more tangible way for people to actually see.
Let’s go city to city and say, “Hey, that highway you constructed, that sinkhole you had fixed, this new water or sewer infrastructure that came in to help prevent water coming into your basement, that was funded because of Democratic leadership and their priorities putting you first above politics.” We have to be bolder in our messaging.
We have to speak in terms that our residents understand. My residents, if I say, “Hey, I’m doing a two-year climate resiliency climate change study,” they would tell me, “What the heck is that?” But if I tell them, “Hey I’m doing a two-year study to understand our water and sewer infrastructure, to stop flooding in your basements,” they get that. So sometimes we also have to make sure we’re speaking to residents and not speaking above them to the researchers and the people on Twitter but moreso to the average, everyday family.
If you’re the DNC chair, what’s the strategy for winning the Midwest in 2024?
It’s organizing now. Don’t wait ’til 2024. We should have been knocking on doors 3-4 months ago. We should have been organizing within communities 3-4 months ago. We should be making sure we have diverse recruitment to understand the unique demographics that are within the Democratic party. Knocking on doors is everything. That’s been my pathway to success, whether in the state Legislature or as mayor, and having those conversations at the doorsteps. People will remember that forever.
If President Joe Biden avoids a recession before the 2024 election, one segment of the population will be a key reason why: immigrants.
A spike in legal immigration in the past two years has helped meet surging demand for workers in the wake of the pandemic. The rush of new arrivals to the workforce is a result of the Biden administration working through Covid-era backlogs, along with increased participation in the labor force by foreign-born people already in the country. That, in turn, is boosting the Federal Reserve’s hopes that inflation can cool without a big jump in unemployment.
As Fed policymakers meet this week in Washington, the strength of the job market is among the dynamics they’ll be watching most closely. Central bank Chair Jerome Powell has voiced concern about a market that is “out of balance,” with the number of openings far exceeding available workers. That’s pushing up wages and could feed further price increases, potentially leading the Fed to crank up interest rates even more from two-decade highs to slow the economy.
But so far, another trend has taken hold: Millions of people — predominantly foreign-born — have joined the workforce to help fill many of those jobs.
“The labor market has started to loosen up, without having to reduce demand [for workers],” said Alec Phillips, chief U.S. political economist at Goldman Sachs, which has lowered its odds of a recession in the next year to just 15 percent. “And there’s clearly been a disproportionate contribution from immigrants.”
There’s no guarantee it will last. Even without further Fed efforts to slow demand for goods and services, it’s unclear how long the labor market will continue to hold up in the face of punishingly high rates, which will weigh on both businesses and households. And job vacancies are still unusually high, with about one and a half openings for every unemployed worker.
The short-term anti-inflationary benefit from more workers adds greater urgency to the political battle over how many foreign nationals should be allowed into the country, with many Republicans calling for stricter limits. The issue continues to be a hot-button political topic on the campaign trail, as Washington remains deadlocked over a broader policy in this arena.
Some Republican lawmakers argue that there should be more focus on bringing in immigrants who fill specific needs in the economy, particularly people with higher levels of education.
“President Biden’s immigration policies have forced the poorest Americans to compete against a flood of unskilled foreign labor, stunting wages for working Americans still struggling to buy basic goods in an inflation economy,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a statement to POLITICO. “Immigration policies should support American workers, not replace them with foreigners.”
Nearly three-quarters of the increase in the supply of workers over the last two years has consisted of foreign-born people, according to Courtney Shupert, an economist at research firm MacroPolicy Perspectives.
In a research note, Goldman Sachs economists said green card and work visas had risen by roughly 115,000 and 230,000, respectively, over the past 12 months, “reaching the highest level in years.” They said that would mean 40,000 more workers per month than expected, adding up to about half a million over the next three quarters. That’s spread across a range of sectors and skill levels.
The overall impact on inflation and wages is not totally clear-cut, however, since more immigration also means more consumers who also want to buy goods and services. To help the Fed’s battle against inflation, there needs to be enough new workers to actually boost the overall labor force participation rate.
“People often tend to think of labor markets as having a fixed number of jobs, like musical chairs,” said Brian Kovak, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “That is not a good model of the labor market because when there are more people, those people demand goods and services, and those goods and services are produced by workers.”
Negative wage effects also tend to be biggest for people with skills most similar to immigrants, often other foreign-born workers who arrived in the country earlier, he added.
In the meantime, the low unemployment rate and rising wages have helped bring a range of workers into the job market, including women with young children, but also 4 million more foreign-born people over the past two years, according to Kovak.
That pace of growth in the labor force isn’t expected to last forever, though, which has led some senior Fed officials to underscore that the central bank still has more work to do to slow demand for goods and services in the economy.
To achieve a so-called soft landing, where economic growth slows but doesn’t dip negative, demand for workers would ideally fall alongside any slowdown in additional labor supply, such that there still isn’t a big jump in joblessness.
One big question is why foreign-born people have been such an outsized contributor to labor force participation; after all, immigrants are only about 18 percent of the workforce.
One answer might be that the immigrant population dropped significantly during Covid, when movement across borders all but dried up. So sectors with a disproportionate share of foreign-born workers might have been more likely to see shortages and therefore significant jumps in wages as companies competed for a smaller pool of workers.
Indeed, that population hasn’t yet fully recovered, said Wendy Edelberg, a former chief economist at the Congressional Budget Office who’s now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“The population of immigrants is smaller, but the smaller population is working at a higher rate, so we are doing well on the number of immigrants working,” she said. “This isn’t to say, we can all just say, ‘Mission accomplished, and we’ve made up for Covid.’ It’s more like, ‘Wow, think of the counterfactual if immigration were back up to trend.'”
Jennie Murray, president of the National Immigration Forum, pointed to a variety of bureaucratic moves that have also boosted immigration, such as expanding special visas for U.S. allies in Afghanistan, allowing Indian immigrants to stay in the country when applying to renew their H1-B visas, more refugees, and expanded asylum for people from certain Central American countries.
But she said the pace needs to be faster.
“Before Covid, we needed to add many more workers to the system,” she said. “With our declining population growth and then this restriction on legal immigration, we’re now far behind that.”
Nick Niedzwiadek contributed to this report.