The White House has compounded its problems — again — this time in addressing a baby formula shortage that President Biden admitted he was not personally aware of until months after the shutdown of a plant that manufactured a significant chunk of the nation’s products.
Biden’s admission that he wasn’t aware of the gravity of the situation until April, when store shelves were already empty, confounded some observers who saw it as a political mistake that made the optics of the administration’s response worse.
“I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said one Democratic strategist. “He has to show that he’s on top of these situations. The last thing they want is to be the subject of another Republican talking point.”
The administration had already been struggling to handle questions on the baby formula shortage, and Biden’s statement left it scrambling to lay out a clear timeline of who was working on the issue in February and March and why the president was not informed sooner.
It’s far from the first time the White House has had to deal with such a problem.
The strategist pointed to the White House being caught flat-footed on a number of issues dated back almost one year ago.
“Almost everything since the Afghanistan withdrawal foul-up has been Biden and the White House playing catch up,” the strategist said.
A second strategist added, “This looks so bad. It raises questions about competency and the more that comes out, the worse it looks.”
Administration officials for weeks have said they’ve been working to address the shortage since February, when a recall of Abbott Nutrition products, the maker of Similac baby formula, left the administration seeking to bring in products from other countries. Biden in May invoked the Defense Production Act in a bid to increase supply.
But Biden, at an event with formula manufacturers on Wednesday, said he “became aware of this problem sometime in early April, about how intense it was. We did everything in our power from that point on.”
“I don’t think anyone anticipated the impact of the shutdown of one facility,” Biden added.
The president’s admission came minutes after executives from some of the leading manufacturers said they knew the shutdown would have a significant impact on formula availability.
Rep. John Joyce (R-Pa.) asked Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert Califf at a recent hearing when the agency alerted the White House about the closure of the Abbott plant and who was made aware. Califf indicated White House staff knew in early February.
At a press briefing later Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre struggled to answer questions about why Biden was not made aware of the severity of the situation until early April. At one point, she claimed to not even know about Biden’s remarks earlier that day.
“I was in my office. I did not actually hear what the president said,” she told reporters.
Brian Deese, the head of the National Economic Council, went on CNN on Wednesday and acknowledged Americans “are right to be frustrated and concerned.”
He defended the FDA’s process in investigating how a whistleblower complaint was overlooked and the timeline of looking into the closure of the Abbott plant, calling it “appropriate that they look at that timeline and understand what happened in that context.”
The interview ended abruptly when Deese’s camera on the north lawn of the White House toppled over.
The new revelation about the timeline triggered a fresh wave of questions during Thursday’s White House briefing.
Jean-Pierre said the White House had been working with other agencies for months on the issue. But when pressed on why the president said he did not know about the crisis until April, she suggested he had a lot on his plate and would not specify who eventually notified Biden of the severity of the issue.
“He’s briefed on countless priorities. He is the president of the United States. There are regular channels. He’s briefed by his senior White House staff. And that is just the process that we have,” Jean-Pierre said. “I’m not going to confirm who it was.”
One correspondent noted that the unwillingness to provide specifics seemed “evasive.”
Some Democrats say the White House should be doing more to help parents, who already feel overwhelmed with the recent news centered on last week’s school shooting in Texas and the possible repeal of Roe v. Wade.
“Taking action — even the appearance of action — and showing outrage about this state of affairs, should be a lay-up for President Biden,” said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer. “And yet it feels as though women are getting something between arms-length sympathy and even more outreach to Republicans, who should instead be set up as the contrast and the problem.”
The baby formula shortage has proven to be yet another crisis for the White House to juggle at a time when Biden and his team are struggling to convince much of the public that their agenda is working ahead of the midterm elections.
Inflation has been a persistent issue for months, with gas prices setting record highs in recent days. The war in Ukraine has rattled global supply chains and shows few signs of abating. And a string of mass shootings has pushed the debate over gun laws back to the forefront.
“The baby formula issue, in addition to being a basic survival issue, also reads as an extension of the inflation problem,” Setzer added. “Families can’t access basic household items in the way that they used to.”
To show what tangible steps it has taken, the White House on Thursday launched a dedicated webpage for the public to track progress on increasing formula supply.
The president has also launched a program dubbed “Operation Fly Formula” which has helped secure millions of additional bottles from Europe and Australia. Biden on Thursday tweeted his administration has gotten another 6.5 million bottles from Nestle, bringing the total coming to U.S. consumers from overseas to nearly 95 million.
But the messaging missteps threaten to overshadow much of that work, with Republicans prepared to portray Biden as out of the loop and late to respond to what formula executives knew would be a problem.
Jean-Pierre would not answer a question on Wednesday about whether Biden was frustrated or disappointed that he was not aware of the crisis until April. Instead, she repeatedly pointed to an FDA review of the handling of the Abbott facility closure and resulting shortages.
“FDA did their part here. But [the FDA commissioner] also admitted that they moved too slowly,” she said. “And once we saw that the supplies were not meeting the demand, we acted. We took urgent action.
“So, that is the way that it happened,” Jean-Pierre added. “That is the way the timeline was laid out. You may not like my answer, but that is the way we see it.”