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Wake Up To Politics - June 1, 2022

Wake Up To Politics: K-pop comes to the White House
Wake Up To Politics - June 1, 2022

by Gabe Fleisher

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, June 1, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 160 days away. Election Day 2024 is 888 days away.

Happy June! In today’s newsletter, I take you behind the scenes at the White House yesterday as President Biden and his aides sought to handle the fallout on a collection of hot-button issues — and also played host to a major K-pop group.

It was definitely one of the stranger days in recent White House history, so I want to give you an inside-the-room account that will give you a sense of what it was like to be there and how it connects to the broader political picture.

Before we jump in, thanks to the many readers who filled out the survey I included in Tuesday’s newsletter to give me feedback and help me plan future WUTP projects.

If you haven’t already and want to share your thoughts as well, please fill out the survey here!

Reporter’s Notebook: BTS visits a White House handling political “dynamite”

An army descended on the White House yesterday.

No, it wasn’t invading soldiers from China or from Russia. “ARMY” is what fans of the global K-pop sensation BTS, a mega-famous South Korean boy band, call themselves.

And there were hundreds of them outside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Tuesday, hoping for a glimpse of BTS as the group huddled with President Biden to discuss strategies to combat anti-Asian hate crimes.

“I’m really proud of them for coming all the way over here and raising their voices for good,” Riddhima Telugu Gubbala, an 18-year-old from Princeton County, Virginia, said of the K-pop group as she peered through the White House gates.

“They really inspire me to become a better person every day and I love their music,” she added, explaining that she first started listening to the band during the pandemic, “when everything was very dull, but they really brought me into a better place.”

What did Riddhima think of the throngs of fans who had gathered? “It’s really crazy,” she enthused. “There’s a lot of ‘armies’ here.”

Just some of the throngs of BTS fans gathered outside the White House on Tuesday. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

Inside the White House, the atmosphere was almost as crazed. The James S. Brady Briefing Room — where BTS was due to make an appearance at White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s daily Q&A — was packed with reporters and photographers, more than I had ever seen.

It was standing room only, as the already-cramped space transformed from a destination for political spin and policy talk to a venue hosting the current best-selling artists in the world. (BTS was streamed 4.7 billion times on Spotify in 2020, the same year Joe Biden got 81 million votes to become president.)

“Oh, God,” I heard one veteran reporter groan on his way in, muscling his way through the masses in order get to one of the briefing room’s 49 prized seats.

New York Times photographer Doug Mills, who has covered the White House since the Reagan era, told me it was “by far” the most crowded that the briefing room has been under Biden.

“This was a day that brought back memories of the Donald Trump days,” he said.

“It’s pretty quiet around here [during the Biden presidency],” he added. “But you bring a K-pop group in with the press secretary and the place blows up. I mean, it was packed in here.”

Reporters of all nationalities crowded into the briefing room to snap a photo of BTS. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

When the seven musicians arrived in the room, all outfitted in slim black suits, they each spoke briefly about Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month (which ended Tuesday) and the need to counter anti-Asian hate crimes.

“We were devastated by the recent surge of hate crimes, including Asian-American hate crimes,” Jimin, one of the group’s members, said through a translator. “To put a stop on this and support the cause, we’d like to take this opportunity to voice ourselves once again.”

“We still feel surprised that music created by South Korean artists reaches so many people around the world, transcending languages and cultural barriers,” Jungkook, another member, added. “We believe music is always an amazing and wonderful unifier of all things.”

For the Biden aides on hand, the brush with celebrity must have been a welcome distraction from a bruising array of headlines.

“I get to go home and tell my kids that BTS opened for me,” joked National Economic Council director Brian Deese, who also spoke at Tuesday’s briefing along with Jean-Pierre.

But, within minutes, it was back to reality: just after BTS filed out, the many Korean and Japanese journalists who had filled the aisles of the briefing room began packing up their equipment and shuffling out the door. (Lest you thought the “fangirling” was reserved for outside the building, as BTS left, one of the foreign journalists yelled out “BTS!” and the Korean word for “good luck!”)

As the White House livestream audience shrank back to normal from an unheard-of 300,000 viewers, conversation in the room returned to more-familiar territory: inflation, gun control, and the like.

The briefing room returned to normal capacity as soon as BTS was gone and Karine Jean-Pierre was back at the podium. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

To use language the BTS stans would recognize, both of those issues are political “dynamite” for the White House right now.

Biden’s team launched a new economic push on Tuesday (complete with a presidential op-ed in the Wall Street Journal), but it coincided with the release of a new Gallup poll that painted a gloomy picture of how Americans view the economy.

Only 14% of U.S. adults rated current economic conditions as “excellent” or “good” in the survey, compared to 46% who said “poor” and 49% who said “only fair.” As inflation continues to surge, Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index stood at its lowest point since the 2009 tail-end of the Great Recession.

Similarly, a Reuters/Ipsos poll from last week found that 49% of Americans lack confidence that their leaders will reform the nation’s gun laws at some point this year.

That’s despite Biden promising families in Uvalde that “we will” take action on guns, and despite his push for Americans to focus not on rising prices but plummeting unemployment. In politics, of course, such rhetoric matters little if the public refuses to buy it.

Hoping to combat those sentiments, the White House pointed its institutional finger Tuesday at a plethora of other targets.

When Fox News correspondent (and frequent Biden sparring partner) Pat Doocy asked Jean-Pierre if Biden takes “any responsibility for his policies potentially contributing to inflation,” she replied only: “His policies have helped the economy get back on its feet.”

Instead, she added, it’s “Putin’s gas hike,” and it’s Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell — who also met with Biden on Tuesday — who is charged with reversing it.

On guns, Jean-Pierre also stressed the limitations of Biden’s powers. “He’s going to leave it up to Congress” to take any further actions, she said. The same ritual went on — topic after topic, question after question — as she sought to pin a series of issues facing the country at others’ feet.

Karine Jean-Pierre sought to explain why several pressing issues were being unfairly blamed on President Biden. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

Back outside, though, inflation or gun policy seemed the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

As I walked out of the White House post-briefing with a handful of other reporters, we were greeted with screams: “Where are they?” “We want BTS!”

“You saw them already, we just want to be blessed too!” one girl yelled out.

I chatted with a group outside who became friends as they waited for five hours — in broiling 95-degree heat — hoping to see BTS emerge.

“I may have just met them, but we’re kind of like a family,” Esha Sharma, a 19-year-old from Fairfix County, Virginia, said about her fellow “armies.”

“It’s just great to see people that also support BTS. Because of the pandemic, we’ve been pretty closed in, and to just just see a group of people fangirling, it’s nice.”

“We all come from different backgrounds and different cities and stuff like that,” Kayla Oh, 18, of Montgomery County, Maryland, chimed in.

Indeed, the hundreds gathered outside the White House were a diverse crowd. Almost all were teenage girls of color — many of them Asian-American, but I interviewed fans born everywhere from Guatemala to Liberia.  

At one point, shrieks went up as a rumor spread that the band had been spotted on the other side of the building. Suddenly, the herd of fans was sprinting — a stampede unlike almost anything I’ve ever seen (and I’ve watched reporters in Iowa trample each other for a glimpse at Pete Buttigeg.)

That’s the type of devoted fanbase President Biden could use right about now.

As his poll numbers crater and midterm losses loom, Biden is apparently growing frustrated with his own staffers and feeling like “he just can’t catch a break,” according to new reporting from NBC News.

Still, as BTS would tell the president (and maybe they did in their closed-door Oval Office session): “Life goes on.”

A group of BTS fans who befriended each other while waiting outside the White House. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

More news you should know

— President Biden penned his second op-ed in as many days, this one an explanation of his Ukraine policy in the New York Times. In the piece, Biden announced that the U.S. will send advanced rocket systems to Kyiv — but only for use on the battlefield in Ukraine, not to return fire against Russia.

“We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders,” Biden wrote. “We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.”

— The Supreme Court blocked a Texas law banning social media platform from removing posts because of the political views they express, a major victory for tech companies.

The ruling was 5-4, with an unlikely coalition of justices dissenting: conservatives Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas, plus liberal Elena Kagan. However, Kagan did not join Alito’s dissent and did not offer the reasoning behind her stance.

A lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign was acquitted Tuesday of lying to the FBI about his motives for bringing a tip to the agency about Donald Trump to Russia. It marked a loss for special counsel John Durham in the first trial of his probe examining the origins of the Trump-Russia investigations.

Trump and other conservatives have long promoted Durham’s probe, and had hoped the trial of Michael Sussman, the Clinton lawyer, would provide ammunition for their claims of unfair treatment.

Justice Elena Kagan joined the Supreme Court’s conservatives in dissent on Tuesday. (Pete Souza / White House)

What’s going on in Washington today

All times Eastern.

President Biden: Starts the day off with his daily intelligence briefing (9:30 am).

  • Participates in a change of command ceremony, as Adm. Karl Schultz is relieved by Adm. Linda Fagan as Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard (11 am). Fagan will be the first woman to lead a branch of the U.S. armed forces.
  • Meets virtually with the CEOs of Gerber, Perrigo, Reckitt, and other baby formula manufacturers to discuss efforts to accelerate production amid the nationwide shortage (2:30 pm).

Vice President Harris: Delivers remarks to announce the Biden administration’s plan to “elevate water security as a foreign policy priority” (11:45 am).

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre: Holds her daily press briefing (3:30 pm).

Senate: Out until June 6.

House: Out until June 7.

Supreme Court: Nothing on tap today.

Links to watch for yourself: Biden at Coast Guard ceremonyBiden with baby formula CEOsHarris on water securityWhite House briefing

That’s it for today. If you enjoy Wake Up To Politics, it’s always appreciated if you donate to support the newsletter or buy some merch. Or if you tell your friends and family to sign up at wakeuptopolitics.com.

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.

Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe