When President Joe Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden hosted the Louisiana State University Tigers’ women’s basketball team at the White House this spring to celebrate their NCAA championship, he gave a passing shout-out to members of the Louisiana delegation seated in the audience.
Among them was Republican Rep. Mike Johnson.
There was no way for the president to know then that just five months later, that congressman – little-known to White House officials and most in Washington – would be elected House speaker. With his stunning ascension to the speakership, Johnson has now abruptly become a key figure for Biden and his top aides as they race to secure tens of billions of dollars in funding for Ukraine and Israel all while averting a government shutdown next month.
There is nothing resembling a robust working relationship between the new speaker and Biden – or his top advisers – sources told CNN. When Biden spoke with Johnson on the phone Wednesday afternoon, it appeared to be the two men’s first phone call. And while Johnson was listed as an attendee at this year’s congressional picnics hosted by the White House, it was not clear he and the president had ever had an extended conversation prior to Wednesday.
And unlike Biden’s relationship with Sen. Mitch McConnell – the top Senate Republican who, at 81 years old, is a contemporary of the president’s – there is a significant generational divide with Johnson. The congressman was less than a year old in 1972 when Biden was first elected to the US Senate. He is now second in line to the presidency.
A brief White House readout of Biden’s call with Johnson said that the president “expressed that he looks forward to working together to find common ground on behalf of the American people.”
As Biden aides scramble to establish a working relationship with Johnson and to find those areas of common ground, Biden’s campaign is seeking to capitalize on the vast chasm that already exists between the two.
A text blast to subscribers in the hours after Johnson took the gavel read: “MAGA Republicans put a guy who denied the 2020 election results in charge of the US House – a body that could ultimately decide the next election!” The text went on to instruct supporters to rush a $20 donation to Biden’s reelection effort.
Similarly, emails from the campaign labeled Johnson a “loyal foot soldier” of former President Donald Trump. In the statement, Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa warned Johnson would seek “to ban abortion nationwide, lead efforts to deny free and fair election results, gut Social Security and Medicare, and advance the extreme MAGA agenda at the expense of middle-class families.”
By contrast, Biden himself released a reasonably warm statement shortly after Johnson’s election, congratulating the new speaker and saying he was eager to work together.
“Even though we have real disagreements about important issues, there should be mutual effort to find common ground wherever we can,” the president wrote.
His statement even included compliments extended from the first lady, saying both of them congratulated Johnson on his elevation.
“As I said when this process began, whoever the Speaker is, I will seek to work with them in good faith on behalf of the American people,” the statement read.
Biden’s own statement said nothing about Johnson’s role in orchestrating attempts to overturn the 2020 election in Congress. Asked during a news conference earlier Wednesday whether he was concerned Johnson may attempt something similar in 2024, Biden appeared unworried.
“No, because he can’t,” Biden said in the Rose Garden.
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