Biden’s Confidence Man
A little-known Biden official, Amos Hochstein, is increasingly the face of the administration at moments of greatest peril.
The most famous, possibly apocryphal quotation of the Bush 43 years concerned the nature of reality. In a now-notorious article in the New York Times by Ron Suskind, the journo relayed a scene, a dispute, at the White House in 2004:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." [...] "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Years on, Karl Rove would deny he was the source, or that such an exchange ever took place. Perhaps most prominently, the wiseman of the GOP establishment (as Washington Examiner’s David Drucker put it, “such as it is”) has quarreled with indie royalty band The National for featuring the quote in their 2017 offering, Sleep Well Beast. We live in the eternal 2000s.
Evidence enough of that was a recently reported email exchange between top American and Saudi officials. Energy teniente Amos Hochstein took the Kingdom to task over production hikes, or lack thereof, putatively promised in Biden’s mortifying hat-in-hand trip to the country over the summer. Hochstein told the Saudis they had broken their word. (The position of Mohammad bin Salman and his increasingly interesting arc—from bipartisan, Silicon Valley darling to international untouchable to Republican-partial knife-fighter poised to win big if he’s on the winning team in 2024—is redolent of Benjamin Netanyahu’s in 2015. But his is a story for another day.)
Who is this Hochstein? If you've never been in a Washington green room you likely don't even know the name. In an era when Jen Psaki and Karine Jean-Pierre are well-known commodities (or liabilities) to a flagging administration, who is this spin doctor endowed with the authority to call America’s partner in petroleum a lying pack of hyenas?
In her long-forthcoming treatment of the 45th president, Maggie Haberman labels Donald Trump’s life story as that of a Confidence Man. It’s a good way of explaining Hochstein’s role with President Joe Biden: the face of the administration in crisis (check out CNBC when you particularly wince at the pump); the behind-the-scenes confidante; the up-and-comer endowed with the credibility to threaten another country on behalf of the commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces.
Hochstein, officially a “Special Presidential Coordinator” (sounds like my job at TAC), has been with Biden since way back. More precisely, though no gentile (he served in the IDF), Hochstein has been a key aide to a whole cast of liberal, Irish Catholic, Silent Generation senators from the Northeast who now seem from another time: John Kerry, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden. Hochstein even served as deputy campaign manager to the sad-sack affair that was Dodd 2008, in which the Connecticuter moved, including his young daughter, to Iowa to finish in sixth place. Dodd and Biden dropped out of that race the same day.
For Hochstein, who subsequently made nice dosh in the private sector and played with the heavies in the State Department, it was a lesson in stopping losing. Hochstein’s natty gas background is something of a liability on the left, but, as it turns out, amid an energy shock, it pays to be the most credentialed man in the room on a given subject.
Below the surface, or now above surface in the City of Angels, the demographic tensions that define the modern Democratic map to power loom large. Who fronts this administration, that of the oldest-ever president: the more ethnically varied and more often female younger generation? A former senior Trump administration official once described to me the incoming Biden team as a layer cake: an older white guy in high command at the top, hidden from public view, and his team deathly afraid of its more, say, Red Guard subordinates who marched them into power.
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That’s how James Carden reported on the Biden inner sanctum for Asia Times earlier this year: that it is ruled, officially, by figures even most news junkies have only passing familiarity with: “During Reagan’s first term, that job fell to what was called ‘the Troika’, which consisted of chief of staff James Baker, counselor to the president Ed Meese and deputy chief of staff Mike Deaver.… So, if Reagan’s first term was dominated by the Troika, the White House of Joe Biden, an ardent Catholic, might be said to be dominated by three Cardinals: White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, counselor to the president Steve Ricchetti and deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed.”
The president is arguably the only holder of this office to win a general election after, for “once in a century” reasons, moving left after winning the Democratic nomination. In Bloomberg, Jonathan Bernstein says the Democratic Party needs an answer from him on a re-election effort, ASAP: “If the sitting president waits any longer to declare his intentions, he risks doing serious harm to his party’s chances.” Given that we may well be marching into a crimson autumn, it raises the question: can Biden—who turns eighty next month, potentially very grimly after an early November defeat—even reboot?
If he can't, is there some centrist future in the offing, one with empowered “Cardinals” and figures such as Hochstein further amplified? But there is every reason to believe this is not a re-run of 1994, with Bill Clinton, or 2010, with Barack Obama. There is always a price for power.