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The White House has a new public engagement advisor. Here's her plan


President Biden promised to bring normalcy back to the White House. That has been an uphill battle with COVID's persistence, historic inflation and a country that is still very much divided. Last month, Biden brought Keisha Lance Bottoms to the White House as the senior adviser for public engagement. She came to national prominence as the mayor of Atlanta, leading her city through the early months of COVID.


KEISHA LANCE BOTTOMS: Thank you for having me. It's good to join you again.

SUMMERS: Glad you're here. So when it was announced that you were stepping into your new role, you said that you wanted to do more listening than anything else. Now you're a month in, what have you heard, and what are you most focused on?

LANCE BOTTOMS: Well, I can tell you I've described the last month as fast and furious. It's been so much to learn. And going into the White House, I don't think anybody can prepare you for the level of intensity in the White House. You have an extraordinarily talented group of people, many who have been doing this work for many years. So it's been important to listen to my colleagues, to understand the lay of the land and also beginning to engage with our stakeholders because the Office of Public Engagement has been described as the front door to the White House.

So in our office, we are engaging stakeholders in calls and Zooms and, now that the White House is opening back up, inviting people back onto the grounds of the White House. So it's been a very exciting month, and there's so much more to learn. My commitment to the president was to stay through the midterms. So there's a lot of work to be done between now and November, but I'm very excited about the role.

SUMMERS: All right. So I know it is early, but I want to ask you about that idea of being the front door to the White House because part of the job is about making sure that people feel like their voices and views are reflected and understood within the administration. Can you give us maybe one early example of how you feel like you've done that?

LANCE BOTTOMS: Certainly. The president made it very clear to me that he was as interested in information flowing from the White House as information coming into the White House. So I've had an opportunity to engage with a group of women, for example, who had written a letter to the president regarding Brittney Griner. We were able to have a Zoom call, discuss their concerns and also, you know, reflect the administration's position. And that's just one example.

And those type calls are happening every single day with our team, whether it's people in rural America that we are holding conference calls with or holding Zooms with the LGBTQ community, the list goes on. And it's the work of the White House that's often not seen, of course, on the nightly news or in a very general way by the public, but it really is a way to connect with people. And hopefully in connecting with people, these hundreds and thousands of people that we are connecting with, it's flowing back out into our communities.

SUMMERS: Before President Biden tested positive for COVID-19 this week, he had planned to go to Pennsylvania. And part of that trip he was going to promote a new plan that includes, among other things, plans to give funds to communities to hire and train 100,000 police officers over the course of five years. Help us understand the White House's thinking here. Why is that a priority now?

LANCE BOTTOMS: Well, what we know is that, especially over the course of the last two years coming out of COVID, there has been an uptick of crime in our country. And what we know - that this is historical. Crime goes up, and then it goes back down. And we are - have been in an upward cycle. So we know that as long as there is crime in our communities, we will need police officers in our communities. But also what's important about what the president is rolling out is that it's not just about putting officers on our streets. It's about holding officers accountable, making sure that cities and states have the resources they need so that officers can do the job that they have been sworn to do to serve and protect our communities.

But if - for example, if they encounter someone who's experiencing a mental health crisis, that funding is in place so that cities can have the right people on site to assess people and provide the resources they need. We know a lot of crime is driven by substance abuse, unfortunately. There's also funding for substance abuse. And also what we have seen is there is funding going towards some of these intervention projects...


LANCE BOTTOMS: ...That have made a tremendous difference in cities. And we have a great example in Atlanta that we were able to fund with AARP funding - a pilot project that's now being expanded throughout the city.

SUMMERS: You mentioned the midterms, so I do want to get to that. Voters nationwide have given President Biden a 36% job approval rating, according to our most recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. And polls also show that a majority of Americans say the country right now is not on the right track. Give us the view from the White House. To what do you attribute that?

LANCE BOTTOMS: Well, you know, with my role in the White House, I'm no longer on the political side. But I can just tell you, as a former elected official, that polls are a snapshot in time. So certainly, they are instructive to give you an idea of what people care about, but they really confirm what we know people care about right now. But they are a snapshot in time. So I know that the political side will address those concerns. The policies that are coming out of the White House are addressing the concerns of the American people. We know that people are concerned about the economy. They...


LANCE BOTTOMS: ...Are concerned about inflation. And then our cities, they are concerned about crimes. And that's why this Safer America Plan is so important.

SUMMERS: If I could just...

LANCE BOTTOMS: And we also...

SUMMERS: I could just jump in - if I could just jump in here quickly, though. Polls indeed are a snapshot in time. And I understand that you are not on the political side. But if people - this could also - is this a reflection - then a reflection of people who are not feeling heard? President Biden is also facing doubts within his own party. Roughly 75% of Democrats think he's doing a good job, which is low for a president's own party.

LANCE BOTTOMS: Well, I think what we all recognize is that the last few years have been rough on us as a country. We've faced this pandemic, this once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic that we have faced in America. So it's been a very uncertain time in our country. But what we do know is that President Biden has been spearheading policies that are making a difference. And the American Rescue Fund was a tremendous game-changer for cities across America. And that's a piece that I believe many people don't understand. Coming out of COVID, cities like Atlanta, cities across America didn't know how we were going to fill in the gaps with our operating budgets. We didn't know how we would pay for trash service and police protection and fire protection. This American Rescue Fund...

SUMMERS: All right.

LANCE BOTTOMS: ...Made the difference. So what that means is that we now - we have now been able to fill it...

SUMMERS: Unfortunately, we're going to have to leave it there. I'm so sorry to cut you off. We have been speaking to Keisha Lance Bottoms, senior adviser for public engagement at the White House. Thank you for your time.

LANCE BOTTOMS: Thank you. We'll continue next time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.