Speaking of Bad Political Analysis
A recurring genre about presidents.
Yesterday, I griped about election coverage, today it’s about coverage of the executive.
So, last week I noticed this NBC News headline: “Inside a Biden White House adrift.” My brain immediately focused on “adrift” because it is the kind of clichéd word one often sees when reporters want to argue that a given president’s numbers are down because of some organizational problem inside the White House. It is in the same genre, in my mind, as “Democrats in disarray” insofar as it all assumes that if politicians were just better organized, gosh darn it, they would be more effective. It is, indeed, after a fashion a version of Green Lanterism.
This entire genre of writing, in fact, assumes that presidents can control their approval ratings if they would just try harder or smarter. But, of course, approval ratings are about current conditions, which are frequently well outside the influence of a given occupant of the White House (not to mention the whole polarization issue, which almost certainly caps presidents these days at just over 50% approval anyway).
Before I continue, please note my critique is not that NBC News is being mean to the Biden administration (I mean, have at to their hearts’ content if they want). My concern is that media narratives are lazy and, worse, do not provide a proper understanding to the public as to why things work or don’t, in Washington (and it is a long-standing problem). This approach is just another in a long line of bad narratives that ultimately make us collectively dumber, not smarter, about our government.
Indeed, the first paragraph underscores one of my ongoing gripes about discussions of American politics (emphasis mine):
Faced with a worsening political predicament, President Joe Biden is pressing aides for a more compelling message and a sharper strategy while bristling at how they’ve tried to stifle the plain-speaking persona that has long been one of his most potent assets.
Ah, yes. If only there was a better message, I am sure that would solve the problems at hand!
What problems, you ask? Well, the story tells us.
Crises have piled up in ways that have at times made the Biden White House look flat-footed: record inflation, high gas prices, a rise in Covid case numbers — and now a Texas school massacre that is one more horrific reminder that he has been unable to get Congress to pass legislation to curb gun violence. Democratic leaders are at a loss about how he can revive his prospects by November, when midterm elections may cost his party control of Congress.
These are all real problems, and I am not at all saying that Biden and his staff shouldn’t be doing what they can to address them. But I am at a loss as to how “a more compelling message” solves inflation, Covid cases, or mass shootings.
If only it were so simple!
I would further note, that we have known that the Democrats’ prospects in November 2022 were dire before Biden took office (see, for example). The idea that “a more compelling message” solved all of that is more than silly.
And look, as I often note, I am not saying that they should be trying to hone their message and strategy. But the idea that a) that’s the main problem, or that b) the Biden administration is “adrift” on messaging is just not true (he was pretty clear on guns after Uvalde, but those words crashed against the bulwark of anti-gun regulation in the Congress–so clarity of message is not the issue here, now is it?).
NBC News’ kind of narrative simply puts the focus on one individual, the president, and assumes that if they would just, you know, president harder, we wouldn’t be in this mess. I would note that such a narrative helps promote authoritarian thinking in the population. It is what leads people like Donald Trump to make assertions like “I alone can fix it” and, worse, for some people to believe him.
Without any doubt, we constantly talk like a change in control of the White House ought to produce a more profound effect than it ever can accomplish. Worse, the more we think that it should, the more we want Presidents to act unilaterally. You know, to dictate outcomes.
Further, if you read the article, the evidence of some major problem in the Biden administration is, well, scant. There are multiple descriptions of Biden as “annoyed” or “frustrated” and the like–which stands to reason given, oh, I don’t know, gas prices, global inflation, a war in Ukraine, several mass shootings in the last couple of weeks, and the like.
I will confess to being more than a bit frustrated myself.
All this leads to this gem of a paragraph:
Biden’s angst is rippling through the party. Democratic lawmakers are sparring among themselves and blaming the White House for their dim prospects in November.
Again, we have known that Democrats likely had dim prospects for November of 2022 ever since November 2020 when Biden was declared the winner of the election. The basic cycle is pretty strong. Somehow I don’t think it is because POTUS is feeling angsty, let alone because his “angst is rippling through the party.” (I mean, the more I read that line, the more ludicrous it sounds).
The article really doesn’t have much evidence of drift, but instead notes the aforementioned frustrations and some talk of perfectly normal potential staff changes.
As Jonathan Bernstein addressed all of this in his column at Bloomberg:
In a predictable sequence, just after President Joe Biden’s approval rating fell below where Donald Trump’s had been four years ago, we get a story from NBC News about problems in a White House described as “adrift.” Political scientist Brendan Nyhan nails it: “Versions of this story are written about literally every modern president facing a bad economy or other challenges — they’re frustrated with in-fighting and want a more effective message. (Hint: Lower inflation and less COVID would fix most of these problems.)”
All of this raises the question of why Biden doesn’t just go down into the basement of the White House and pull the “inflation” lever a few degrees in the right direction. Amiright?
The Biden version of this story stands out, in fact, by how little disarray the reporters can conjure up. The biggest identified failure is that the White House and the Food and Drug Administration were slow to act — and to alert the president — about the baby-formula shortage. That seems an accurate assessment, and one can argue that the administration moved too slowly on a few other issues as well. Still, that doesn’t really add up to NBC’s accusation of “management breakdowns.” Nor is it a management breakdown when Biden shoots off his mouth and his staff walks it back. That’s just how things normally work in the presidency.
Again, to be clear, it is more than likely that the Biden administration could be better. Indeed, as I like to say, better is always better. But the laziness of these kinds of stories is profound and they are profoundly important. More importantly, I really do think that they contribute both to increased levels of authoritarian thinking in the populace while also helping to paper over the representativeness problem that is a key cause of lack of action in a host of policy areas.