Speaking of Bad Political Analysis

A recurring genre about presidents.

Source: The White House

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?

Berstein continues:

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.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. gVOR08 says:

    Another example of how FOX should be regarded as a legit news organization. After all, FOX criticizes Dems constantly without evidence, just like NYT, WAPO, NBC and the rest of the supposedly liberal MSM do.

    Once again, GOPs are better at “messaging” because they have the Kochtopus to define the message and enforce discipline and they have FOX as captive (are held captive by?) media. Ds have nothing comparable.

  2. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Ah, yes. If only there was a better message, I am sure that would solve the problems at hand!

    And yet, this is a theme that appears with great frequency among a group who think themselves to be more aware and more capable of commenting intelligently on this topic–our own commentariat.

  3. Lounsbury says:

    @gVOR08: So apparently there is nothing at all you can do, entirely Great Forces outside of your control and two magical actors on the Republican side to explain their comparative success.

  4. Gustopher says:

    But I am at a loss as to how “a more compelling message” solves inflation, Covid cases, or mass shootings.

    The Biden administration needs to be broadcasting its victories far and wide. Clearly, inflation, Covid cases and mass shootings aren’t among them, but there has to be something.

    (If there isn’t, that’s a problem and they need a team to look for small, achievable victories while the bulk of the administration pursues other, bigger things…)

    It looks like Biden is presiding over America backsliding into an earlier, less American incarnation of itself. “Slowing the rate of decay!” is not a winning message.

    Give us something to support rather than just some things to oppose ineffectively.

    On that note, Democrats should have a Contract With America type thing, to nationalize the midterms, with 10 popular proposals that will be voted on in the house and the senate (try to suspend the fillibuster for them, but we will probably lose the Senate so it’s a moot point).

  5. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Fair points if one assumes the purpose of the news is to inform people. Maybe in newsrooms of yesteryear…today newsrooms are profit centers that capture specific demographics and monetize that attention to sell ad time to companies that want to sell to that demographic.

    Our nonnegotiable ethos of commerce and entertainment above all will be our undoing.

  6. Raoul says:

    Everything here is well stated. I will add that some of the issues like inflation and COVID will eventually self-correct and it will have nothing to do with the WH. Such is the nature of politics and the dastardly way is covered by the press. I do wish Biden was better spoken but frankly a majority of the presidents in my lifetime have been inferior orators, however, in substance, I don’t think we have had a better president than Biden. Now on the fact that our polarized electorate will probably never give approval ratings barely over 50, it got me thinking that many Dems and independents would certainly approve of some type of Republican if they happen to exist (Bush 1?) and thus the approval would certainly grow higher, but maybe not, if some GOP politician was able to muster support from the other side, that alone would trigger the base. For what’s worth, Macron got re-elected with an approval rating in the 30s.

  7. Ken_L says:

    Here’s another way to express NBC’s “analysis”: Trump “flooded the zone with shit”, in accordance with Steve Bannon’s advice, and writers and editors at places like NBC happily let him control the 24 hour media cycle. Instead of reporting on the incompetence and corruption of the Trump Administration, they diligently transcibed his daily tweets and rants, persuading themselves Trump was a master of “messaging”.

    Biden is incapable of being equally entertaining, so frustrated media outlets have had to craft their own narratives. They settled early last year on This is Jimmy Carter’s second term and Republicans will take back the House in the mid-terms, and they’re doing everything they can to ensure their predictions come true.

    Because they miss Trump so badly it’s like an ache that never goes away.

  8. Ken_L says:

    @Gustopher: Biden can broadcast his achievements all he likes, but if writers and editors barely mention the astonishing recovery in employment, for example, because they’re running yet another story about desperate Americans groaning under the burden of intolerable inflation, his remarks will never be heard.

  9. Jay L Gischer says:

    I think if you are a professional political consultant – a pollster or a campaign manager – you are hired to make a difference, and you spend all your days trying to make a difference. You spend your time refining messages and targeting them. So the narrative that messages matter comes from them. However, they must know that this stuff doesn’t mean a lot. But of course, they have to say something colorful when the reporter calls, because getting quoted in a major outlet means you are big time and can charge higher rates.

    Yes, I’m feeling cynical this morning. Why did you ask?