Asked repeatedly on Wednesday why he has failed to unite the country, President Biden took a foray into political science and media criticism, identifying the Republican Party’s lockstep fealty to the former guy as his biggest obstacle, along with the difficulty Americans have “trying to sift their way through what’s real and what’s fake.”
“I’ve never seen a time when the political coverage — the choice of what political coverage a voter looks to — has as much impact on as what they believe,” he said toward the end of a marathon press conference.
From the outset, the press corps’ agenda was clear. The intent of the first two questions was to humble Biden and force him to admit error.
The first question: “Did you overpromise to the American public what you could achieve in your first year in office?”
The second: “Do you need to be more realistic and scale down these priorities in order to get something passed?”
(University of Wisconsin political scientist Mark Copelovitch tweeted: “I struggle to recall a single DC journalist asking Donald Trump ‘Do you need to be more realistic?’ at any point in four years of performative public lying & malevolent incompetence. It’s a valid question, but the fact that it is only ever asked of one party tells you everything.”)
But Biden, whose overall message was that he had “outperformed” expectation and that things are looking up, made it clear that the reason he hasn’t accomplished more was a Republican Party that “will do anything to prevent my success.”
By contrast, the political press corps takes massive Republican obstruction for granted, and considers it un-newsworthy.
Biden had predicted during his campaign that Republicans would be in a more compromising mood with him as president. Instead, he found Republican members of Congress even more devoted to blocking legislation than they had been during the Obama administration.
“I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done,” he said.
Reporters consider that a “gotcha,” showing how naïve Biden was.
But Biden made the case that, historically, at least some Republicans were open to working with a Democratic president. “They weren’t nearly as obstructionist as they are now,” he said. These days, “we don’t have a single Republican vote.”
He wouldn’t name names, but Biden insisted:
I’ve had five Republican senators talk to me, ‘bump into me’ — quote, unquote — or sit with me, who’ve told me that they agree with whatever I’m talking about for them to do. ‘But, Joe, if I do it, I’m going to get defeated in a primary.’”
Think about this, Biden said:
Did you ever think that one man out of office could intimidate an entire party where they’re unwilling to take any vote contrary to what he thinks should be taken for fear of being defeated in a primary?….
Did any of you think that you’d get to a point where not a single Republican would diverge on a major issue? Not one?
Biden later added: “I don’t know how we can’t look at what happened on January 6th and think, ‘That’s — that’s a problem. That’s a real problem.’”
You could sense that Biden’s finger-pointing wasn’t going over very well with the reporters in attendance. And you could literally read how it was going over with their editors.
Rachel Van Dongen, a political editor at the Washington Post and a former senior editor at Politico, tweeted early on:
Biden is doing a lot of blame-splaining directed at Mitch McConnell, when Dems at this point are more responsible for tanking his agenda.
The q is whether voters will buy it.
— Rachel Van Dongen (@RachelVanD) January 19, 2022
When the tweet went viral, the reaction was brutal. Here’s Norm Ornstein, a longtime political observer of note:
Right, because unified GOP opposition on confirmations and the overwhelming majority of items on the substantive agenda, along with McConnell saying directly that he’s 100% behind blocking the entire Biden agenda, means nothing in comparison to two Democrats in the Senate. Oy https://t.co/vqgoXy8AIj
— Norman Ornstein (@NormOrnstein) January 19, 2022
In the second hour of the press conference, Biden was asked perhaps the most “inside Washington” question I’ve heard in a long time, by Yahoo News reporter Alexander Nazaryan:
Q. There’s an increasing concern, I think among some Democrats, that even if schools do continue to open — and I get that most of them are now open — Republicans will weaponize this narrative of you — of you and other leading Democrats allowing them to stay closed in the midterms next year and that — you know, obviously, that issue has a lot of traction with suburban parents, as I think you saw in Virginia —
THE PRESIDENT: What do you mean “allowing”? I’m confused by the question. I’m sorry.
Q Well, that — could school reopenings or closures become a potent midterm issue for Republicans to win back the suburbs?
In other words: What do you do when Republicans find themselves a very effective lie and go to town with it?
That’s more a question for political journalists than for Biden. But it elicited a fascinating, if rambling, response that included some astute press criticism.
He said voters “get reinforced in their views, whether it’s MSNBC or whether it’s Fox or whatever.” As a result, “we have self-identified perspectives based on what channel you turn on… what cable you look at. And it’s — it’s never quite been like that.”
He talked about the public’s struggle to distinguish between what’s true and what’s not true. And he expressed optimism that voters will eventually distinguish between the two – something I have often said ought to be the top job for political journalists:
Maybe I’m kidding myself, but as time goes on, the voter who is just trying to figure out, as I said, how to take care of their family, put three squares on the table, stay safe, able to pay their mortgage or their rent, et cetera, has — is becoming much more informed on the motives of some of the political players and some of the — and the political parties. And I think that they are not going to be as susceptible to believing some of the outlandish things that have been said and continue to be said.
Biden’s biggest new talking point consisted of asking over and over what the Republican Party affirmatively supports, rather than what it opposes. He challenged the people in the room to answer: “What are Republicans for? What are they for? Name me one thing they’re for.”
As it happens, that’s something I’ve been encouraging reporters to dig into since December. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has made no secret of his belief that the best way for Republicans to win back Congress in the 2022 midterms is to not tell voters what they stand for. (He said it again on Wednesday.) I think if Republicans themselves won’t tell the voters their plans, then it’s incumbent on political journalists to do so – assuming there are plans at all.
There are a number of dangers facing the country — some of them downright existential — and Biden is right that there are no clear affirmative positions from Republicans about how they would face them.
What’s Mitch for? What’s he for on immigration? What’s he for? What’s he proposing to make anything better? What’s he for dealing with Russia that’s different than I’m proposing and many of his Republican friends or his colleagues are supporting as well?
The American public is outraged about the tax structure we have in America. What are they proposing to do about it? Anything? Have you heard anything? I mean, anything. I haven’t heard anything.
The American public is outraged about the fact that we’re the — the state of the environment — the vast majority of the public. What have they done to do anything to ameliorate the climate change that’s occurring, other than to deny it exists?
There were several solid and important – if sometimes goading — questions from the assembled press corps about the tense situation in Ukraine.
But overall — even if you factor out the ludicrous questions from right-wing disinformation outlets — the mainstream political reporters once again seemed out of touch with the times, overly focused on getting Biden to admit he’s a failure, rather than on how we solve the many problems ahead.