This emerging 2024 political narrative is a distraction from the real drama

White House night and day

A common narrative has emerged in the coverage of the 2024 presidential election. It’s that both candidates are flawed; that even Democrats are worried about Joe Biden’s age and even Republicans are worried about Donald Trump’s derangement.

Maybe neither of them should be in the running, this narrative suggests. After all, according to an NBCNews poll in April, 70 percent of respondents said Biden should not run, including just over half of Democrats, while 60 percent of respondents said the same of Trump, including a third of Republicans.

It’s a catchy both-sides narrative, making it irresistible to the hacks who dominate American political reporting.

But it’s also journalistic malpractice.

That’s because a Trump-Biden contest is still by far the most likely scenario for 2024, and the stakes will make it vastly too important to just be a popularity contest.

It will be the most significant referendum on democracy and the American future since, well, the last one.

Trump and Biden represent wildly conflicting visions of America, with those differences dwarfing the failings of either candidate.

Will the United State of the future be a true democracy, celebrating pluralism, with an aggressively proactive federal government?

Or will it be an increasingly white Christian nationalist state with a dictatorial leader, where policy is auctioned off to powerful right-wing corporations?

That’s a big deal. That’s the real drama. (And it’s the same drama whether Trump or Ron DeSantis are the Republican nominee.)

That’s what political reporters should be warning the public about ceaselessly.

And yet they seem largely uninterested.

What They Write About Instead

The polls they field and the headline they run are about approval ratings and personal defects, like “Biden faces broad negative ratings at start of campaign, Post-ABC poll finds,” with a lead byline for Dan Balz, the hoary hack who should have retired years ago. The story goes:

His overall approval ratings have slipped to a new low, more Americans than not doubt his mental acuity, and his support against leading Republican challengers is far shakier than at this point four years ago.

When our top political journalists talk to voters, they don’t ask whether they want a democracy or an autocracy, they ask about perceptions of the two men.

Case in point, Washington Post reporters Danielle Paquette and Sabrina Rodriguez traveled to Door County, Wisc. one of only nine counties across the country that have backed the presidential winner in every election since 2000. Then they wrote:

In interviews this spring, 18 months before the 2024 election, residents across the political spectrum said they harbored doubts about the front-runners. Democrats expressed concerns about President Biden’s age and his handling of the rising prices of everyday goods. Republicans, irked by former president Donald Trump’s erratic behavior, said they desired a more even-keeled candidate.

These sentiments squared with the latest national survey from Marquette Law School, which found that although Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) had slight leads over Biden, more Americans held negative than positive views of all three candidates, and most Democrats said they didn’t want to see Biden run again.

When the reporters did address actual policy issues, it was as quickly as possible — thereby favoring Republican positions, which tend to be pithy, fear-inducing talking points about dramatic action (close the border! Drill! Put ’em all in prison!) over Democratic solutions, which tend to be wonky and complicated.

In Door County, for instance, residents told the Post reporters of their concerns about a persistent labor shortage, an affordable-housing crunch, and “demographic change” in their county. But the reporters didn’t remotely address the causes, the costs, and the benefits, or which candidate might in reality be best equipped to address those issues. Instead, they wrote:

Conservatives said inflation and border security have worsened under Biden, asserting that unvetted outsiders could bring drugs and violence. Liberals said the administration hasn’t done enough to create legal pathways for migrants to work in the United States, stifling opportunity and industry.

There was no mention, say, of how Wisconsin’s economy has thrived under Biden. In Door County specifically, employment was up 6 percent from 2020 to 2022, while annual wages increased 10 percent, from $39,079 to $42,908.

Age-Old Obsession

Recent Trump coverage has understandably focused on his indictment and arrest on federal criminal charges, with much of it either implicitly or explicitly raising the issue of whether his apparent crimes will or should take him out of the running. There’s been very little about the crazy things he says he’ll do if he wins in 2024. (A rare exception: The Thursday New York Times article about how “a second Trump term would fully jettison the post-Watergate norm of Justice Department independence.” Bravo!)

But at a point when reporters should be focusing on Biden’s surprising record of achievements — and reporting on whether they’ve been effective or not — they continue to obsess on his age.

The pinnacle of this obsession appeared in the New York Times in early June, headlined “Inside the Complicated Reality of Being America’s Oldest President.” (“Inside” being the clickbait word of the moment, even when there is nothing remotely inside about anything.)

Star reporter and quintessential political hack Peter Baker and three other Times reporters wrote that Biden’s decision to run for reelection is “drawing more attention to an issue that polls show troubles most Americans and is the source of enormous anxiety among party leaders.”

Biden “shuffled stiffly,” he “tripped over a sandbag,” he “looks older than he used to because of his stiff gait and thinning voice,” they wrote.

And consider this line:

During a recent New York Times focus group, several voters who supported Mr. Biden in 2020 expressed worry, with one saying: “I’ve just seen the blank stare at times, when he’s either giving a speech or addressing a crowd. It seems like he loses his train of thought.”

That New York Times focus group was not the work of the news department. It was done over on the opinion side. And the person who chose the members and led the discussion was Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican strategist and pollster. Among the questions she asked: “If you had to describe Joe Biden as an animal, what animal would you pick?”


Either it’s the press, not the public, that’s obsessed with age and character, in which case shame on the press.

Or the public truly doesn’t care as much about what kind of country we should be as they do about age and character — in which case the press has failed to explain the stakes.

Either way, the press loses, and we lose.


  1. “Will the United State of the future be a true democracy, celebrating pluralism, with an aggressively proactive federal government?

    Or will it be an increasingly white Christian nationalist state with a dictatorial leader, where policy is auctioned off to powerful right-wing corporations?”

    Here’s my problem with your take, Dan: the first option above is NOT on the ballot with Biden – how is it in any way “true democracy” when all we voters get is a choice between policy auctioned off to powerful right-wing corporations or powerful centrist corporations? There is no candidate available for the majority of Americans who would like to see a party that represents the public, rather than corporate interests. But we only get to choose from the extremely limited menu given us by those corporate-owned parties, which will give us candidates that the majority dislikes (which seems to be increasingly the norm over the election cycles I can recall). The Democrats have already decided they won’t allow any debates – this is the party defending “true democracy”? Seems more like they just want us to ratify their further corporate-friendly centrism, rather than offering any real democracy, or we’d have more of a say over what’s on the menu, not just choosing from the two evils we’re being told to choose the lesser of.

  2. Yes, the media oligarchs seem to be quite fine with their Republican autocrat buddies ending our democracy.

    Workers in democracies demand rights, and oligarchs are getting tired of it.

  3. Our political journalists and pundits act as if Trump isn’t old and mentally unsound. He is in worse physical and mental shape than Biden— obese, bad diet, bad sleep habits, little exercise and a higher risk of Alzheimer’s because his father had it. Then there is the little problem of him being a malignant narcissist and pathological liar. However he entertains them and that seems to be what counts in DC political media circles.
    Now they are excoriating Kamala Harris, while ignoring the substance of what she has been doing. I saw almost no coverage of her very successful trips to India and several African countries but I have seen a lot of coverage that portrays her as silly, giggling, inarticulate, etc. Maybe she is as inept as the media claims but given their disparaging treatment of Hillary I am highly suspicious of the framing of Harris. I think it is motivated by their desire to increase voters fear of Biden’s dying in office. It is becoming more and more obvious that they have decided that Biden has no business running again and are trying to push voters into rejecting him. Contrary to what they claim, they are anything but objective.
    Those voters in Door County might have a different response if our mainstream “liberal” media had bothered to inform them that under Biden the US economy has recovered from the Covid recession and is now much stronger than other advanced countries and with lower inflation than many, if not most of them.
    I wish we could sue for journalistic malpractice.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.