September 18, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The press corps is probably Biden’s biggest challenge
Lots of people don’t know what he’s done with the economy.
I think Joe Biden’s greatest challenge to getting reelected probably comes from the press corps. It’s not that newspeople are biased. It’s that they see everything through the lens of winning and losing. They don’t see what the president has achieved with the economy. Even when they do, it’s beside the point.
That’s a problem for an incumbent whose sales pitch is that he’s just here to get things done for the American people. Newspeople may give glancing attention to his stewardship of the economy, but then only to pivot to how that’s going to help him, or hurt him, in an election year.
I suspect that a consequence of this is that lots of normal people don’t know what the president has accomplished. They know that he has problems. They don’t know what he’s done about theirs. Fears of recession appear to have faded. Prices seem to be falling, or at least easing up. The US economy is adding jobs at a record clip, growing “at a 2.1 percent annualized rate last quarter,” according to Reuters, “while the 3.8 percent unemployment rate is just above decades-low levels.”
But polling finds that majorities remain unsatisfied.
There is always a “narrative” about elections. Newspeople search for one if none is evident. There is no “narrative” about problems we all share. No one searches for one. It’s no wonder that so many people think they’re being ignored. They are.
Sure, that may be because things are still rough out there for a lot of normal people. Interest rates are uncomfortably high. The price of food and fuel is monstrous, rivaled only by the cost of housing. The end of emergency assistance during the pandemic, which brought millions of children out of poverty, is no doubt felt. Or it may be because of the Republicans’ never-ending assault on the rule of law and democracy.
But it also may be because normal people don’t know what the president has accomplished – and why would they know? The Washington press corps spends much, much more time talking about the political challenge of getting reelected than on the economic challenges that are facing normal people. There is always a “narrative” about elections. Newspeople search for one if none is evident. There is no “narrative” about problems we all share. No one searches for one. It’s no wonder that so many people think they’re being ignored. They are.
Even when the news is transparently good, it’s thrown into doubt. August was the 31st straight month of job growth. Wages have been rising with that. (They rose by 4.6 percent from June 2022 to June 2023. By July, wages were rising faster than the rate of inflation, according to Axios.) But after initial reporting on the monthly government report, the story kept developing, becoming one that asked if this historic level of employment would affect the outcome of the election. Suddenly, the story wasn’t about the people. It was about the president. Again.
Most people most of the time still get most of their information about politics from traditional sources. When they choose to interpret everything – you know it’s everything – through the lens of winning and losing, politics becomes so abstract as to be irrelevant. It shouldn’t be surprising that some polling finds that lots of normal people, majorities even, think that Biden is “just as political” as Donald Trump.
Biden is political, of course, maybe “just as political.” But while Donald Trump’s political self-interest begins and ends with Donald Trump, the president’s doesn’t. For better or worse, he’s trying to address systemic economic problems that have beleaguered the country for decades, such as the offshoring of jobs and climate change. (And he’s doing it, by the way, with a divided Congress.) If the reward for such effort is reelection, so be it. That’s the kind of politics Americans should want. But that kind of politics gets mixed up with the toxic kind when newspeople see everything through the lens of winning and losing.
There’s probably nothing Biden can do to change how newspeople talk about politics. They are professionally interested in getting attention. They are politically interested in denying that they are any such thing professionally. But the president can influence what they talk about, and in the process, hopefully bend attention away from politics as a cynical game of one-upmanship among elites and toward politics as a process by which normal people solve their collective problems.
In July, Biden started using the term “Bidenomics” to characterize a vision of the economy that calls for greater investment in domestic manufacturing and infrastructure, for increasing corporate competition to lower consumer prices, and for rebuilding and growing the middle class. He said that “Bidenomics” is a “fundamental break with the economic theory that has failed Americans for the last four decades now. The trickle-down failed the middle class.”
Last week, he gave the old “trickle-down economics” a new name: “maganomics.” He linked the term, which is derived from the acronym for Trump’s campaign slogan (“Make America Great Again”), to House Republican threats to shut the government down if he doesn’t agree to cuts. “For all the time they spend attacking me and my plan, they never talk about what they want to do,” Biden said. “Their plan — maganomics — is more extreme than anything Americans have seen before.”
Like I said, there’s probably nothing he can do to change how newspeople talk about politics as if it were a game with no stakes for normal people, only for presidents and other elites. But he can give them something to chew on (and for his liberal defenders to defend). So even as they report that he’s frustrated by the lack of credit being given to him for his remarkable stewardship of the US economy, they are repeating a framing of the “narrative” that puts him in a favorable light.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.