Media: Stop with Biden’s Polls! Democrats: Start Defending the President!
Popularity polls rule! Meanwhile, American Democracy founders….
Recent headlines for President Joe Biden trumpet nothing but bad news: his sinking polls.
“The Pessimistic Electorate Behind Biden’s Approval Ratings,” the title of a New York Times analysis, opens with: “What is dragging down President Biden’s approval rating? Everyone. And everything.” Including young people: Biden is now “underwater” with the youth vote, per Politico. Every action of Mr. Biden is sifted, not for substance, but for impact as measured in the teensiest sliver of the historic 159 million who voted in the 2020 presidential election. It gets absurd with this Politico Playbook headline: “No BIF Bump for Biden,” referencing passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill, a truly historic package that eventually will benefit every American in the land, but is assessed for now, in the media, for its “bump” factor.
These headlines come augmented with machinery measuring every fluctuation in Mr. Biden’s popularity. See: Reuters Graphics providing a “Biden approval polling tracker.” The Economist brings its usual detailed scrutiny to a similar tracker, “How Popular is Joe Biden?” Media polling operations — Washington Post/ABC, NPR/Marist, USA TODAY/Suffolk, etc. — bombard us with new polls, not just weekly, but now daily. Times columnist Jamelle Bouie calls this “thermostatic public opinion.”
Plus, there’s the knock-on effect of these polls, which the media go after in hot pursuit: How Biden’s unpopularity assuredly seals the fate of his fellow Democrats in the upcoming 2022 midterms. Already we hear, based on polling, a red “tsunami” will erase anything blue on the political map (“Democrats Shouldn’t Panic. They Should Go into Shock”); already we hear the implications of this tsunami, painting all manner of Chaos….
Enough. Let us remember: We’re still in Year One (11th month) of Mr. Biden’s four-year tenure. Granted, Year One is historically the best time for a President to sow and harvest a program, but right now the media are writing Mr. Biden’s political obituary. Let’s also remember: Polls have proven notoriously unreliable as indicators of anything. Granted, we have gotten used to polls during campaign season (in the runup to elections, I check the array of polls at RealClearPolitics daily). But it’s lunacy to leap from one campaign directly into the next — not only 2022 but 2024 is being teed up by the media — with only minimal attention given to governing. It leaves John Q. Public feeling like Charlie Chaplin’s factory worker in Modern Times, dragged through the cogs.
This is not to say the media are remiss in all things: Has investigative reporting ever been better? See: The Washington Post’s stunning account of the Jan. 6 insurrection, with 75 reporters on the story (also here). Opinion commentary now reflects much better the diversity and dynamism of modern-day America. But, in the main, polls — reporting who’s ahead and who’s trailing in a notional horse race — set the dominant tone of political news at this moment. Better if the focus were, for one thing, on the Jan. 6 insurrection and the House select committee investigating it.
Playwright Arthur Miller, creator of the classic American plays Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, in his brilliant prose primer On Politics and the Art of Acting, pinpoints the media’s problem: Politicians, whether democratic or autocratic, must “act” to win over their following. “It is not news that we are moved more by our glandular reactions to a leader’s personality, his acting, than by his proposals or by his moral character.” In America, those running for the highest office must come across as “a regular fella,” thus they must run against Washington, meaning: They must run against themselves. “There is a name for this sort of cannonading of Washington; it is called acting.” The trap for the media is: getting captured by the act. “The American press is made up of disguised theater critics; substance counts for next to nothing compared with style and inventive characterization.”
The danger in this candidate play-acting, and in theater criticism passing as political reporting, is that Truth (my caps) and the candidate’s true conception of the exercise of Power (again my caps), are nearly impossible to discern. Yet, says Miller: “[D]emocracy’s future depends…on how well we recognize and control them” — the candidates’ true conception of Truth and Power. This is especially so for the American President, whose election “may mean a new direction for the country and a threat or reassurance to business and government” around the world. Of that “threat,” we had a four-alarm warning with four years of Donald J. Trump.
And while this “threat” (Trump), rather than bowing out, instead gathers momentum — his “Stop the Steal” virus of an idea now infects most on the right, with some in lock-and-load readiness to use violence to regain power (also here) — the focus remains on…Biden’s popularity? Really?
What a shame, because this is no way to run a democracy — the historically unique form of government operated by and for The People. Yes, our Presidents are elected by popular vote (with heavy influence exerted by the Electoral College). And, yes, We the People want to keep on voting, as it were, by airing our opinions of our electeds. But incessant temperature-taking benefits only a patient in an intensive care unit, not a President. Certainly not a President of a seriously wounded democracy.
And: It is none other than our 46th President of the United States, Joseph R. Biden, who understands, profoundly, how seriously wounded is our American Democracy (also here, here, and here). All along, from the campaign trail to his Inaugural Address to his White House press conferences, Pres. Biden has assessed and maintained throughout, rightly I believe, that the great struggle of our times, the one that will determine if America can reverse her decline, is the one between democracy and not-democracy: that is, autocracy, dictatorship, strongman rule.
Rather than throw up my hands here and cry, What a shame Pres. Biden is not piercing through the noise about his sinking polls and setting the agenda, I have to say: My fellow Democrats, snap out of it! Defend President Biden! Because: His achievements are many and they directly benefit We the People, not just the 1% — the $2 trillion CARES Act package to relieve damages inflicted by COVID-19; the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Act to rebuild bridges, roads, railways, ports; and, now teeing up, the TBD-trillion-dollar Build Back Better package to address social infrastructure. What is not to love and defend here? The conundrum of Biden’s popular programs versus his own unpopularity might resolve with a more vigorous defense of the former.
Yes, Pres. Biden stumbled badly, even shamefully, in the U.S. exit from Afghanistan (I was a critic). But the American public had long wanted to exit and, accordingly, Mr. Biden executed, albeit badly. Americans believe in redemption; let us redeem ourselves with the world.
In all this Event (as the poet would put it), through the good and the bad, where have Mr. Biden’s defenders been? Any hands? I see Nancy Pelosi’s, but who else in the Congress? Politicians theoretically know how to organize, so where is the phalanx of defenders organized on Mr. Biden’s behalf? As former MSNBC talk-show host Chris Matthews lamented about the dearth of Pres. Barack Obama’s defenders when he met up with the Republicans’ Wall of No: “Where are the President’s lieutenants?”
These of course are Democratic presidents, whose party is, compared to Republicans — let’s be honest — inept at fighting, defending, arguing. After all, politics is all about achieving power and, once achieved, organizing to keep power. Instead, on Capitol Hill we see Democratic in-fighting, even show-boating. Yes, there is lots to hash out between the wings of the party, between moderates and progressives. But can not this hashing-out be done with some recognition of the peril American Democracy is in? If you are engaged in in-fighting, you are, positionally, not minding the peril outside — that peril of which Pres. Biden is keenly aware.
And now Pres. Biden is being blamed by Republicans for yet another COVID surge, as the Delta variant segues to the more virulent Omicron. Playing political tag, The Wall Street Journal, lead conservative paper, editorializes that Biden now owns the pandemic. Well of course the right would off-load its blame. But where’s the phalanx of Democrats, in Congress and in the body politic, pushing back at this unjust tag? It was “Pres.” Trump (scare-quotes for a fake president) who, in “managing” the federal response, single-handedly turned Can-Do Nation into Can’t-Do. Yes, Trump launched the initiative to develop a vaccine, but now it’s the vaccine-defying right who single-handedly is prolonging this deadly crisis. Yet, as a Times headline reads, “GOP Fights COVID Mandates, Then Blames Biden as Cases Rise”: Neat. And now we learn Trump, knowing he’d tested positive for COVID, met with Gold Star families, then blamed these grieving people when he was hospitalized! Where is the moral outrage? Where is the hay-making at the GOP’s expense? Do Dems not know how to play tag, make hay, counter-punch?
And to Democrats who cavil at Biden for his frailty, I say: Don’t be so glandular. Mr. Biden’s aspect is frail, yes, but his vision — of fortifying our faltering democracy — is not. Give muscle to his vision by defending him. (By the way, our muscled-up defense will improve Biden’s approval polls.)
I confess in 20 years of writing commentary, I do not get Democrats’ political ineptitude. Just when it seems Dems learn how to fight, they fall apart, agonize instead of organize, fight among themselves, form circular firing-squads; as to defense, they whiff. Which is tragic, because: The Democrats’ humane policies could save American Democracy. Meanwhile the Republicans unite — as one ginormous phalanx — to defend (there’s that verb again) an amoral, anti-democratic leader who’s hell-bent on destroying American Democracy, solely to recover his (squandered) power.
The upcoming Summit for Democracy (Dec. 9–10), hosted by Pres. Biden with a shrinking number of the world’s democracies attending (virtually), is being cast as mission review of a grand rescue operation: How to “collectively strengthen the foundation for democratic renewal” in the face of growing authoritarianism. That is: To take the temperature of democracy itself. It is to be hoped that the gravity of our democratic crisis will sink in with all Americans, from inept left to wayward right; that we all get better tutored in democracy’s demands; and also that the media will stop taking Mr. Biden’s temperature. A second democracy summit follows next year, to “share successes.” Thus: Quo vadis, us?
For my 2012 commentary, “Beware Theater in Politics,” delving deeper into the above-cited book by Arthur Miller, see here.