Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 17, 2021

News reports over the last several days have underscored the unpleasant phenomenon that the media travels in packs. Once a report or interpretation surfaces, too often it gets repeated endlessly, often with lots more brevity than nuance or context might support.

The targeted point of groupthink in this case are the discord among Democrats in Washington and the confluence of events that are prompting a general downward dip in Joe Biden’s polling numbers.

Even discounting for the usual evident partisanship among various news outlets, the narrative emerging over continued, but slow negotiation over big spending bills in Congress, over the messy Afghan withdrawal, over unnecessary detours to deal with threats of a debt ceiling crisis, the continuing battles over mandates for covid vaccines and masks and a resulting too-slow economic recovery all are contributing to a general decline in Biden’s approval ratings.

“As Democrats dither, Biden is bleeding out,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank this week. “His support has dropped into the low 40s.”

It’s a theme repeated in one fashion or another through both mainstream media outlets and cable television and ballyhooed by right-leaning publications as evidence to bolster Republican hopes to return to power. As always, we are left with the question of whether the media are following the news, the news is repeating the themes of the press, or whether the press is following its own nose for conflict as the basis of what passes as news.

CNN’s Stephen Collinson put it this way: “Presidents get into trouble when they are seen as controlled by events rather than the other way around. This is the situation now facing Joe Biden. The President is confronted by a slew of intractable domestic and global crises he has no power to quickly fix, a bunch of political crunches caused and exacerbated by his own choices and a deepening sense of a White House under siege.”

A Lot of Agreement

There have been some journalistic efforts to call for a moment’s more thought.

Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post noted that the groupthink is too narrow. Take the Democrats-are-doomed narrative with a grain of salt, he wrote, adding that while there is some truth in the current narrative, it lacks context.

Democrats, who are debating just how big a Big Spending bill should be, agree that some form of transformative legislation will get signed — despite the abdication of Republican lawmakers from the discussion.

In Talking Points Memo, Peter Dreier argues that the press, in its zeal for conflict and quick resolution, is missing the idea that 96% of Democrats agree on approving the biggest spending numbers that Biden has proposed, with opposition only from two senators whose votes turn out to be critical to maintaining a Democrat-only victory. Just a few members out of the hundreds of Democrats elected to the House and Senate are stalling the Biden’s agenda, he says.

Milbank says the ultimate details of these bills are less important than passing them. That would allow Democrats to offer a waiting — and apparently approving American majority — to go into election mode by offering specifics about help on childcare and health benefits rather than endless culture war debates.

“But until Biden can pin down Manchin, the bleeding will continue,” he said. Okay, that’s a bit more nuanced.

In the meantime, of course, Biden is being forced to take a huge paring knife to his bills, particularly for climate proposals, all to keep Manchin’s vote.

Challenges by the Bushel

There is no doubt that Biden has had more than his share of early challenges from ending the war in Afghanistan to covid to immigration to the refusal of Republicans and even his most “moderate” colleagues to move in tandem to face real problems.

That doesn’t make Biden or his team wrong-headed or incompetent. Except for immigration, each individual policy question being constantly polled score high for his proposals, even among some of the most controversial questions.

But we can all acknowledge that Biden would have a stronger political hand at getting his policies adopted even in a split Congress if events would allow some traction.

Americans who follow politics are notoriously impatient for answers to even the most complicated questions. Biden is willing, too willing some might say, to let the most stubborn and entrenched points of view within his party to bring things to a very slow crawl.

Rising gasoline prices and inflation, a global supply chain backup and the pandemic won’t go away with a snap of presidential fingers. Covid alone has ripples that have made people slow to return to restaurant and hospitality jobs, and the frustrations over mask and vaccine rules are frustrating enough to emerge in physical fistfights at school board meetings.

We can all agree as well that Biden faces a political imperative to address the most immediate of issues if for no other reason than to forestall a Republican rout in the next elections. The answers here to approvals, image and polling seem to lie, as always, in Getting Something Done.

Someone needs to remind Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer