We are both old enough to remember a time when you picked up the newspaper in the morning or turned on the television news to find out what was happening in the world. Now, it is not that simple.
Opinion, spin, misguided attempts at “objectivity” that produce false equivalencies, the partisanship of some media outlets and a herd mentality in the press have made it difficult to know where the facts end and the truth begins. When untrue or misleading narratives emerge, they can take on a life of their own and have serious real-world consequences—shifting the political landscape, remaking polls, changing how subsequent developments are viewed, or even affecting whether and how they take place.
This has seldom been made more clear than in the recent treatment of President Joe Biden in the media. Not only has much of it been divorced from reality, misguided, or twisted, but the real-world implications of the narratives that have emerged in the past several weeks could have lasting negative ramifications for the country.
The facts of Biden’s presidency are there for all of us to see. When he took office, Biden inherited a country in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis, reeling from an unprecedented attack on its political system and wracked by social divisions the last president systematically sought to make worse. Our international standing had been battered by racist policies, nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, attacks on our allies, corruption, efforts to undermine international institutions, embrace of our enemies, and rejection of our own core democratic values.
In just eight months, the president and his team have engineered transformational progress on many fronts. Where there had been no plan to administer vaccines, today over 200 million Americans have received at least one shot and the vaccines are available to every American free of charge and are now required of federal workers as part of a sweeping effort to contain the spread of the virus here. Our vaccine diplomacy efforts lead the world, with commitments to share 600 million doses to countries in need worldwide. Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan has cut the child poverty rate in half. More jobs, 4.1 million, were created in the first six months of this administration than in the 12 years of the Trump and Bush administrations combined. The U.S. economy grew at an extraordinary annualized rate of 6.5 percent during the second quarter of this year. Biden implemented scores of executive orders undoing Trump administration policies that damaged the environment, put our security at risk, or violated the rights of Americans.
Biden made combatting climate change a priority again. The U.S. re-entered the Paris Climate Accords and re-joined the World Health Organization. The U.S. repaired damaged relations with allies. Biden has appointed new judges at a faster rate than his predecessors. He has appointed the most diverse cabinet in American history as well as the most diverse set of judges. Vice President Kamala Harris has led efforts to oversee police reform, to work with the nations of Central American to curb the flow of undocumented immigrants into the U.S., and to shore up our alliances to ensure stability in Asia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has worked to usher in a new era in U.S. foreign policy in which America focuses on the emerging challenges of the 21st century. And the administration has been swift to provide essential aid when disasters like wildfires in the West, hurricanes in the South, and flooding in the East brought pain to millions.
The president ended the 20-year war in Afghanistan, something none of his three predecessors had the courage to do even as the costs of that war were compounded daily. And he negotiated a bipartisan bill now before the Congress to finally invest as we must in America’s neglected infrastructure, while outlining additional investments of $3.5 trillion as part of America’s Build Back Better package that will, taken with the infrastructure bill, represent the biggest investment in American competitiveness, health, and security in almost a century.
You might not agree with every one of these policies. Aspects of their implementation may not have been perfect. There are certainly areas where criticism is fair.
But somehow, this unprecedented record of achievement in the face of extraordinary challenges and a toxic political environment coming on the heels of the most incompetent and corrupt administration in American history, another narrative has emerged. It is so divorced from reality that it seems as if it is reporting on a different universe. It’s so crazy that you might dismiss it as the work of hacks or just the politically motivated, but it has taken on a life of its own.
You have seen the headlines. A New York Times op-ed asserting that Biden’s is a failed presidency. A CNN story saying that Biden is “facing a crisis of competence.” A Times story saying that the reputation for competence that Biden ran on is being tested. There have been stories about “Biden’s Cruel Summer,” “The Two Mistakes that Ruined Biden’s Summer” and about how “Biden’s Rough Summer Puts Dems on High Alert.”
Armies of talking heads did not just critique the chaos surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, as might be fair. They went further. They said the scenes of America’s last days in Kabul were more important than the fact that the war was finally ending after 20 years, $2 trillion in spending, and the loss of thousands of American and allied lives along with those of 170,000 Afghans. They argued that the White House was merely trying to “distract” from the problems on the ground by pointing out that Biden had finally put an end to two decades of terrible American decision making while his team managed to get 125,000 people out of that country in a matter of weeks in the largest humanitarian airlift ever completed by the U.S. military.
All of a sudden, they argued, America’s standing was hurt at the very time that almost 100 countries were working with the U.S. to help keep Kabul’s airport open and more than 30 were convened every other day by the State Department to address future policy concerns in that country.
Similarly, these bad-faith pundits argued that the renewed spike in COVID infections—driven by members of the Republican Party who denied science, politicized masks, and made red states the locus of the greatest new spread of the disease—reflected badly on Biden. In fact, his was the administration that brought vaccines to the country and restored sound public health policies after the last administration was literally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands with their horrible policy failures. In other words, Republicans were making the pandemic worse and Biden was being blamed for it.
The Biden response was to strengthen federal mandates for masks and vaccines. It was the right response again. But no matter. Ron de Santis and Greg Abbott pour gasoline on a public health wildfire and Joe Biden faces op-eds questioning his competence in managing the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly given this kind of coverage, Biden’s poll numbers have fallen. And again the talking heads are framing it not as a consequence of their handiwork or as normal for recent presidencies, they are calling it a crisis. Some predicted worse was ahead.
Why does it matter? Because if Biden appears vulnerable, it will make it harder for him to advance his investment agenda, now pending for a final decision from Congress in the next few weeks. And every setback associated with that agenda will be framed as compounding the misstated reality of the past few weeks, which could have negative consequences come next year’s elections.
Which could lead to Republicans regaining control of the House and the Senate. Which, given their recent track record, would almost certainly lead to further attacks on voter rights and democracy. (Remember while Biden is being criticized in spite of his achievements, his opponents have actually supported and defended an attempted coup on January 6 of this year against the United States.)
Political opponents who attack Biden recognize this and their motives are clear. Perhaps the journalists and commentators taking the same line think overstating criticisms or conveniently forgetting about real achievements to make for more dramatic headlines is good for business. Sadly, it may be.
But it isn’t good for journalism, good for those who seek the truth, or good for the country.