Is the Cart Pulling the Horse?

A person very close to me has been complaining a lot lately that Joe Biden—otherwise known as the President—can’t catch a break with the media. He’s too old, he’s too progressive, he’s not liberal enough, why isn’t he doing anything about inflation, why did he let the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, etc., etc.

This complaint about the media is familiar. Newspapers, so it used to go, print only bad news. Why is the news always so negative? A case in point: The lead story of the July 11 New York Times says that “Most Democrats Don’t Want Biden in 2024, New Poll Shows.” And it’s not even 2023 yet! Why bring it up already?

President Biden has presided over the largest, fastest job growth in American history. The recovery from the pandemic job losses has been remarkable. And it continues. But, this person close to me argues, the media keep talking now about the possibility of recession. And, the argument goes, it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the media keep predicting it, soon the public will start believing it and will start cutting back. And then, poof! we’ll have a recession. Biden’s job performance ratings are low. Are the media reporting the low ratings or causing them?

Why do we have such a high rate of inflation? For two years people stayed home. They didn’t go out much. A lot of restaurants closed. Gas prices went down (lower demand). Petroleum companies ratcheted back on production. With people staying home, supplies of all kind of things declined (lower supply). The government paid out a lot of money to keep the economy from tanking so even if people weren’t working, they still had some money to spend. Businesses large and small got free money.

Then things started getting better. People came out. They wanted to buy things that they couldn’t get or didn’t need during the pandemic. They started driving again. (Higher demand). But a lot of workers were afraid to come back to work. Supplies of a lot of things didn’t grow fast enough (Lower supply). Businesses raised wages to lure workers back. Prices went up. Inflation. Why is that Joe Biden’s fault? It isn’t. Presidents can’t do much about inflation. That story appeared in The New York Times on July 5 of this month (Veterans of Carter-Era Inflation Warn That Biden Has Few Tools to Tame Prices).

And yet, the media keep pounding away at the price of gas at the pump and how much it costs to fill up, etc.

It seems a little difficult to argue, however, that absent the reporting about inflation, people wouldn’t notice. Unless you drive an all-electric car, you can’t help but notice that it’s costing a lot more to fill up than it did a year ago. And, for better or worse, presidents get blamed when the economy goes south, just as they like to take credit when it goes north. There’s nothing new about that.

A lot of this phenomenon has to do with perception, what we’re now calling “optics”. Appearance—or perception—is, in a sense, reality. Joe Biden is 79 years old. When we see him walking around, he’s stiff. He walks like an old man. He is an old man. People don’t have to be told that. They can see it for themselves.

Is he mentally acute? He seems to be fine, slips of the tongue to the contrary notwithstanding. If he weren’t—if he were falling asleep in meetings, or babbling, or walking the wrong way—trust me, you would read about it, or hear about it on television.

Ronald Reagan was considered old when he was elected president. He mis-spoke a lot. He made things up. He got prompted by his wife when the media peppered him in public with questions.

Reagan was lucky. He caught a wave. Biden, not so much.

Ideally, news reports should be a mirror for what is happening in our communities, states, country, etc. But not everything is newsworthy. “The sun rose yesterday at 6:09 a.m.” The sun is supposed to rise at 6:09. It would be news if it didn’t. The first couple of trips to the Space Station were news. But they faded from public view when they became routine.

Eight percent inflation isn’t routine. $5 a gallon gasoline—unless you live in Europe—isn’t routine. And a 79-year-old president in a youth-oriented society is far from routine.

The media aren’t cheerleaders. For a time, given the incompetence, lying and arrogant ignorance of the Trump presidency, Biden’s assumption of power came as a pleasant change. But memories fade and the reality of life in the Biden era eventually overshadowed the unpleasant memories of the previous four years.

Harry Truman had a 34 percent approval rating when he left office in January 1953. Now he’s considered one of our better presidents. Barack Obama left office with a 59 percent approval rating; Donald Trump’s was 34 percent, tying him with George W. Bush. Richard Nixon left office with a 24 percent rating. Ronald Reagan’s was 63 percent.

The success of a presidency rests on a whole body of intangibles that constitute the quality that we call leadership. Joe Biden never had wide, energetic support from the outset of his quest for the presidency. He ran three times and was ultimately the default selection after nearly being driven out of the primaries. Biden ran against a terrible president who deserved to lose based on a number of factors not least of which was his atrocious handling of the covid pandemic. Biden’s election was more of a relief for the public than a warm embrace. So he began his presidency without the usual enthusiasm—his predecessor being an exception—that presidents normally have.

Biden is not a charismatic speaker. His presentation as an average Joe who understands your problems prevents him from being elevated to a position of adulation much less awe. His leadership has been most visible—and admirable—in rallying European democracies to support Ukraine in its battle against Russia. But that leadership has been largely invisible to the American public whose excitement has settled around Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Small solace for Joe Biden, but when the history of his presidency is written 10 years, 20 years, 50 years from now, he’ll probably come out looking pretty good.

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