Joe Biden gave his first press conference a few weeks ago. I watched it live and like many other observers, I was disappointed. In a nutshell: the media was not stellar.
They mostly asked either meaningless or bad faith questions, were combative for the sake of being combative, and forgot to bring up the two most important issues: COVID and the economy. Instead, they asked Biden whether he found migrant children in detention facilities “acceptable” and the pressing question of the day, whether Biden is going to run in 2024 and if Kamala Harris will be on the ticket. I don’t mean to be overly critical of the media, but I keep thinking about similar themes when I get a chance to watch them in action. I think they tend to focus too much on individual actors within our political institutions versus the incentives of those institutions and how they shape politicians’ decision-making. And when they do cover individuals, they tend to over cover the wrong ones and frame that coverage using distortive narratives.
Joe Biden’s press conference highlighted how the press let’s a false lens inform their questions. Let me explain what I mean.
An all powerful being?
For better or worse everything good and bad is often laid at the feet of the president. It is the most powerful elected position in the world, right? Why wouldn’t it be their fault in good times and bad? It’s a natural human tendency to find a singular explanation for the world’s ills, but that way of thinking is often distortive. When the media gives any president the moniker of “the most powerful man in the world” I would argue it convolutes our politics. Our system is more complicated than that. The president can’t get a bill passed simply by “putting it at the center of his or her agenda.” And when the public is conditioned to see the president as this all powerful being, they are criticized for “not keeping his promises” when their agenda falls short. Joe Biden does have a lot of power within foreign policy and the administrative state (cabinet secretaries), but “most powerful man in the world” is not a useful moniker.
Here’s a question from Joe Biden’s press conference that highlights this distortive narrative:
“One of the defining challenges you face in the coming months is how to deliver on your promise to Americans on issues like immigration reform, gun control, voting rights, climate change. All of those right now are facing stiff, united opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill. How far are you willing to go to achieve those promises that you made to the American people?”
The implication of that question is, if Joe Biden just “went as far as possible,” he could “keep his promises.” This is just too simplistic and misses the institutional impediments or other actors that are the true reasons Joe Biden might not “keep his promises.” The media should focus more on those things, like the filibuster or our new era of hyper competitive national elections than whether or not Joe Biden “will go far enough.” That type of analysis will better help the American people understand why inaction and gridlock are such persistent problems.
Who and what we should pay attention to
The Filibuster and Joe Manchin
If the media really wants to answer the question of how will Joe Biden “keep his promises,” they need to focus more on the Senate filibuster and its defenders.
As much effort that goes into questions about Joe Biden’s immigration policy or whether or not Champ—Joe Biden’s dog—will be euthanized should be poured into the filibuster. What is its history? How has it been used? What did the framers think of a supermajority threshold? If the media really cared about getting to the root of inaction and “broken promises” the filibuster needs to be front and center.
We also need to hold filibuster defenders accountable for the arguments they use. Take Joe Manchin—the Democratic Senator from West Virginia and the likely deciding vote on the filibuster’s future. When he and others defend the filibuster on TV, you’ll often hear them talk about promoting bipartisanship and how the Senate is the “cooling saucer” of the Congress. This cooling saucer argument comes from an exchange between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Washington used a cooling saucer as an analogy to illustrate that the Senate’s job is to slow things down for deliberation and careful consideration. For Joe Manchin, the filibuster helps achieve this goal. There is just one small problem with this cooling saucer argument: there is absolutely zero evidence this exchange between Washington and Jefferson ever took place. The most prevalent defense of the filibuster is built on a complete myth.
Instead of allowing Joe Manchin to float these shaky arguments or spending precious airtime asking Joe Biden whether he will run again in 2024, the media could lay out the history and usage of the filibuster. Its true origins are not in the constitution or from the founding fathers. It was never designed as part of the Senate. The filibuster was created by accident thanks to Aaron Burr and his decision to change the senate rules on a whim. It has not been used to promote bipartisanship; it has been used to slow or stop legislation like civil rights and voting rights from being passed. In recent years it has been radically abused by the minority party as an effective veto on any piece of legislation.
Congress and its insecurities
The media has not covered the fall of bipartisanship in Washington well. Their coverage of Congress in general is often packaged in a conflict oriented narrative between the two warring factions. Sometimes that’s fine, but in excess it can have a distortive effect on Americans’ understanding of what is really happening in Washington. The more they decide to lead with conflict between individual leaders and parties, the less is devoted to institutional factors that are the foundational causes of gridlock. The filibuster is a tool for gridlock, but it would be helpful to Americans looking to understand why compromise seems so elusive if the media would frame their coverage differently. What incentives are driving the death of compromise, especially among Republicans? One simple reason is politics have rarely been this competitive.
We are living in a time—as political scientist Frances Lee calls it— of insecure majorities. Every two years the party out of power has a chance to win a majority in one or both houses of congress. This seems obvious to most, but when you look at history this is actually a recent phenomenon. For most of the 20th century after 1932 and the Great Depression, Democrats controlled most of Congress. Prior to that, Republicans held consistent majorities post-Civil War. Complete unified control for the party in the minority was often quite elusive.
Today, control of Washington can change hands often after one or two election cycles. Those political incentives do not lead towards bipartisanship and compromise. They lead to unified minority party obstruction of the majority with the hope that the minority will win power in the next election. The public will see inaction and be more likely to blame the party currently in power. When you think about politics in this lens, it makes much more sense that Mitch McConnell would block any and every piece of legislation Barack Obama or Joe Biden wanted to pass. It’s not that Joe Biden or Mitch McConnell won’t “grab a beer” and hash things out at the negotiating table. The tectonic plates on which all politicians stand move them away from compromise. Why would the party out of power give the party in power a win on infrastructure when they can just obstruct and win back the majority in two years?
When you think about politics through an institutional lens and center the right individual political actors, it helps to clear up misconceptions and distortions. It also makes questions like “how far will Joe Biden go to keep his promises to voters,” seem inadequate. Joe Biden can wish all he wants to have Mitch McConnell and Republicans hash out a deal with him on infrastructure, but the incentives push much harder away from deal-making and compromise. Joe Biden can put filibuster reform at the center of each and every speech he makes, it will do little to sway Joe Manchin if the public keeps believing that the filibuster is a “cooling saucer” and a foundation of our constitution.
The media pays too much attention to the wrong things. When they cover individuals, they focus too much on the wrong ones. They don’t pay nearly enough attention to the institutional incentives political actors are surrounded by, which leaves out explanations for why politicians make certain decisions and leads to bad lines of questioning. I’m not saying the press should never cover Joe Biden or worry about discussing individual politicians, but I think there needs to be a rebalancing. We need coverage and explanations of our institutions just as much as we need to hold the president or members of congress accountable.
When people can see these things clearly, hopefully we can start asking the right question: what structural reforms do we need to make in order to promote compromise, good-faith debate, and above all action by our elected officials when we need it?