Authored by Matt Taibbi via TK News,
Joe Biden is cruising, in a happy-place few politicians reach. Outside of a few grumpy right-wing outlets he faces almost no hostile press questioning, political threats within his own party are minimal, and his approval rating, if one believes the latest Harvard CAPS/Harris poll, hovers at an astonishing 64%.
Biden has the press paper-trained to a degree we haven’t seen in modern times. Not even at the height of the media’s drooling love affair with Barack Obama — a phenomenon I confess I was part of — did we ever see such enthusiastic, reflexive backing of White House messaging. The Biden press even reverses course on a dime when needed, with the past weeks being a supreme example.
Last Friday, word came out via The Washington Post that the Biden administration’s new budget plan wouldn’t contain a host of key ideas proposed on the campaign trail, from a public health care option to raising the estate tax to forgiveness of student debt. Some of these were major, central campaign promises — the idea of a plan to insure “an estimated 97% of Americans,” for instance, was big Biden campaign rhetoric whose passing was barely commemorated. The key line in the Post article:
The White House jettisoned months of planning from agency staff as their initial plan could fuel criticisms that the administration is pushing new spending programs too aggressively.
Say what? Just a few weeks ago, we were being told in headline after headline that Biden was a “transformational” president who’d heroically abandoned fruitless efforts at bipartisanship and moreover had conquered the fear of deficit spending that kept Barack Obama from fulfilling his own “transformative” destiny. Insiders regaled us with tales about how this administration exiled the Clintonian tricksters like Larry Summers who robbed Obama of his legacy by whispering false worries about inflation.
We even saw the bizarre spectacle of Treasury Secretary and erstwhile deficit hawk Janet Yellen publicly throwing down with Summers, battle-rapper style, about his excess fiscal caution, saying the biggest risk wasn’t inflation but if “we don’t do enough” to address the economic damage of the pandemic. Yellen all but told Summers to go back to Cranbrook with his bitch-ass spending fears.
Then a few weeks ago, on Meet The Press, Yellen reverted to form and said that Joe Biden “has made clear that permanent increases in spending should be paid for, and I agree,” adding that “over the long run, deficits need to be contained.” After that came the Post story and word that the administration had backed off a host of plans, including a proposal to lower prescription drug costs, while also engaging with seeming seriousness in “bipartisan” negotiations on an infrastructure/jobs bill.
Why might a Democratic White House recently praised as “radical” by the New York Times because they “stopped devising compromised bills in a bid to win Republican votes” suddenly be interested in getting Republican votes again? Politico hinted at the answer:
There also are deepening doubts about an agreement on how to pay for the infrastructure spending package. Democrats are resistant to tapping leftover Covid-relief money, which the White House argues isn't sufficient to cover the plan, anyway.
Translation: Biden is worried about deficits, and having Republicans on whom they can pin lower budgetary outlays is once again politically useful. Therefore, bipartisanship is back, fiscal restraint is back, maybe even austerity is back. Good times!
Whatever one’s feeling about the appropriateness of any of these policies, it’s clear the messaging surrounding them has undergone a near-complete turnaround almost overnight, which would normally prompt at least a raised eyebrow or two in media. But all that’s happened is that the moment the Biden administration stopped talking about being “transformative,” the White House press quietly did the same, in silent recognition that they’ll all be selling a different product for while.
Joe Biden’s journey to “transformational” status and back has been an expert political PR campaign. It took a year, and Biden’s camp never had to break a sweat.
Biden had been a symbol of non-change since before disco, and embraced that image at the start of the 2020 campaign. In a fundraiser in June of 2019, he reportedly told supporters he didn’t want to “demonize” the wealthy, that “no one’s standard of living would change,” and that in fact, if he were elected, “nothing will fundamentally change.” It was an iconic line. He was the un-Obama. Even Steven Colbert ripped him for being an inspirational Shepard Fairey poster in reverse.
Biden didn’t push back on the meming and mockery for that incident or a dozen others like it. He seemed to understand that his appeal in the Trump era lay in the perception that he’d lived in the middle of the political road for so long, he wouldn’t know how to find the edge if he tried.
Biden and his aides spent much of the 2020 primary race engaged in what Clinton-era political analysts would have called triangulation. They pushed back against Medicare for All, the decriminalization of border crossings, defunding the police, and other ideas that seemed to be hot among blue voters. “Status Quo Joe,” sneered the New Republic.
The reporters who covered Biden’s campaign every day were told over and over by surrogates that Biden was about stability, not big ideas. Reporters wrote a lot of those stories. When Biden was doing well in polls, we were told he was “an implicit contrast to potentially riskier rivals” who are “offering more disruptive policy platforms,” as the Washington Post put it. At other times, we were cautioned that Biden’s “adult-in-the-room civility and pragmatic compromise” might not cut it, in an era when Democrats wanted an “ideological warrior,” as Politico magazine wrote.
Biden went so far as to describe himself as literally too old to have new ideas, saying voters would have to settle for him being a “bridge” a future group of possibly idea-having politicians. “Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” he said in March of 2020. “There's an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.” When the primary race was down to him and Bernie Sanders, he said he was about “results, not revolution.” And with such pronouncements, he walloped Sanders.
There was a paradox in those results. Although the Democratic electorate overwhelmingly chose Biden in the two-horse race, polls suggested they preferred Sanders policy prescriptions on ideas like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, raising corporate taxes, and so on. Well, maybe they did.
In March of 2020, for instance, at the supposed critical moment of the Sanders-Biden showdown, 66% of voters said they believed the candidate who promised “transformational change” had the best chance of beating Donald Trump. This was compared to 34% who said they believed “someone who promises to build off previous administrations” had the best chance to win. Yet by an almost exact opposite ratio, voters chose Biden at that time.
One way of looking at those results was that many Democrats wanted more of the same, but also wanted to feel like they were voting for “transformative” change. The Biden camp, which had seen both ends of this phenomenon in Obama’s evolving relationship with Democratic voters, seemed to grasp this. Once Sanders was toast and Biden was the de facto nominee, he and his aides began rolling out the word “transform”:
If we come together, we will defeat Donald Trump. And when we do that, we will not only do the hard work of rebuilding this nation — we will transform it.— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) April 9, 2020
After George Floyd was killed, the rebrand accelerated. There was a classic trial balloon piece on the theme in Politico. Citing anonymous advisers, the story told of an internal campaign debate. On one side, supposedly, were pragmatists who believed in sticking with the status quo platform that won them the primary. Another group believed a shift in the attitudes of white suburban voters especially made it politically feasible (if not necessary) to embrace a more rad-changey posture. Politico phrased things thusly:
Internally, Biden’s campaign is balancing how to best respond to the transformational demands of protesters while maintaining his commanding lead over Trump. Biden gained the lead by staying largely out of the spotlight as Trump has praised the “beautiful heritage” of the Confederacy and called protesters “thugs.”
In July of last year, Matt Yglesias published “Progressives don’t love Joe Biden, but they’re learning to love his agenda,” in a piece that had maybe the Vox-iest sub-head of all time: “The most transformative presidents in our nation’s history — Lincoln, FDR, LBJ — were not ideologues.”
Biden aides then began telling reporters their guy wasn’t just about “stability” at all, that in fact Joe Biden had always been more of a dreamer than he let on, we just didn’t notice. Heading into Election Night, multiple stories played on this theme of “At Age 750, the Real Joe Biden is Finally Emerging,” and almost all had either a quote from a surrogate using the word “transform,” or a line about how little the public knew about the “real” Biden. “Many people might not know what a policy wonk Biden is at heart,” wrote Eugene Robinson just before the vote, in a piece that put the magic word in the lede:
The hits kept coming. “Joe Biden Has Changed: He’s Preparing for a Transformative Presidency,” wrote Franklin Foer in the Atlantic in October, 2016. “‘Moderate’ Joe Biden has Become the Most Progressive Candidate in History,” wrote the Washington Post, with transition board member Felicia Wong saying Biden’s agenda was “transformative.”
From inauguration on, basically every elected Democrat started calling Biden a “transformational” leader. When Biden called his own Covid-19 relief package “transformational,” critical mass was achieved. Nancy Pelosi promised a “Big, bold, and transformational” infrastructure bill. Jim Clyburn said Biden’s approach was “truly transformational.” The coordination was like something out of a Chinese Olympic parade:
"He's somebody who really envisions this as a transformational moment..."— The Issue Is (@TheIssueIsShow) May 22, 2021
After campaigning against @JoeBiden, and saying America needs a new generation of leadership, @PeteButtigieg describes working for the Biden admin.@Elex_Michaelson hosts @TheIssueIsShow pic.twitter.com/3idMrrcDkZ
The inevitable next step was that TV talking heads and newspaper pundits started using the term like it was their own idea. The list of media people who seem genuinely to believe they independently arrived at the thought, “Joe Biden is a Transformational President” is staggeringly long. It includes everyone from analysts at the Heritage Foundation and the Atlantic Council to David Brooks to Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough. The latter ironically made their assessment before the same Steven Colbert who beat up Biden for being the “nothing will change” guy two years before. The web in the end became a sea of “transformational” headlines:
There are no accidental choices in propaganda. Transformational is less threatening than revolutionary, but also promises less than sweeping or fundamental. It’s a word the Biden campaign started using a year ago and had surrogates pulling oars every day since to get its momentum rolling. By March of this year they didn’t have to row, as pundits muttered it automatically. Then the moment it became expedient, the Biden White House backed off the word and started creeping back in certain expected political directions. Still, they’ll retain the campaign’s PR gains, because none of their pet editorialists will bother outing themselves with a, “Hey, what about that ‘transformative’ thing we talked so much about?” piece.
One of the underreported stories of the 2020 race was that Biden’s handlers somehow ran quite a smart campaign, even as their candidate pooped his drawers and disintegrated mentally on an almost daily basis. They leaned into social media mockery of their candidate, realizing there was an untapped reservoir of Democrat voters who loathed the Twitter discourse far more than most reporters understood, then shifted in the general, and now are shifting back again. The effectiveness of their rhetorical approach has been astounding in its consistency, but there’s only so much credit to give, When you’ve got nothing but friends in the press gallery, everything works.