Here's why Biden's message of "shots, checks and jobs," which has boosted his job approval to 60%, may not be enough for the times we are in. Nicco Mele, former director of the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School and current managing director of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation (and an old pal of mine since we first worked together at Arianna Huffington’s 2000 “Shadow Conventions” !!), writes in his periodic newsletter with thoughts very much in tune with my own about the “Phoney War” period we are in now. “Given the sanity of the Biden Administration you may be inclined to relax your vigilance,” he writes. But, invoking “Rule 1: It will get crazier,” he reminds us “that things are not as they seem and we must act with urgency. The world order we see as stable is in fact fragile and not doing the job it should.”
Like me, Nicco thinks President Biden is doing a very good job prioritizing big policy initiatives. But he warns that without great storytelling, all these initiatives may get undone 18 months from now. And that’s not only because the out-party does well in midterms, or because Republicans are pushing new voter suppression laws in many states. It’s also because while the Republicans have a conservative media system that consistently projects and reinforces a counter-narrative with reach and staying power, the older mainstream media does not play that role for Democrats. (The fact that not a single question about the pandemic was asked of Biden during his White House press conference last week is a good example of what’s wrong with mainstream media, in that regard.) We need a “New American Story to help us believe in each other again,” Nicco writes. Amen brother.
Another smart observer of current events, Dan Pfeiffer, former Obama White House speechwriter, writes in his newsletter that one aspect of this problem is that the White House press corps isn’t interested in positive narratives. “I can promise you that if Biden were failing to meet (as opposed to exceeding) his vaccination goals, the topic would have dominated the [press conference]. This dynamic is not unique to the press conference. … With each day, the passage of the American Rescue Plan fades further into the past, and more of the media moves onto the next crisis du jour.” Pfeiffer has a larger point: “Utilizing the media as the primary communication vehicle means the success or failure of our political strategy depends on the whims of news executives who do not share our interests. Think of it this way. Our message is the product, and the voters are the customers. A business would never entrust the distribution of its product to a competitor. Yet, that’s exactly what Democrats do when they rely on the New York Times and others to tell voters about our accomplishments and agenda.”
Pfeiffer is heartened to see that Democratic donors are funding ads promoting the American Rescue Plan this far out before the mid-terms, and he also argues that regular people have a role to play too. “We can share positive stories, remind our networks about the positive accomplishments, and post the ads on social media. Every one of us can be curators and amplifiers.” Well, yes, but I don’t think that sharing well-made ads will be enough to counter the deeply felt resentment that the Republicans and the rightwing media system constantly stoke. As I wrote a month ago in “Joy to the Vaccination Centers,” we need something bigger, built in tandem with the massive mobilization already underway as millions of Americans get vaccinated now—a sign of governmental competency that could be our saving grace. Biden himself put this well the other day as he celebrated the passage of the American Rescue Plan, saying, “We need to remember, the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it’s us, all of us, we the people.”
Can we make this the meta-message of our time? I don’t know. Critiques of power are so built into the DNA of today’s left, we may not be capable of recognizing when—broadly speaking—our side is in power. It’s very hard to shift from the constant vigilance and opposition of the last four years to something like shared governance. But the scale of the changes now being contemplated by Democrats in Congress go way beyond anything we’ve seen Democrats do in most of our lifetimes, and people need to recalibrate when righteous opposition is needed and when solidarity is more important. If we don’t, we may miss our last and best opportunity to turn this divided, dysfunctional and diseased country in a better direction.