It wouldn’t be surprising if President Joe Biden felt a strong sense of déjà vu as he marked his first year in office and the D.C. press eagerly writes him off as a failure buried by a mountain of crises, while at the same time erasing his accomplishments. (Record job gains, ending the Forever War.) Reading from GOP talking points, journalists remain in hyperventilation mode, obsessively detailing Biden’s soft polling numbers while loudly — and falsely —claiming he can’t get his key legislative initiatives passed into law.
Biden’s lurking sense of been-here-before would be driven by the fact that as Barack Obama’s vice president, he watched the same media story play out under a different Democratic administration. Hounded by a D.C. press corps that was often obsessed with tagging Obama as a failure, depicting him as overwhelmed and outsmarted by Republicans, and occasionally just losing its mind over relatively minor unfolding stories (remember Ebola and the glitchy Obamacare website?), the press misjudged one of the most successful and popular presidents of the last half century.
Today, the Beltway media remains in groupthink mode (CNN headline: “Is Biden's Presidency Doomed?”), with everyone eagerly hitting the same points regardless of the facts. "For now, virtually none of the groups that fueled Biden’s 2020 victory are happy,” the Associated Press recently reported, despite the fact that polling shows 80-plus percent of Democratic voters approve of Biden’s performance in office.
The Washington Post published a long obituary on Biden’s presidency this week, casting his first year in office as a failure. (“Disarray,” “tensions,” “worry,” “stumbled.”) Left unmentioned in the article’s 43 paragraphs was the fact that a record 6.4 million new jobs have been created since Biden took office, and that the U.S. now enjoys full employment with workers earning all-time high wages.
The Post article indicated that Biden’s polling numbers (“stuck in the low 40s”) were a key part of his presidency. Yet after one year in office, Trump’s approval rating was in the 30s and the press rarely obsessed over it. His historically unpopular standing simply became the new norm, as journalists instead marveled as Trump’s loyal base.
For Biden, the Sturm und Drang coverage today — the cinematic sense of panic — must seem familiar. The press did the same thing to Obama. Even though the Democrat was swept into office with a landslide victory in 2008, the press immediately began trying to frame his presidency as a flop.
“Is President Obama's Carter Moment Nearing?” was the headline for a David Broder piece in the Democrat’s first term, in which the Post columnist compared an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the Iranian hostage crisis, which lasted a year-and-a-half. There was this Associated Press lede from early in Obama’s first term: “Barack Obama's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year got off to a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad start.”
And look at this doomsday, Year One pronouncement from the Post: “A year into his presidency, President Obama faces a polarized nation and souring public assessments of his efforts to change Washington, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.”
The Punchline? Obama’s approval rating in that poll stood at a robust 53 percent.
From one apocalyptic Post pundit: “You could feel a shiver of panic coursing through the American body politic this week as the country struggled with a metastatic set of crises: the spread of the Ebola virus, the surge of Islamic-State terrorists and the buckling global economy.”
The Boston Globe announced that Ebola had “moved closer to becoming the next great American panic -- an anthrax or SARS for the social media age,” while CNN lamented that government officials seemed “too confident” they could contain the disease. At one point, the Post's Chris Cillizza dubbed Ebola the “October surprise” of the 2014 elections, while Bloomberg inexcusably published a magazine cover featuring a creepy “Ebola is Coming” headline, ominously portrayed by swaths of dripping blood.
All for a virus that killed two people here.Then there was the derailed, hysterical coverage of Ebola and Obamacare. The virus disease that sprang from Liberia in 2014 claimed the lives of exactly two people in the United States. But the political press covered it like a raging plague.
That was preceded by the memorable media freak-out over Obamacare, and specifically its launch to consumers. “Why Obamacare May Be Obama's Katrina, Iraq,” crowed an absurd doomsday headline from the era.
Weeks before the deadline for signing up for then-new Obamacare, the AP reported the administration would need a “miracle” to reach its stated goal of six million people enlisting. By the time of the deadline arrived, seven million signed up for private coverage, spurring the largest expansion in health coverage in America in half a century.
Post columnist Megan McArdle, then working for Bloomberg, made a career out of being wrong about Obamacare, with columns like "Is Obamacare in a Death Spiral?" "Why Obamacare Is Like Three Mile Island," "Resolved: Obamacare Is Now Beyond Rescue," "Young Invincibles Are Killing Obamacare," and "Is Obamacare Now Beyond Repeal?"
Then with the Obamacare website hiccup, the breathless press covered the IT story like a blockbuster event for weeks, suggesting deep, lasting political damage for Obama — he left office with a 60 percent approval rating.
Biden can be forgiven if he feels like he’s seen this movie before.