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The Press Is Bored, And That's Why They Talk About Biden Not Running Again
There's less news these days, so reporters are tempted to invent it.
Politico published a truly odd story about Joe Biden today.
“Biden may not run,” the headline declares, “and top Dems are quietly preparing.”
The headline is technically correct. There are no certainties in life and Biden may not run. He could have a massive stroke tomorrow. Maybe the planet will be hit by a giant meteor and we’ll all die. Anything is possible. And it’s definitely true that a number of Democrats — some of whom, like Biden himself, started planning their presidential runs minutes after emerging from their mothers’ wombs — are making sure they’re ready, just in case.
What the piece does not do — despite its five bylines and 3,000 words — is provide any meaningful evidence that the president has swayed from his repeatedly stated intention to seek re-election.
The piece says Biden “has slipped past his most ambitious timetable, as previously outlined by advisers, to launch in February” and is instead looking toward April. It never quite establishes that Biden was ever actually himself intending to launch this month, and even if he was, it lays out some obvious reasons why he would have let that timeline slip:
After former President Donald Trump’s launch in November, there was a desire among Biden advisers to begin charting their own kickoff plans in earnest. That urgency no longer is evident. They feel no threat of a credible primary challenge, a dynamic owed to Democrats’ better-than-expected midterms and a new early state presidential nominating calendar, handpicked by Biden. Holding off on signing campaign paperwork also allows Biden to avoid having to report a less-than-robust fundraising total for a first quarter that’s almost over.
The piece also notes that incumbent presidents usually announce their re-election campaigns in the spring,not the winter, and that delaying the shift into campaign mode will allow the president to give more undivided attention to certain near-term demands of his full-time job as president, including extensive foreign travel.
And yet the piece indulges a lot of speculation about… well, what if he’s just thinking about not running?
[T]o the surprise of some Biden allies, they say he has talked only sparingly about a possible campaign, three people familiar with the conversations said. His daily focus remains the job itself. Except for the occasional phone call with an adviser to review polling, he spends little time discussing the election. While First Lady Jill Biden signaled long ago she was on board with another run, some in the president’s orbit now wonder if the impending investigations into Hunter Biden could cause the president to second-guess a bid. Others believe it will not.
“His daily focus remains the job itself”! Well, yes, he’s the president of the United States. I should hope so.
The piece continues:
A decision from Biden to forego another run would amount to a political earthquake not seen among Democrats in more than a half century, when Lyndon B. Johnson paired his partial halting of the U.S. bombing of Vietnam with his announcement to step aside, citing deepening “division in the American house now.”
And there it is, the real reason for this story: It would be interesting if Biden didn’t seek re-election.
People talk a lot about media bias, and there are certainly ideological biases in the media. But one of the media’s most important biases is in favor of news. We are currently undergoing a structural decline in the quantity of news — 2023 is shaping up to be the least-newsy year since 2014 — and that’s bad for traffic, ratings, and employment. It’s also boring. It’s more fun to be a reporter when interesting things are happening.
If you look at the news right now, you can see and feel the decline in the quantity of news. Medium-size stories, like the Chinese spy balloon and the zero-fatality train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, expand to become large stories. Small stories, like soon-to-be-presidential-also-ran Nikki Haley’s call for an unconstitutional aptitude-test requirement for elderly officeholders, and Don Lemon’s musing in response about her current suitability for childbearing, have to step up and become medium-size stories. I went on CNN last Friday, and one of the topics we discussed was how public schools in Culver City, California (population 39,970) have stopped offering honors English as part of a plan to pursue “equity” in education. It’s a topic I find interesting, and I think we had a good conversation about it, but not in a million years would it have formed the basis of TV news segment in 2018, not with all the shit President Trump was kicking up.
So reporters would like Joe Biden to wake up one morning and decide not to seek re-election. It would mean Democrats would have a big, open, fractious primary — Kamala Harris certainly wouldn’t clear the field, as the Politico piece discusses — and that would give reporters something interesting to cover. Democrats might also pick a nominee with more interest in ginning up the sort of culture-war fights that every pundit is qualified to opine on. That would be good for reporters because, on the current trajectory, a lot of this year’s news is likely to involve numbers — inflation, interest rates, the budget, fights over the future of Social Security and Medicare — and a lot of reporters didn’t do so great on the math portion of the SAT.
Ah, yes, regarding the SAT. It’s worth noting that essentially all of the people engaging in this discourse — the anonymous sources who speculate to reporters that Biden might not run again and the reporters who write down what they say — hold college degrees. As David Leonhardt noted in his newsletter on Monday, Biden’s key political strength has long laid with non-college educated Democrats, both white and non-white. The chattering class isn’t united around a possible Biden replacement — some are affluent and educated moderates who long for Pete Buttigieg; others are affluent and educated progressives who pine for Elizabeth Warren — but what its members have in common is that Biden wasn’t their guy to begin with and there’s someone they’d like better. Their narrative about Biden being politically weak and too old is the same one they were attached to when they thought he’d never win the presidential nomination.
Biden’s base isn’t even in the room when this conversation is had, and the rising chatter about him not running again is incongruous with the obvious strengthening of his political position over the last six months. His poll numbers are ticking upward. Democrats avoided a shellacking in the midterm elections and they have recently been over-performing in special elections. Even a lot of conservatives admitted the president put in a strong, feisty performance at the State of the Union. The scandal over his handling of classified documents — one the AP said last month “thrusts legal uncertainty over the sitting president and could revive debate among Democrats about the wisdom of him seeking a second term” — is boring as hell and therefore isn’t punching through, even in this incredibly news-light environment. So long as the president isn’t indicted, which he won’t be, it’s politically irrelevant. Inflation may not be under control by late 2024, but it’ll be a lot lower than 8%. And there is a major political silver lining to the loss of control of the House of Representatives: Biden is relieved of all pressure to be a provider of radical policy change (voters don’t like change) and he instead gets to stand as a bulwark against the entitlement-cutting zealots in the GOP who want to take away your Medicare.
All of which is to say, whatever your priors were about Biden’s likelihood of seeking re-election as of six months ago, you should have since revised them up. He’s more fired up and more youthful-seeming, he faces less dissension within the party, and he’s likelier to win the general election, whether he’s facing Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. When media outlets push a narrative in the opposite direction, that’s only because their interests are diametrically opposed to Biden’s in a key way: They need politics to be interesting, and he’s doing his best to make them boring.
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From Politico’s story: “For now, most of the senior team sees no need to rush, and are identifying April as the soonest he would go. That was the same month Biden unveiled his primary campaign in 2019, and the month that Barack Obama restarted his campaign engines in 2011. Bill Clinton declared in April of the year before he was reelected, and George W. Bush in May, [White House spokesperson Andrew] Bates added.”