President Biden’s abrupt move from the political outhouse to penthouse in a few short weeks has been head-spinning.
His approval ratings had been in a slump for nearly a year, hitting a low in July. The dominant media narrative was that he and the Democrats were accomplishing little despite having control of both Congress and the White House and that voters would make them pay in the November midterms. In fact, as Biden battled COVID through late July, some Democrats even started saying he should not run for re-election in 2024, intimating that he was too old and unpopular.
Then, things shifted. Democrats pushed through several major bills, including one on gun safety, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act, and suddenly these, along with Biden’s earlier legislative wins and foreign policy achievements, drew renewed attention in news stories and praise from pundits — and voters — saying the president is giving Democrats momentum heading into the fall.
The Gazette asked Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard Kennedy School who studied the media’s coverage of the 2016 and 2020 presidential cycles, to explain the hasty shift in tone on Biden. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: All presidents go through ups and downs in the press, but this 180-degree shift on Biden seemed unusually swift. What happened?
PATTERSON: The press always does this. There is a meta narrative that settles into the news coverage and that frames even how journalists look at developments. With some of the bills coming through the Congress, there was more talk about what was dropped out of them than what benefits were in them, as if he was dealing with the same kind of Congress that Obama had. Obama, up until Sen. Edward Kennedy’s death, had a filibuster-proof Senate and a huge majority of the House. Biden has a very narrow House majority, and unless you keep all the Democrats together on these bills, most times you don’t have a chance.
There’s almost no accounting of the context in which leadership is taking place — that’s been a longtime complaint about the press back to the Hutchins Commission of the late ’40s. There’s very little context, very little attempt to put into a shape and a form and background that gives people a more complete understanding. They just go for the bottom line: “He’s not doing all that well.”
Those are longstanding tendencies and weaknesses in coverage and a lot of it goes to a space limitation. They don’t always have the time and space to dig into context, to let people know what’s actually going on, so they go for the quick and easy, which is “Boy, did he screw this one up.” He’s probably getting too much credit at the moment for the good things. A lot of the “turnaround” is the Dobbs decision, the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.