It's hard to make the case that the American political press knows how to cover American politics. Time and time again we see stories stuffed into the same structural boxes: Democrats are in disarray; parties differ when describing color of sky; today is the day Donald Golfcheat truly became president. A fascist demand to throw out election results and simply appoint Donald Trump the true winner was both correctly pinned as insurrection and, both before and after its failure, put into its own box so that none of the elected officials who pushed forward fantastical, false claims to justify such demands would require new press treatment going forward—even with the new knowledge that these partisans proved willing to lie to the public, aggressively, in a manner intended to undermine public confidence in democracy itself.
Mere months after the United States passed half a million pandemic deaths due to willful public misinformation by elected officials and the attempted seizure of the U.S. Capitol so that the lawmakers within could be either forced into nullifying an election or executed for their unwillingness to do so, the new political story is “Democratic President In Crisis.” What crisis? Every crisis.
When the Republican president faced impeachment (twice), presided over inexplicable military about-faces endangering allies, instigated new trade wars that caused commodity chaos, demanded relaxations of pandemic warnings based on a belief that health experts were only attempting to damage him politically, lied about the path of a hurricane, lied to investigators about contacts between his campaign and Russian government agents, pushed for the deployment of the U.S. military against political demonstrators, and instigated a still-uncountable number of individual constitutional crises as his staff ran roughshod over congressional powers and executive restrictions while relying on party allies to nullify the attempted checks that would prevent it, it was all a crisis.
So now the new guy's got to be pinned with the crisis label too, and according to the agreed upon standards of journalism, former president Jimmy Carter must be mentioned at least once when doing so. To the headlines! Run, Shadowfax! Show us the meaning of haste!
CNN: Multiple crises at home and abroad provide a reality check for Biden's White House
NBC: Biden battles new crises as honeymoon fades
Fox: Battered Biden under siege as crises confound the White House
And what of this new president's management style? After four years of public belittling of staffers, time set aside in meetings for each participant to flatter Our Leader and compete for his favor, the dismissal of military generals as stupid, the erasure of the State Department and diplomatic corps in favor of transitory declarations via smartphone, and raw contempt for any American citizen who did not vote for him, what balancing character flaws can we highlight in his successor?
New York Times: Beneath Joe Biden’s Folksy Demeanor, a Short Fuse and an Obsession With Details
In that one, we learn that Mr. Biden demands "hours of detail-laden debate" from policy experts before coming to a final decision, and that he has "ire" for those who he believes are either snowing him with acronyms or wasting his time. If Trump's error was a seething contempt for all expertise and an unwillingness to read documents not principally focused around himself, it is possible that the New Guy is similarly unhinged in his desire to consult with "scores of policy experts" before making new policy decisions.
"It is a method of governing that can feel at odds with the urgency of a country still reeling from a pandemic and an economy struggling to recover."
Sure, there you go. Slap a stamp on it, ship it out. New Guy just doesn't feel quite as publicly decisive as Captain Crazythumbs. During the four days it might take New Guy to finalize a policy decision, Old Guy would have already decided five separate times, each decision in direct conflict with the others, and fired off 20 different tweets insulting anyone who objected to any of them.
So then, what are the new crises facing the country? Peculiarly, the ongoing pandemic is not among them. The public has been giving Biden top-tier marks on bringing the pandemic under control as Biden's team oversees drastic ramp-ups in vaccine distribution and the beginning of the pandemic's end begins to appear over the horizon.
One of the Biden Administration "crises" is that vaccinated Americans are now confused as to whether they are still required to wear masks or not. This one is rather easily solved by going to state and local government sites to learn what policies are in place for your own town, or by reading the signs regularly posted on the doors of each place of business informing customers of their current policies, which is precisely what everyone should already have been doing to begin with. This momentary frustration does not seem a good fit for the "crisis" word more often thrown around these days to describe hundreds of thousands of American deaths.
One of the "crises" is a Republican declaration that the southern border is in "crisis" because they say it is. Once justified by the same seasonal surge of border crossings that typically occur during Not Summer in a vast and deadly desert, it is now justified by a handful of Republican lawmakers staring at reeds during Rio Grande small boat tours.
One of the "crises" is that a major fuel pipeline company allowed itself to be breached in a ransomware attack, only to then prove unable to recover its own systems over the span of multiple days. Despite no actual fuel shortage, this caused runs on gas stations nationwide (including in places the pipeline never served to begin with) and several incidents in which patriotic Americans burned their own cars into molten lumps after stuffing their trunks and back seats with filled containers of gasoline so that other patriotic Americans wouldn't buy it first.
As it turns out—and after days of the company evading the question—it was the company’s billing computers that had been brought down in the attack. Pipeline operations were perfectly fine; there was just no way for the company to keep track of who bought their product and now owed them money. One solution, if the closure had extended long enough to seriously jeopardize supplies, might have been an emergency federal order to resume pipeline operations coupled with federal assurance that the government would pay whatever costs the company couldn’t manage to bill their actual customers for.
Unfortunately, that would in all likelihood have ushered in a new era in which fuel traders coordinated with cybercriminals to throw markets into turmoil on purpose, all to profit from the elevated prices the federal government would then pay in order to resolve it. (See: Enron.) It would probably have to have been followed up with a government takeover and restructuring of the "saved" Colonial Pipeline, so that turning off critical pieces of U.S. infrastructure in economy-shaking ways would not become a net profit producer for the company executives overseeing each failure.
One of the "crises" is a shortage of sauces at a chicken sandwich franchise. Sort of. At the moment, only scattered Republicans are pinning that one on the new president, hoping to make it stick. Again, it's probably best to nip this one in the bud through swift government takeover. America cannot be without its sauces, and if the U.S. military cannot swiftly get the sauces to the places the sauces need to be, nobody can. That seems the most "decisive" approach, if we are all getting angsty over the post-Trump president not visibly flailing his arms at each new national panic and our politics-watchers need a booster shot of that old strongman charm.
Then there is the ongoing violence between Israeli government forces and the Palestinians under occupation in annexed lands. Escalating violence does count as a genuine crisis. But it is also one in which the major debates are over how the United States should best put diplomatic pressure on each side, the same debates that have gone on for decades as the United States both acts as major guarantor of Israeli defense and, in doing so, allows hard-right Israeli governments to mete out violence that the state could almost certainly not get away with without U.S. protection.
There is no chance of U.S. military intervention here. Fear not, our government will at some point again thunder into the region with new edicts for How Things Must Be Resolved, only to again slink back off after each new attempt at empire-crafting is thwarted by the human beings who actually live there deciding they would rather not abide by the plans we announced for them. However, immediate options in this case are limited to phone calls and sternly worded public statements. It is a crying shame that real estate scion Jared Kushner was not able to bring peace to the region despite being mostly rich and having access to multiple books purchased off of Amazon, but here we are and here we will remain for some time to come. It will indeed be a test of Biden's abilities, exactly as it had tested every president of the modern era.
What we can gather from all these stories lumped together with the urgent language of crisis is that the press has very, very urgently wanted to return to normal themes and narratives, and mere months after the first nonpeaceful transfer of power since the Civil War we are going to have these narratives shoveled into our faces whether we want it or not. Is Joe Biden too surly? Will the spectacular banality of a pipeline company's IT department echo public memories of Carter-era energy crises if we in the press try very hard to mention those two things together? And what of Republican sniping over immigration or—wait, look there! It appears the national debt has emerged from long hibernation, and it has something to say!
During an entire presidency of incompetence, open corruption, brazen public lying, attempted extortions, and mass U.S. deaths, the press worked feverishly to present constitutional crises and history-shaking events within the standardized frames of partisan sniping, political gamesmanship, and questions being asked. Covering the same authoritarian actions here that have long been called out as authoritarian acts elsewhere, the brain of the national press ... broke. Editors could not stomach making the shift, and so demanded it all be sorted into the columns that past events had been sorted into so that nobody could claim they were treating orchestrated propaganda-peddling with any more hostility than the more truthful statements of past administrations and party leaders.
It was absolutely assured that the end of the Trump presidency—for now—would be treated as something of a class reunion for put-upon editors desperate to get back the political coverage that their networks and papers had been designed to produce. What are the polling implications of Latest New Event? How will this affect midterm voters? Can Leader project decisiveness? What gossip can be culled from the White House? Did somebody snap at someone? Oh, do tell.
To some extent it may be harmless—we all are very, very tired, after all, and individual reporters and pundits are likely as relieved as the rest of us to be able to tell stories that, shockingly, do not appear to threaten our constitutional foundations, or are likely to produce new international trade wars, or result in half a million deaths, or that hint that the sitting president and his closest allies are longtime petty criminals whose careers have been pockmarked with the sort of acts that would the less lawyered among us in prison for a decade or two. It is almost calming.
The problem, though, is that we are not in a new era. The lies of the insurrection are not past—they are continuing in places like Arizona and Georgia. Lawmakers who shouted in fear as violent coup-backing rioters broke through nearby windows are right now claiming that the same riots did not happen or were of no particular consequence. Republican leaders are still deciding, even today, how far they can go in sabotaging investigation of how the past administration's actions, and their own public statements, fomented the violence and caused the resulting deaths.
We are not back to normal, and scurrying back to journalism's safe spaces of four years ago for a bit of solace is doing the same disservice as always.
Is the Biden Administration facing "crisis," as we have come to define that term after the last four years of chaos? Aside from the increasingly ignored pandemic, there is no plausible way to claim so. The Biden team has so far been so irritatingly low-profile and workaday that partisan snipers are expressing exasperation at how little fodder they have been given to work with.
Killing half a million people through incompetence, ignoring congressional powers outright to block legislative probes of executive corruption, being recorded in conversation demanding personal political favors before executing governmental functions, engaging in a slew of pardons specifically rewarding allies who were found to have lied to federal law enforcement officials investigating a specific alleged crime undertaken for your own benefit—those are still crises.
Republicans being upset at border crossing numbers, a few days of public confusion after pandemic safety instructions shift into new transitory phases, or even a few days of irrational panic buying at local gas stations? Listen, buddy, we wish those were presidency-defining crises. I would pay double my current taxes to live in a country where those were the biggest new crises I might ever meet up with after walking out the front door.
A good chunk of Florida is going to be underwater in the next few decades, you know. That sounds like a crisis. Elevated temperatures are causing widespread drought, yet again, and fire season in the West is expected to again be horrific. There's a good chance that combinations of heat and humidity will render portions of the American South inhospitable to human life, and long-neglected infrastructure decisions are now ballooning into system failures with deadly results. In the coming year there is a good chance that a newly political Supreme Court will overturn laws that have underpinned governance for the last half century. There is a very good chance that the next election, the very next one, will feature races with official tallies that are simply nullified by hard-right antidemocratic lawmakers who object to the outcome—and that those lawmakers will succeed in their efforts. There is already a long list of truly existential crises to chose from, and many more are waiting in the wings.
Biff Hummerguy filling his backseat with leaking gas containers because he heard that the cryptocoin blockchain was going to NFT the oil pipes may be a hell of a story, but it's not the thing that is going to drive midterm elections. Unless, that is, political journalism itself is vapid enough to demand it.
Which, God help us all, isn't exactly an idea the rest of us can easily dismiss.