Sorry NYT, Joe Biden isn't Boring
Treating Biden's consequential presidency as 'boring' reveals the worst elements of Trump-era political journalism
There is a certain type of political analysis piece that seems designed to spark debate amongst the political media elites that dominate Twitter and drive the hate traffic that funds a lot of media in the Facebook Era. The gist of these pieces is that they treat politics as entertainment or reality television. In doing so, they highlight the fact that some national political reporters are insulated from the consequences of politics. These media types are able to revel in the back and forth, because their well being isn’t on the line during election season. They have a good job, health care, and don’t have family members living in fear of deportation or state santioned bigotry.
As a former political operative with a quick Twitter finger, I am the sort of person easily triggered by these stories. The way these stories reinforce the worst caricatures of elite reporting is so obvious that I can never tell whether the writer has their tongue in their cheek or their head in their ass.
The latest entry into this long-running series of trollish content appeared yesterday when the New York Times published a story headlined “Voters Chose Boring Over Bombast. They Got Biden’s Penchant for Pontificating.” According to the story:
If it was hard for the audience to follow — the students and faculty at McHenry sat silently most of the time — the details in Biden’s speeches often trip him up as well, leading to mumbles, stumbles, pauses and real-time corrections as he struggles through the dense material on the teleprompter.
This story angered a lot of Democrats, which may seem odd since Biden and his staff often used “boring” as a selling point in the 2020 campaign. Most of the anger — mine included — is about more than this specific story, which is filled with enough caveats to undermine the annoying premise in the headline and lede. Mike Shear, the reporter on the story, is a good reporter (and person), so it’s not about his byline. It’s that it is worth understanding why people are mad and the risks of the “Biden is boring” discourse.
Am I Overreacting to a Random Article?
Most definitely. But I have a bigger (and hopefully not too boring) point to make.
Is Joe Biden Boring?
Before we dig into the reasons why some in the media insist on pushing the idea that Joe Biden is boring, let’s answer the basic question — is Joe Biden boring?
The lede of the offending story and the primary argument of the story’s defenders is an anecdote from a recent speech, where Biden told the crowd: “I know that it’s a boring speech, but it’s an important speech.” This was a funny and clearly unscripted aside. One might even say that it was an entertaining moment. I watched that whole speech in preparation for recording Pod Save America. It’s true; I have spent more entertaining half hours. It was a very substantive and somewhat dense speech. It’s unlikely this speech will win any awards for eloquence, nor will it feature prominently in the Biden Presidential Library, but a boring speech is preferable to the rambling bigoted, Breitbart Mad Libs that defined the previous President’s speaking style.
Historically, Biden has mixed passionate campaign trail stemwinders with long and discursive addresses. For much of his career, he was somewhat notorious for being long-winded. However, in 2020, he transformed into a very disciplined candidate who delivered his message in an authentic and plain-spoken manner. But the speechmaking is beyond the point. A boring speech does not a boring presidency make.
There is nothing boring about saving hundreds of thousands of Americans from a deadly pandemic. There is nothing boring about ending a twenty-year war in a faraway land. There is nothing boring about hugely progressive and transformative economic policy. Nor is there anything boring about the Biden White House making hugely consequential decisions and proposals at a historic pace.
If you care about the substance of the presidency — and how it affects the lives and livelihoods of Americans — nothing is boring about Joe Biden.
Why Do Media Types Think Biden is Boring?
Boring is a subjective term. What is riveting to one person is mind-numbing to another. However, confusing objective truth with subjective opinion is a trademark quality of political punditry in the time of Twitter. There is no question that many reporters that cover Joe Biden find him “boring.” There are several reasons for this:
First, White House reporters must listen to every word that Joe Biden utters. Sometimes this means listening to essentially the same speech delivered three times in the same day in three different cities. Hearing the same speech over and over is certainly boring for most people, but the reporters are not the audience. Each time the speech is delivered, the president is trying to reach different people in the room and in the media market where the speech takes place. One of the mistakes that too many politicians make is thinking everyone follows politics closely. When the tedium experienced by the reporter shows up in the reporting, it reveals a narcissism and detachment that doesn’t serve the public.
Second, there is an incongruity between the imperatives of the media and the White House. The traditional media’s bias is towards the new and different. If something has been written about or discussed on air previously, it is less interesting and less worthy of coverage. However, repetition is key to successful political communication. It is a hyperactive, disaggregated media world. It is difficult to reach people. To get one idea across, you must repeat it hundreds of times in hundreds of different places. When reporters decry repetition as boring, they reveal a lack of understanding about the very field they cover for a living.
Finally, the “Biden is boring” argument is another way of saying Biden is bad for business. The election of Donald Trump and the ensuing chaos was a bailout package for many in American media. Ratings skyrocketed as people couldn't avert their eyes. Subscribing to the New York Times and Washington Post became an act of resistance. Since Biden’s win, ratings and traffic for political media have returned to Earth. Ron Klain, the White House Chief of Staff, had a little fun at the media’s expense by tweeting an Axios article about the declining traffic with “sorry, not sorry.”
The Biden Era decline in political media is over-stated. Ratings and engagement always decline in the year after the presidency, but there is no question that our media is struggling to return to normalcy – and blaming Biden as opposed to adapting their approach to cover competence in a compelling fashion.
The Danger of the Fetishisizing Political Entertainment
The online anger is not really about this article but in relation to a certain strain of political coverage that focuses on optics over substance and entertainment over impact. In the mind of many Democrats, this sort of theater criticism is how we ended up with Trump and serves as evidence that too many people have learned too few lessons from the Trump Era. Treating politics like reality television is a great way to end up with an over-the-hill reality TV star as President.
There is a huge tell in the article that sparked this rant masquerading as a newsletter post. Shear writes:
And as a candidate for president, Biden was sometimes criticized for not putting on display the same kind of powerful performances that his rivals did.
Nowhere was that contrast more striking than with former president, Donald J. Trump, whose bellicose, rambling, he-could-say-anything speeches were just as long — if not longer — than Biden’s but were rarely boring in the traditional sense. (In 2016, as a candidate, Mr. Trump ejected a MAGA-hat-wearing supporter who had the temerity to stand up during a speech and declare, ‘This is boring!’)”
Essentially, Shear argues that Trump was more entertaining because he could say something insane or offensive at any moment. Another way of putting it — Joe Biden is more boring than Trump because he doesn’t commit a half dozen moral and criminal offenses on Twitter before 7 A.M. Outrages are exciting. Substance is boring. Making a gaffe is interesting. Making a difference is tedious. The danger of political reporting that devolves into theater criticism is that it incentivizes all the wrong behavior. Attention is the lifeblood of politics. Something is backward when solving a complex problem without a hitch is ignored because it’s boring and picking a Twitter fight with a random celebrity allows you to dominate the conversation for days.
In the end, this line of thinking is an indictment of the media, not Joe Biden or his speechwriters.