“I actually don't necessarily think that he has to reach out to the people that didn't vote for him,” said CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash in December 2016. “It would be nice if he did. It would be, you know, part of the tradition of presidents-elect and new presidents to do that. But he's not that person, and he's never going to be that person, and he's the guy who America elected.”
Bash was, of course, referring to Donald Trump, who was fresh off his upset victory in that year’s presidential election. Trump would take office with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, just as President Barack Obama had with Democrats as he took office in 2009. Unlike with Obama, there was little expectation that Trump would try to work with Democrats to advance a legislative agenda. Bash’s December comment was emblematic of how the press would cover Trump for the years that followed.
Upon taking office, Trump would pursue two legislative goals: repealing the 2010 Affordable Care Act and enacting a comprehensive tax reform bill. In both instances, Trump and Republicans aimed to sidestep Democrats entirely by making minimal outreach efforts and utilizing the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process for passage. His health care gambit failed as Republicans couldn’t muster a simple majority in the Senate, but in December 2017, he did sign a $1.5 tax bill into law without a single Democratic vote.
The press, for the most part, was fine with this approach. Democrats were typically framed as obstructionists whenever they countered Trump policies with their own, and Trump’s attempts to stop congressional Democrats from fulfilling their obligation to provide oversight of the executive branch was reported in a surprisingly matter-of-fact sort of way. When Trump was able to enact one of his agenda items, news organizations like the Associated Press tended to cover it in terms of being a “win” for Trump, as it did when reporting on the passage of Trump’s tax bill.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that now that we have a Democratic president once again, the press has shifted its expectations in a few concerning ways.
Since Biden’s election, some mainstream media have amplified a line of argument pulled straight from the right wing: Biden ran on unity, so it’s up to him to try to bring the country together. Additionally, they’ve used the “unity” line to justify holding Biden to higher standards than Trump ever was. That’s why the unilateral policy implementations of the Trump era were given a pass while Biden has been hounded to get Republican support for his COVID-19 relief package rather than utilizing the reconciliation process.
During Biden White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s second official press briefing, she was asked by New York Times reporter Michael Shear why Biden hadn’t done more outreach. He said that “there has so far been almost no fig leaf even to the Republican Party” and noted that Biden doesn’t have any Republicans in his cabinet.
It’s true that Obama had Republicans in his cabinet. In fact, he nominated three Republicans, though one of them withdrew. And though Biden doesn’t have any Republicans in his cabinet, Trump didn’t have any Democrats in his.
And like Biden, Trump also made a pledge of unity, back in 2016. Specifically, Trump touched on that theme during his victory speech:
Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me. For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.
Did everyone simply assume that Trump was lying when he called for unity? Possibly. Bash certainly wasn’t wrong when she said that “he's not that person, and he's never going to be that person.” Even so, it’s a call that he publicly made, just as many other candidates and politicians have done over the course of years. Biden’s calls for unity don’t justify holding him to a different standard than Trump. And the real source of the unity problem dates back to before either man stepped into the Oval Office.
The Obama presidency was marked by historic and strategic obstruction by Republicans, but this was treated as a failure of leadership on Obama’s part.
In 2009, just days after Obama’s inauguration, NBC News’ Chuck Todd asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs if the new president would veto his own economic stimulus bill if it didn’t have Republican support. Keeping in mind that Obama took office at a time of economic catastrophe, when the country was losing hundreds of thousands of jobs each month, it seems downright silly that he would veto his own emergency legislation.
Zero House Republicans voted for the bill, and just three Senate Republicans voted for it. Does that make it bad legislation? No, of course not. The goal of the bill was to catch an economy in free fall and turn it around. On that front, it was a major success, as Obama left office with a net gain of more than 11.5 million jobs. By comparison, Trump lost nearly 4 million jobs during his term.
Bipartisanship for the sake of projecting unity is about politics, not governance. When Todd asked whether Obama would veto his own legislation, that’s precisely what he was concerning himself with: politics. As we would come to learn as Obama’s first term went on, the lack of Republican buy-in for Obama’s policies was also about politics, not policy disagreements.
“We’re going to do everything -- and I mean everything we can do -- to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can,” then-Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) said of Obama’s agenda ahead of the 2010 midterms.
Around that same time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made the case that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
This was a far cry from George W. Bush’s administration, in which Democrats in Congress could be counted on to work with the administration in good faith on bills where there was common ground. This was a standard and completely unremarkable approach to governing, and it changed only after Obama took office. Luckily for Republicans, the press wouldn’t hold their obstruction against them.
In 2010, The New York Times hammered Obama following the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The issue wasn’t with the merits of the new health care law, but with the vote totals. After months of negotiations, amendments, and attempts to woo Republican legislators, the bill passed through Congress without a single Republican vote.
“But there is no doubt that in the course of this debate, Mr. Obama has lost something — and lost it for good,” wrote the Times’ David Sanger. “Gone is the promise on which he rode to victory less than a year and a half ago — the promise of a ‘postpartisan’ Washington in which rationality and calm discourse replaced partisan bickering.”
It’s true that Obama did campaign in 2008 on trying to bridge partisan divides. He cited then-Sen. Biden’s ability to work across the aisle as a selling point for picking him as his running mate. “I know [Biden will] be able to help me turn the page on the ugly partisanship in Washington so we can bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass an agenda that works for the American people,” he said.
But it takes a willing partner to accomplish anything of note. Obama did not have that willing partner, and Biden won’t, either. So long as the media frame Republican obstruction as a Democratic failure, there’s no political incentive for Republicans to work with Democrats, even when they share goals.
The press went easy on Trump and didn’t seem to hold his unwillingness to work with Democrats against him. That wasn’t the case with Obama, and it hasn’t been the case with Biden.
Biden took office amid the biggest economic crisis to greet a new president since -- well, since the last time a Democratic president was voted into power. Just as in 2009, when Obama worked to pass a stimulus bill in response to the economic calamity, Biden was tasked with the immediate need to sign a COVID-19 relief bill into law. And just as in 2009, the media is treating a lack of Republican votes as a presidential failure.
Biden met with Republican senators earlier this month in an attempt to find common ground, but they weren’t able to come to a compromise between the $1.9 trillion package backed by Democrats and the $618 billion bill proposed by the Republicans, forcing the president to rely on a bill passed via the filibuster-immune reconciliation process in the Senate. Reuters called the bill’s passage “an early test of Biden’s promise to work to bridge the partisan divide in Washington.”
After meeting with Republican senators at the White House on Monday, President Joe Biden appeared poised to push forward with his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan even if it fails to draw Republican support.
While the White House termed Biden’s discussion with 10 Republicans who pitched a downsized relief effort as “productive,” the Democratic president told the senators their plan did not go far enough.
Biden told the group “that he will not slow down work on this urgent crisis response, and will not settle for a package that fails to meet the moment,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Similarly, an article published just last month at The Wall Street Journal called Biden’s outreach to Republicans “the first test of his pledge to return bipartisanship to Washington,” and it called reconciliation “the most partisan of all political tools.”
Back in 2017, when describing Trump’s tax plan, however, the paper chided Democrats for not voting for a bill they played virtually zero role in crafting. A shared belief in reducing the corporate tax rate had become “a deeply partisan brawl,” according to the Journal. The article did note that Republicans had stymied Democratic efforts to fix issues with the Affordable Care Act. But it didn’t mention that unlike with the tax bill, Democrats spent months working with Republicans and adopting a number of their suggestions and amendments in a futile effort to gain support for the health care law. Republicans did no such thing when it came to the tax bill, which was written by Republicans behind closed doors, without Democratic input.
Trump never made meaningful attempts to reach out to Democrats, and the press generally gave him a pass on his inability or unwillingness to approach his legislative priorities, especially the historically unpopular 2017 tax bill, in a bipartisan manner. But now that the Democrats are back in power and President Joe Biden is focused on signing a COVID-19 relief bill into law, the media have adjusted their expectations and are putting the onus of striking a bipartisan deal on Biden.
If the media wants to grade presidents purely on how well they work with the opposing party, they should at least do it consistently.
Not only is it unfair to have two separate sets of rules for the two major political parties, but it also creates a perverse incentive for Republicans to gum up the gears of government whenever they’re out of power. If they know that the press will bend over backward to blame Democratic presidents whenever they’re stymied by Republican opposition, Republicans have every reason to double and triple down on those methods.
As a country, we deserve better than a press that adjusts its standards based on which party is in office or out of concern for whether or not it appears to favor one side or the other. We deserve honesty and consistency. To wildly swing from caring to not caring about bipartisanship is to tell audiences that the news they consume is just entertainment, just part of a game playing in the background.
There’s a story to be told here about why so few Republicans are willing to work with Democrats on addressing the pandemic that continues to ravage our economy and kill hundreds of thousands of Americans, but it’s not one enough of the press wants to tell. Instead, we’ll hear story after story saying it’s somehow wrong for Democrats to pass this aid package through the same process Republicans used to pass their 2017 tax bill. We deserve a bit of consistency from the press, but that’s not what we’re getting.