While politicos like to pretend otherwise, most presidential addresses to Congress contain very little that matters—they capture the public’s attention for a day or two, generate busywork for journalists, and are then promptly forgotten by all except historians, who parse them for meaning long after the administrations in question are over. In the present, they’re useful mostly as windows into the upcoming legislative calendar; viewers typically come away with a general sense as to what the president and his party want to prioritize. In his April address, President Biden laid out a specific deadline for the passage of a police reform bill. “I know Republicans have their own ideas and are engaged in very productive discussions with Democrats in the Senate,” he said. “We need to work together to find a consensus. But let’s get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death.”
Today, May 25, 2021, is the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has not passed. In lieu of a signing ceremony, President Biden invited the Floyd family to the White House, where he presumably told them that real progress on the bill is being made. But weeks into bipartisan talks, an end to qualified immunity—a federal doctrine that shields abusive officers from civil damages in most cases—remains unacceptable to Republicans, and it’s entirely possible negotiators won’t reach a passable compromise.
The same can be said about Biden’s infrastructure bill. There, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told the press in April that Biden hoped to “see major action in Congress and real progress by Memorial Day.” To keep that deadline, the negotiators would have to close, by Monday, a $1 trillion gap between Democratic and Republicans on the overall cost of the package, what exactly it should contain, and how it should be financed—tasks made difficult, obviously, by the unwillingness of most Republicans to grant Democrats a popular, big government policy victory.
Fortunately for Democrats and the country, the party can go it alone on infrastructure through budget reconciliation, and preparations are being made to do so. But the Floyd Act—much like the For the People Act, the bill on the January 6 commission, gun control legislation, D.C. statehood, immigration reform, and most everything else that’s piled up on the docket since the passage of Biden’s Covid relief plan—cannot pass without either a substantial amount of Republican support or an end to the legislative filibuster. It’s a terrible situation, and those of us who haven’t spent the last several months taking measurements for Biden’s place on Mount Rushmore have said so repeatedly. But for the broader public, a political situation isn’t truly real until the mainstream press has identified and explained it. And this week, the powers that be decided to bring the Biden honeymoon to a close.
“The dominant storyline,” NBC’s Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Carrie Dann informed us in a Monday piece, “has moved from the virus and even the vaccination rate, to the fate of President Biden’s non-Covid-related agenda on infrastructure and policing.” Now there’s a sentence that practically announces that the fix is in. This is perhaps the central trick of Todd’s trade—producing shifts in political discourse by reporting that shifts have already occurred. There are natural microtremors in the political landscape, it’s often implied, that only the delicate antennae of political reporters and pundits can detect. But the dominant storylines of American politics are actually authored, in sentences like the above, by people like Chuck Todd. You won’t find much evidence in polling that the electorate is more invested in infrastructure negotiations and the Floyd Act than they are in the pandemic. The narrative demands of American political journalism are bringing us to the next act anyway: In the media, attention is earned and money is made when the public perceives motion and change.
And the public’s opinions really might change, now that the entirety of the press is on the same new page as to what the public should be thinking about. Politico’s Playbook led yesterday with a reminder that “Biden’s deadlines have come due.” The New York Times is watching as “Hopes for Bipartisan Deals on Biden’s Priorities Dim.” Another NBC piece pointedly noted that the anniversary of Floyd’s death would be marked with “a discussion, not a deal.” And at CNN, we’re told that Biden faces a “crunch moment in his presidency.” “The Biden presidency and top Democrats,” CNN analyst Stephen Collinson wrote, “suddenly face a moment of truth with an audacious nation-changing agenda imperiled by the treacherous political math of divided Washington and stiff resistance by pro-Trump Republicans.”
There’s nothing actually sudden about any of this: Biden and the Democratic Party are facing exactly the same fundamental political situation they faced on Inauguration Day four months ago—the same political situation many liberals and leftists anticipated over a year ago during the Democratic primary as Biden lied about his ability to gather Republican support for his proposals. The press knew Republicans were never going to sign onto most of them; as it has become tedious to explain, everything has always depended upon the fate of the legislative filibuster, reconciliation rules, Joe Manchin, and Kyrsten Sinema. The only thing that’s changed within the last few days or so is the press’s sense that Biden should begin paying a price for legislative stasis.
So what’s next in this new “dominant storyline”? Well, the infrastructure talks will probably fail and, as far as many Democrats on the Hill are concerned, were never much more than an effort to create a permission structure for Manchin and other moderates to back another partisan reconciliation push. “I think they message the hell out of the difference this week,” a Senate Democratic aide told Axios, “and back home next week, market-test their umbrage.”
Then there’s the Endless Frontier Act—a 1,400-page pile of amendments, glued together by economic jingoism, that stick it to China with about $100 billion in federal tech funding and a crackdown on shark fin soup. “Some Democratic lawmakers and their aides,” Axios’s Alayna Treene wrote, “suspect that if this bill, which has involved a series of Republicans, can’t pass, then the entire mood in the Senate will shift away from comity.” But nothing about the bipartisan passage of the Frontiers Act would make the passage of the rest of Biden’s agenda any easier. In fact, if anything, it might help Republicans deflect criticism that they’ve been unwilling to make deals with the administration and encourage more futile, time-wasting negotiations on issues where Republicans and Democrats are further apart.
The press will obviously take a negative view of all this. We’ll hear about how tragic it is that Biden failed to bring the country together; columns about the need for a third party and the word gridlock are due for unwelcome comebacks. Keep an eye out, too, for the words disappointed and betrayal—the outlets that chose to amplify friendly and contented progressives in the early weeks of the administration will return to emphasizing divides within the Democratic coalition.
This might be good insofar as it might increase the pressure Biden and Democrats in Congress are feeling. The coming political meltdown over inflation, which will be framed as an unmanageable disaster Biden caused by listening to the left, will be less helpful. Rough and maddening days are ahead—both for the administration and those still optimistic enough to believe the administration can accomplish even a fifth of its stated agenda. Make no mistake: If the filibuster isn’t gutted or eliminated, it won’t. And all the narrative twists and turns the press will invent will sit atop that fundamental reality.