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Can Joe Biden Ride “Boring” to Reelection?

“Do you want my most subversive hot take?” a friend recently asked me over dinner. I nodded, as a writer can never say no to a question like that. “Biden is the best president of our lifetime.” They might be right. Despite being very much on the fence about Joe Biden in the 2020 Democratic primary, and even writing a Washington Post piece saying he should drop out after he lost primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, I have come around to the 46th president, impressed with the sheer amount of progressive legislation the administration has championed, from infrastructure to climate to prescription drugs.

But a lot of people haven’t come around to the president, who has struggled with Donald Trump–level approval ratings despite seeming to have pulled off a postpandemic soft landing for the economy, with strong job growth, cooling inflation, and fading recession chatter. Yet this financial marvel is not reflected in Biden’s poll numbers. A Wall Street Journal poll found that “58% of voters say the economy has gotten worse over the past two years, whereas only 28% say it has gotten better, and nearly three in four say inflation is headed in the wrong direction.”

“I’ve never seen this big of a disconnect between how the economy is actually doing and key polling results about what people think is going on,” Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, told The New York Times. The question is not only why does Biden not get more credit for this economic recovery, but also why does the media seem so deeply disinterested in the impact of Biden’s presidency? I think these two phenomena are linked. Bidenworld’s biggest problem is likely also its superpower: its boringness.

This past week I was interviewing Franklin Foer about his new Biden biography, The Last Politician, for my Fast Politics podcast, and we got onto the subject of the president’s major win in negotiating prescription drug costs, a result of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). This is something that multiple presidents have promised, and none have achieved. If it works, it will be one of the very few times in American history where the government has won against the lobbyists (or, for lack of a better term, the DC “swamp,” which I seem to remember a certain former guy complaining about). It’s a change, the Times noted, “that the pharmaceutical industry and Republicans have opposed for decades.”

George W. Bush authorized the creation of Medicare Part D nearly two decades ago, but it wasn’t until the IRA that the government could negotiate lower prices on both Medicare Part D and Part B drugs. Last week the Biden administration announced that Medicare had selected 10 drugs on which to negotiate. One of them, Entresto, which people take for heart failure, could no longer cost about $713 for a month of pills. Such negotiation could lead to a sea change in the way elderly people live “We know that 80% of the public is with us,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told the Times, adding that the IRA would be key to her 2024 reelection campaign. The Biden administration’s attempts to rein in drug prices could prove wildly popular with voters—if they’re aware of them.

But you probably didn’t spend the weekend reading about these negotiations, just like you might’ve missed Biden’s big Camp David meeting last month with Japanese and South Korean leaders, which The Washington Post described as “another major step toward the establishment of a new trilateral alliance that could help all three nations cope with the growing threats from North Korea and China in a world destabilized by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” However, you probably caught how Florida governor and 2024 wannabe Ron DeSantis refused to tour Hurricane Idalia damage with Biden, a story that seemed to dominate the news cycle over the Labor Day weekend—surely more than the president’s touting of his administration’s actions to protect workers.

The problem for Team Biden is that its superpower, its ability to slide under the radar while getting a lot done for the American people, may also be its Achilles heel, holding back the administration from getting the credit it deserves. Whether negotiating drug prices with Big Pharma, helping fund the building of semiconductor factories, or investing in cleaner forms of energy, the Biden administration is doing a lot of positive stuff for Americans. Yet certain initiatives, like spending hundreds of millions of dollars on broadband for rural communities, can get easily drowned out by Republicans threatening to shut down the government or calling to impeach Biden for some reason.

It’s not that boringness can’t win elections, as Wisconsin governor Tony Evers can attest. “Boring wins,” he declared after winning reelection in 2022 by 3.4 points, which could be considered a landslide in such an evenly split state. And in a way, we’ve been here before. “It was a key theme of Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign, unstated but powerful, and a vivid contrast with the public-train-wreck incumbent: If elected, he was going to be boring,” Michael Schaffer wrote last year in Politico. “Promise kept.”

But one problem with Biden’s “boring” plan heading into 2024 is the news media. Not only is the media more interested in covering Trumpworld than Bidenworld, but it seems like journalists are somewhat resentful toward the current administration for its disinterest in playing ball these past few years. Remember, Trumpworld was filled with blockbuster leaks and White House feuds, leading to increased subscriptions and sky-high ratings—the “Trump bump,” as it was called. “The media became addicted to the constant excitement and danger of Trump,” Guardian media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote in an email. “Biden offers something apparently far less compelling: decency, sanity, and a sense of reasonable calm.”

And Foer warns of the media overcorrecting from the Trump years. “All the coverage of Trump was very emotional, unusually impassioned, and rightly so,” he told me. “But I find the press is overcorrecting for that in its coverage of Biden. There’s a drive to reassert authority and objectivity, which leads them to be quite rough on the current guy.”

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