The Media Today

Biden, Manchin, and the stakes behind the slogans

December 21, 2021
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 19: Reporters and photographers follow Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., as he walks through the Ohio Clock Corridor to the Senate floor for a vote in the Capitol on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Over the weekend, the first Fox News Sunday of the post-Chris Wallace era made headlines thanks to one of its guests: Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia. Bret Baier, in as a guest host, asked Manchin about the status of the “Build Back Better” bill, a package of social and climate spending that is a crucial part of President Biden’s agenda and already passed the House, but has stalled in the Senate as Manchin, the key vote, has dragged his feet. “I’ve always said this, Bret: if I can’t go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia, I can’t vote for it,” Manchin said. “And I cannot vote to continue with this piece of legislation. I just can’t.” Baier’s eyebrows visibly shot up. “You’re done?” he asked. “This is… this is a no?” Manchin confirmed that “this is a no on this legislation.” The political mediasphere quickly went into overdrive. As Niall Stanage, The Hill’s White House columnist, noted, the Fox hit was the third time that Manchin, “Democratic senator from one of the nation’s poorest states,” has used a right-of-center news outlet to punch a hole in Biden’s agenda, having recently also done so via the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal and an executive summit hosted by the same paper.

Manchin did not give Baier advance warning that he would be committing news on his show; nor, apparently, did he give the White House or top Congressional Democrats much of a heads up, informing them of his impending remarks half an hour before he went on air, and only then through an aide. A few hours later, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, hit back in a blistering statement that was reportedly authorized by Biden himself, claiming that Manchin had been privately on board with a sizable spending package as recently as a few days prior, and effectively accusing him of lying. The Dem-on-Dem drama, inevitably, proved irresistible to political reporters, and multi-bylined postmortems of Biden and Manchin’s working relationship quickly ensued. At yesterday’s White House briefing, reporters barraged Psaki with questions on the same theme: What was the rationale behind her statement? Did the White House regret its treatment of Manchin? After “taking Senator Manchin to the woodshed,” would the White House now reach out to him? Had Biden done so already? Did Biden “feel betrayed by his friend?” (“I’m not going to relitigate the tick-tock of yesterday,” Psaki said, before repeatedly referring back to her statement.) Psaki was also asked if she’d read an op-ed by Steve Clemons, of The Hill, making the case that the White House’s “incivility” was to blame for “losing” Manchin. Politico splashed Clemons’s claim, referring to him as the “Manchin whisperer.”

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Not that the press really needed a Manchin whisperer—by this point, he’d spoken again for himself, not to Fox or the Journal, but on MetroNews, a West Virginia radio station where the host, Hoppy Kercheval, asked Manchin to explain himself to his voters. Manchin replied that while other Democrats had figured they could simply “badger and beat [him] up” to get his vote, “I’m from West Virginia—I’m not from where they’re from, where they can just beat the living crap out of people and think they’ll be submissive.” Manchin also seemed to suggest that, for all his hurt feelings, he was never really likely to vote through Build Back Better in the first place, and some media commentators have since suggested that his fellow Democrats were naïve to ever think that they could get him to yes; Elana Schor, Politico’s Congress editor, accused them of “magical thinking.” If this is the case (and it’s not totally clear if or how it is, more on which below), then some members of the press—who have spent months glued to Manchin’s every utterance, and centered him in political coverage to a (sometimes literally) absurd degree—might be guilty of the same. Manchin is a powerful figure, sitting as he does at the center of an evenly divided Senate, and his stances merit close media scrutiny. As I’ve written before, he also sits at the center of less obviously useful storylines that are nonetheless catnip to many journalists: intraparty drama and the appearance of inter-party dialogue.

As I’ve also written, recent coverage of Manchin reflects broader problems with coverage of Biden’s domestic agenda as a whole: too much of it has obsessed over personalities, topline cost estimates, and procedural jargon, while too little coverage has elucidated the crucial stakes of the policies Biden is proposing, not least to counter the climate crisis. There has been coverage of these stakes, including around climate—at the height of a previous Manchin-fueled news cycle, for instance, major news outlets reported on the effects of climate change in West Virginia and Manchin’s deep financial ties to the state’s coal industry—but climate has been nowhere near as central as it should be to coverage of Biden’s agenda, especially on TV. We’ve seen a similar pattern in the latest burst of Manchin coverage. Major outlets ran sharp stories, including around Manchin’s history of fighting key climate bills; even Baier, on Fox News Sunday, asked him about his coal interests. Elsewhere, the climate story has gotten woefully lost amid the media focus on mudslinging. By my count, across six hours of programming yesterday evening, Manchin’s name was mentioned nearly a hundred fifty times on CNN; the word “climate” was mentioned ten times. At the White House briefing, just one reporter asked Psaki whether, without Build Back Better, Biden can hit the climate targets he’s set for 2030.

Similar dynamics apply to coverage of the social-spending provisions in the bill, many of which have been largely ignored at the top levels of the news cycle, others of which—the extension of Biden’s child tax credit, for example—are often covered, in political journalism, more as sticking points or polling issues than real money that affects real families. It is important, of course, to cover sticking points because policies only have an impact if they become law. But coverage organized around legislative inflection points, and not the policies themselves, can drive a perception of the process that feels untethered and circular, which in turn can affect lawmakers’ incentives to act or not. And it can be easy to overreact to individual inflection points in isolation. Much of the early coverage of Manchin’s Fox interview was highly finalistic, but that tone has since given way to greater uncertainty, with reporters and opinionators debating whether Build Back Better is really dead yet, and Politico reporting that Manchin and Biden have now spoken and share a sense that talks will resume “in some form.” On MSNBC last night, Lawrence O’Donnell suggested that while the press heard Manchin say “no” on Fox, Biden, a former senator himself, will have heard Manchin say no “on this legislation.” (Emphasis mine.)

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On Sunday, in the aftermath of the Fox interview, Politico’s Playbook newsletter concluded that Build Back Better “is dead. The only question is whether some new, more Manchin-shaped bill can be revived that salvages some key pieces of the Biden climate and social policy agenda.” This is actually a pretty crucial question—ultimately, “Build Back Better” is a slogan, and the death of a slogan isn’t really important. The huge scope of the bill has long defied media attempts to communicate its stakes in shorthand so it’s understandable that we fell back on its name, but the individual policies have always mattered most and that will remain the case going forward, whatever rubric they fall under. The bill’s ambitious sweep has often been lauded by its supporters, but it’s also true that the sweep is a consequence of America’s dysfunctional political system; in many other democracies, policy priorities get passed one at a time, which makes it easier for the press to scrutinize them in individual detail. The American press must do this work of disentanglement itself. Even if it’s easier to stick to what Joe Manchin said on Fox.

Below, more on Build Back Better, Manchin, and Biden:

  • The stakes for the media: The Build Back Better bill, as passed in the House, contained a provision that would create a tax credit to support local news organizations, some of which stand to benefit to the tune of millions of dollars should the provision become law. As Marc Tracy, a media reporter at the New York Times, pointed out yesterday, the future of the tax credit is now uncertain. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds reported last week (before Manchin’s Fox interview) that proponents of the measure recently met with Manchin’s staff, who assured them that he “strongly supports” helping local news. Whether that translates into legislative action, of course, remains to be seen.
  • Inflategate: In his Fox interview and elsewhere, Manchin has cited concerns around inflation for his opposition to passing Build Back Better in its current form. Reporters have sometimes failed to interrogate this rationale, even though, as Jim Tankersley writes in the Times, “economic evidence strongly suggests Mr. Manchin is wrong” to say that the bill would exacerbate rising prices. The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz argues that Manchin is “faking” his inflation fears, and takes issue with the headline on Tankersley’s piece—“The Path Ahead for Biden: Overcome Manchin’s Inflation Fears”—arguing that it “cannot be squared with Manchin’s words less than two months ago.”
  • The “real president”: Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris appeared for an interview on Charlamagne Tha God’s show on Comedy Central. At one point, Charlamagne asked her whether “the real president of this country” is Manchin or Biden. “C’mon Charlamagne,” Harris replied, “it’s Joe Biden.” Charlamagne pushed back—“I can’t tell sometimes,” he said—but Harris went on: “Don’t start talking like a Republican about asking whether or not he’s president,” she said. “The reality is, because we are in office, we do things like the child tax credit, which is going to reduce Black child poverty by fifty percent,” she added, before listing other administration policies.
  • Coming attractions: Today, at 2.30pm Eastern, Biden will deliver a speech to the nation as COVID surges again via the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Psaki told reporters yesterday that the speech would not be “about locking the country down”; instead, Biden is expected to announce other interventions, including a federal effort to buy at-home testing kits and mail them to those who want one. Tomorrow, meanwhile, Biden will sit for a one-on-one interview with David Muir, the anchor of World News Tonight on ABC.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.