The pundit class turned on Biden. Does it matter?


Friday was a story of the D.C. class that chatters versus the D.C. class that matters. The pundits abandoned President Joe Biden in droves, while elected officials stayed silent or stuck with him.

In 2017, when Biden was plotting his first campaign against then-President Donald Trump, he went looking for a highbrow outlet to publish a piece about his reaction to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. The article — “‘We Are Living Through a Battle for the Soul of This Nation’” — found a home in The Atlantic.

Biden is known to be a regular cable TV viewer and is especially fond of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” He watches “throughout the morning” when he can, according to a person familiar with his habits, and when he can’t, aides monitor the show and sometimes brief him on what was said. The admiration is mutual. In March, co-host Joe Scarborough declared, “I think he’s better than he’s ever been — intellectually, analytically.”

When it comes to his media diet, Evan Osnos, author of a Biden biography, once noted that Biden is fond of “what we would call the classics” — including the New York Times, where Biden “pays a lot of attention to the columnists.” Biden spent hours of his time briefing Tom Friedman during the pullout of Afghanistan, and Friedman and other Times columnists have been regulars at off-the-record sessions with the president.

Back in the Obama era, while the First Family kept much of the Washington press corps at arm’s length, Joe and Jill Biden hosted an annual summer party on the lawn of the vice president’s mansion, where he would square off in water gun battles against reporters and their children.

But yesterday, after his calamitous Thursday night debate, one by one, it was these same TV hosts, columnists and media organs who abandoned Biden.

After eviscerating his debate performance, Scarborough said now is “the last chance for Democrats to decide whether this man we’ve known and loved for a very long time is up to the task” of running for reelection. (Notably, his wife and co-host Mika Brzezinski did not join him on this.)

The Atlantic ran a half-dozen articles calling on Biden to step aside. Tom Nichols wrote, “Biden had one job — don’t look old and befuddled — and he failed,” and “it’s time to think about the unthinkable.” Ron Brownstein said, “the prospect of the party simply marching forward with Biden as if nothing happened last night seems difficult to imagine.” The headline on a piece by Franklin Foer, author of a favorable best-selling account of Biden’s first two years in office, was “Someone Needs to Take Biden’s Keys.”

At the New York Times, a new column or editorial crucifying Biden for his debate appearance and calling for Democrats to swap him out for a new nominee trickled out from morning until night on Friday. Actually, Nicholas Kristof kicked things off minutes after the debate ended. “I hope he reviews his debate performance Thursday evening and withdraws from the race,” he wrote.

In the morning, Paul Krugman, one of Biden’s staunchest defenders, jumped on the bandwagon. Krugman’s headline — “The Best President of My Adult Life Needs to Withdraw”— matched the tone of all of these pieces: praise for his service followed by an urgent demand that he give up the race.

Several people I talked to about Biden’s relationship with the press said that it was undoubtedly Friedman’s betrayal that would sting the most. His piece set a new bar for framing his decision as taken more in sorrow than in anger. Friedman wrote that he was in a hotel room in Lisbon watching the debate and that he actually wept. Then he banged out a column telling his old friend he “must bow out of the race.”

By the afternoon, everything had been said but not everyone at the Times had said it. The final blow came Friday evening, when the full editorial board weighed in. The board said that Biden had been “an admirable president,” but he “is engaged in a reckless gamble” and “the greatest public service Mr. Biden can now perform is to announce that he will not continue to run for re-election.” On social media, Biden aides mocked the piece.

“The last time Joe Biden lost the New York Times editorial board’s endorsement it turned out pretty well for him,” said Cedric Richmond, one of Biden’s campaign co-chairs, in a statement.

Biden’s relationship with the elite media has always been a key to understanding him. A thesis of Foer’s book, for example, is that Biden both craves the admiration of the D.C. opinion elites, and has long used their frequent rejection of him as the fuel to power his political ascent. (This is one way in which he is not so different from Trump.)

It was, after all, the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd who crippled Biden’s first presidential campaign with her reporting on his plagiarism. Despite that rocky history, Biden has never given up on the Times —including Dowd, who has known and psychoanalyzed her fellow Irishman for decades — even if the paper’s columnists have now all given up on him.

Dowd delivered her cri de coeur Saturday morning, and as is typical it was the most devastating of them all: “He’s being selfish. He’s putting himself ahead of the country. He’s surrounded by opportunistic enablers. He has created a reality distortion field where we’re told not to believe what we’ve plainly seen. His hubris is infuriating. He says he’s doing this for us, but he’s really doing it for himself. I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about the other president.”

Unlike Ivy Leaguers Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the liberal media establishment — more and more the product of America’s best schools as Biden grew older — never swooned for Biden. He was counted out in the 2020 primaries and the Biden team resented it. Any media embrace of Biden since Trump’s post-Jan. 6 political resurrection has always been conditional.

“Mr. Biden has said that he is the candidate with the best chance of taking on this threat of tyranny and defeating it,” the Times editorial board wrote Friday. “His argument rests largely on the fact that he beat Mr. Trump in 2020. That is no longer a sufficient rationale for why Mr. Biden should be the Democratic nominee this year.”

There are other longtime skeptics who were primed to turn on Biden the minute he showed signs of not being up to the task. The four former Obama officials who host the influential “Pod Save America” podcast were out early Friday with an episode in which hosts Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Lovett called on Democrats to have an open debate about the merits of an open convention. Their former colleagues David Axelrod and David Plouffe, who personally vetted Biden for Obama in 2008, joined the chorus hours later. Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show,” who in February was pilloried by liberals for mocking Biden’s age, was being celebrated by some of the same critics yesterday for his biting post-debate commentary.

Biden is not known to be a big Substack reader, but if he were, he would see some former top-tier defenders making the same points: Joe Klein (“He needs to stand down, as soon as possible”), Andrew Sullivan (“For God’s Sake, Withdraw”), and Nate Silver (“Joe Biden should drop out”). And on it goes elsewhere among the media personalities and outlets he most respects: David Ignatius, The Economist, The Washington Post editorial board.

The Biden campaign, like the candidate himself, is built around the idea of earning the media’s validation — if it can — while always being prepared for a betrayal. By far, the most common reaction to criticism from Biden aides is that they’ve been underestimated before.

And yet, one of the most common conversations we’ve had with more self-reflective Biden officials this year is about whether their history of outsmarting the pundits has made them dangerously unwilling to consider any criticism.

History suggests that Biden aides will privately stew about the media dogpile while publicly rolling their eyes about how it doesn’t matter. And it might not.

It is surely more significant that Biden won support from Clinton and Obama Friday, that he delivered a well-received rally speech, that polls showed only minor movement in the race and that not a single Democratic elected official called for Biden to drop out of the race.

Brzezinski said Saturday morning that she understands why. An early riser, she was up later than usual because she spent last night dealing with the fallout over yesterday’s show.

“I was staying up late listening to everybody freak out on the phone calling Joe. And I literally was just shaking my head, going, ‘These people need to get diapers,’” she said. “It was one bad night. And it’s not the end of the world. Joe Biden has come back from way worse. The pattern of his life is that he comes back from the worst. I mean if that’s what you all think, that he should drop out, you have not been listening and you have not been watching this life.”

“I’m not walking away,” she added, “Of all of his media allies and friends, I’m not even close to doing that. Not even close.”

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