Biden is trying to move on from Trump. Will the media let him?

Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore

Previously published at GBH News.

President Joe Biden spoke for many of us about 30 minutes into his town hall event on CNN Tuesday night.

“I’m tired of Donald Trump,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”

This week marks the true beginning of Biden’s presidency. Trump is gone, holed up in Mar-a-Lago. We’ve put impeachment behind us, if not the insurrection that sparked it. Surely it’s time to get on with the business of vaccinating the country, dealing with Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill and debating issues such as the reopening of schools.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the media can move past their lucrative obsession with Trump. For instance, a little after 4 a.m. today, the lead political story on The Washington Post’s home page was about Biden’s swing through Wisconsin — and immediately below it was the headline “Trump attacks McConnell as ‘political hack,’ says he will back pro-Trump candidates.” At The New York Times, a story headlined “In Milwaukee, Biden Offers Reassurance and Optimism” actually appeared below an account of Michigan Republicans’ ongoing love for the former president.

Breaking up is hard to do.

Biden’s hour-plus appearance before a socially distanced audience of about 50, moderated by Anderson Cooper, felt weirdly normal after four years of belligerence, bluster and boasting. The president frequently got bogged down by details — so much so that he apologized several times for his meandering answers. But he projected decency and compassion, which was no small thing for a nation staggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic disaster.

Like many viewers, I was especially struck by his exchange with a mother who said her young children frequently talk about their fear of catching COVID and dying. Her daughter stood with her.

“Kids don’t get COVID very often. It’s unusual for that to happen,” Biden answered before taking a more personal approach, telling the girl she was unlikely to spread COVID to “Mommy and Daddy,” nor them to her. “I wouldn’t worry about it, baby, I promise you,” he said. “Don’t be scared, honey. Don’t be scared. You’re going to be fine. And Mommy is going to be fine, too.” A little cringe-worthy? Sure. But also a demonstration of empathy that resonated with the crowd, which applauded Biden’s answer.

Biden the retail politician was on display in other ways as well. He asked the mother of a 19-year-old who hasn’t been able to get vaccinated despite severe pulmonary problems to meet with him after the event. He told the owner of a microbrewery that he would send him a breakdown of his relief plan for small business if he’d provide his address.

And he made some news, saying there would be enough vaccines for everyone in the U.S. by the end of July, and that he hoped the country would be more or less back to normal by Christmas. He also addressed the threat posed by white supremacists and made a couple of statements sure to displease the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, although he merely repeated what he’s said in the past: he opposes defunding the police, and in fact supports more funds for better screening and training; and he will not go along with calls for massive student-debt cancellation.

That latter issue was the subject of an unusually blunt exchange with a young woman who asked Biden about proposals to eliminate $50,000 worth of student debt. “What will you do to make that happen?” she asked.

“I will not make that happen,” Biden responded, countering with proposals for free tuition for community college and state universities, debt cancellation of up to $10,000 and opportunities for students to work off their debt through public-service jobs.

So far, Biden and his proposals seem to be resonating. His popularity rating at FiveThirtyEight is 54.8% approve and 37.4% disapprove. Yes, it’s early, but that’s essentially the opposite of Trump’s ratings from the day he took office until he left. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 68% support Biden’s economic relief package, and 61% support his call for a $15 minimum wage. There may be something to Biden’s statement that the nation is “not nearly as divided as we make it out to be.”

But for Biden to succeed, the media need to move on from Trump. I don’t mean they should stand back and applaud Biden’s every move. Skeptical coverage and tough scrutiny are warranted, as with any president. Biden doesn’t deserve a free ride.

What he does deserve, though, is a political press that covers his agenda as the top story of the day, and the Republican Party’s ongoing meltdown as a sideshow — worthy of attention, but hardly worth the massive energy and resources that are being devoted to it at the moment.

“For four years, all the news has been about Trump,” Biden said Tuesday night. “For the next four years, I want the news to be about the American people.”

The media are going to have to change their ingrained habits for that to happen. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s crucial if we’re to have any hope of getting back to some semblance of normal.