The great Civil War historian James McPherson once explained why the most articulate voices of an era — the politicians, the journalists, partisans of various kinds — often dominate how a period is understood. “It is the squeaky wheel,” he wrote, “that squeaks.”
His formulation is a reminder that defining the terms of debate is often the decisive battle. Squeaking squeaky wheels are central to this struggle — and none more so than the president of the United States.
It turns out that President Joe Biden is fully aware of this.
What we should take out of his first news conference is not that he answered the questions without serious stumbling — a ridiculously low bar that his critics (to Biden’s advantage) have foolishly set for him. It’s that he is relentless, no matter what Republicans say or what reporters ask, in pushing the discussion to progressive ground — his ground.
Whether he was talking about immigration (on which he was the one who was supposed to be playing defense), the racist and autocratic voter suppression in Georgia and elsewhere, or the core purposes of government, Biden repeatedly challenged right-wing tropes and pushed his themes, not those of his opponents, to the center of the news.
Despite all the questions about problems at the Mexican border, the headlines largely focused instead on Biden’s rebuke of voter suppression.
He got some help here from Georgia’s Jim Crow crowd, which enacted an outlandish elections bill. It was worthy of Lester Maddoxin how it would affect Black Americans, and of Hungary’s autocratic Viktor Orban in its empowering of Republican politicians to seize control of the electoral process by pushing aside local voting officials. (So much for the GOP’s claimed devotion to “local control.”)
The words Biden used could not help but command attention. He called these measures “un-American,” “sick” (twice) and added: “This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”
Jim Eagle? Actually, getting people online first to puzzle over the two Jims, and then to ponder the contrast between the noble bird that symbolizes the United States and the nasty predator that represents segregation, is a fine bit of framing. And the first example he picked from Georgia’s anti-voting bill signed on Thursday — its criminalization of bringing water to people standing in line to vote — left no doubt about the barbarity of the GOP’s effort. On Friday, Biden specifically attacked the Georgia law as “an atrocity.”
When he did discuss immigration, he stayed on offense, arguing in effect that the problems he faced at the border were the consequence of a moral choice for decency and compassion. “Rolling back the policies of separating children from . . . their mothers, I make no apology for that,”Biden said. “Rolling back the policies of ‘Remain in Mexico,’ sitting on the edge of the Rio Grande in a muddy circumstance with not enough to eat . . . I make no apologies for that.”
It was a bracing moment because liberals, having accepted the predominance of conservative assumptions for four decades, have spent a lot of time apologizing for what they were doing. Biden was saying: Enough!
And he demonstrated his understanding of one of the cardinal rules of contemporary journalism: Good news is not news. He bet (correctly, it turns out) that he might not get questions on the pandemic, so he opened the session with a roughly 460-word soliloquy on how well the war on the virus is going, ending with: “Help is here, and hope is on the way.”
Like all presidents, Biden will be ultimately judged by results: on the pandemic, the economy, the climate, matters of social justice and equality, and whether he can create a durable consensus for resolving the country’s struggle over immigration.
Yet those judgments are themselves shaped by assumptions about what “success” means. Biden’s most important challenge to conventional wisdom may be his effort to redefine what constitutes successful bipartisanship. He wants to make it about getting support from rank-and-file Republican voters, even if GOP politicians in Washington follow their long-standing habits of obstruction.
“I’ve not been able to unite the Congress,”Biden said,”but I’ve been uniting the country.” And if the only way to get Republican votes in Congress is to abandon the bulk of his program, he won’t do it.
Toward the end of his gentle sparring with reporters, Biden made clear how engaged he is with revising the terms of debate. “I want to change the paradigm,” he declared. He said it twice more.
His focus, he said, was to “reward work, not just wealth,” and to “get things done for the people I care most about ... hard-working, decent American people who are ... really having it stuck to them.”
Such citizens tend not to be McPherson’s squeaky wheels that squeak. If Biden remains serious about acting on their behalf, he could make himself the most unlikely political revolutionary in our history.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.