Mar 29, 2021

Biden's first press conference.

Biden's first press conference.

Plus, why are media ratings falling?

I’m Isaac Saul, and you’re reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone forwarded you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

Biden’s first press conference, a question about falling ratings for media companies, and an important story about the small business loan program.

Quick hits

  1. The Biden administration is considering “COVID-19 passports” that indicate whether someone has been vaccinated. (The Washington Post, subscription)
  2. The giant container ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal and blocking a critical trade route has been freed this morning and is on the move. (BBC News)
  3. More than 100 civilians were killed in Myanmar on Saturday after military forces cracked down on protests by the civilian population. (The Associated Press)
  4. Tornados tore across the deep south and floods hit Tennessee this weekend as a spate of severe weather killed at least nine people and caused millions of dollars of damage. (The Tennessean)
  5. A World Health Organization report on the origins of coronavirus left key questions unanswered and did little to clarify confusion about where COVID-19 started. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  6. Opening arguments are expected in the trial of Derek Chauvin today, the Minneapolis police officer accused of murdering George Floyd. (Axios)

New podcast.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Tangle about The Equality Act. The reader response to the issue was huge, and of particular interest to people seemed to be issues related to transgender Americans. On Friday, I sat down with Dr. Erica Anderson, a youth gender clinician in San Francisco who works with transgender youth. Anderson has more than 40 years of experience as a psychologist and is also a transgender woman. I asked her all the questions my readers seemed interested in throughout our wide-ranging, hour long chat. You can listen below:

Listen to the podcast

What D.C. is talking about.

Joe Biden’s first press conference. On Thursday, President Biden stood before reporters and delivered the first formal press conference of his presidency, answering questions about the rising number of migrants at the southern border, what he plans to do regarding the filibuster, and whether he will meet his May 1st deadline to remove troops from Afghanistan.

Biden announced a new goal of 200 million vaccine doses administered in his first 100 days, doubling the 100 million dose goal he passed on his 58th day in office. He attempted to blame the current surge of migrants at the border on his predecessor, arguing that it was Donald Trump’s policies that reduced resources at the border to handle asylum seekers coming there now. He also seemed open to reforming the filibuster, the rule that creates a 60-vote threshold to pass major legislation, telling reporters it was a relic of the Jim Crow era and that it had been “abused” in recent years.

“Let’s figure out how we can get this done and move in the direction of significantly changing the abuse of the filibuster rule first,” he said.

Biden also responded to reporters’ questions about whether he plans to run again in 2024, and if he thought he’d be running against Trump. “I don’t know where you guys come from, man,” he responded, before saying he fully expects to run again in 2024 with Vice President Kamala Harris, and that he didn’t even know if there’d be a Republican party by then.

You can watch the press conference here or read the transcription here.

What the right is saying.

The right said that Biden’s press conference was filled with misleading comments and rambling, and revealed how far left his agenda is moving.

In a CNN op-ed, Republican campaign adviser Scott Jennings said that Biden’s “most coherent moments seemed to come when he looked down to read directly from his policy note cards. He frequently became lost in thought or sucked into a word salad when he looked up to riff or go off script.

“Biden also said the filibuster was being abused, apparently not recognizing that his own party, a minority in the US Senate for the last six years, used it quite liberally during the Trump administration,” Jennings said. “In fact, he took it a step further and said he agreed with former President Barack Obama that the filibuster was ‘a relic of the Jim Crow era.’ Does he not remember his 2005 Senate speech passionately defending the filibuster?

“If he now believes the filibuster is inherently racist, or is being ‘abused,’ does he also believe he was previously defending a racist congressional tool? Does he think Democrats who have taken advantage of the filibuster tactic have been engaging in racist or abusive activity since 2014, when Republicans won back the majority in the Senate? Does he think it was racist or abusive for Democrats to filibuster a bill on police reform from South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a Black Republican in the Senate, last year?”

The National Review editors said ABC News reporter Cecilia Vega “politely nailed” Biden to the wall on his border policy failures.

“She told an affecting story of meeting a nine-year-old boy at the border who had walked to the U.S. from Honduras, and said that when she called the boy’s mother, the woman explained that she had sent him to the U.S. because she believed that Biden would let him into the country,” they wrote. “This, of course, is exactly why there’s been a surge at the border. Biden created an exemption in Title 42 — the public-health authority that President Trump had used to turn back migrants during the pandemic — specifically for minors, and predictably there’s been a surge of minors.

“In response to Vega, he echoed a distortion often made by his Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and said that Trump had dumped children into the Mexican desert,” they added. “Except Biden made the charge even more lurid by alleging that Trump had let children starve to death. This is a disgraceful and stupid charge. The Trump administration either flew back migrants to their home countries directly or handed them over to Mexican authorities to do the same. No one was pushed into the desert.”

In The Hill, Joe Concha criticized the performance of the press, writing that “questions for the president were meek and vague, failing to extract any specific information about policies or solutions to the myriad problems faced by the administration.”

“Outside of NBC's Kristen Welker and ABC's Cecilia Vega regarding the border crisis, reporters were largely hospitable as opposed to hostile, which was all the rage (so to speak) during press conferences under the previous administration,” he wrote. “Overall, President Trump was interrupted 16 times during his first press conference in 2017, while Biden was interrupted only four times despite calling on far fewer reporters than his predecessor did in the same situation… Biden was able to say whatever he wanted with almost no pushback.”

What the left is saying.

The left seemed totally comfortable with Biden’s answers, although some did criticize the press and Republicans for how they handled the press conference.

In The Baltimore Sun, David Zurawik said that “after four years of TV performances and baldfaced lies from Donald Trump, what we saw on television Thursday was a leader with a rock solid political center and a big vision.”

“One way to judge a politician is by their core narratives, the stories they return to time and again to show how they see the world and their role in it,” he wrote. “Mr. Biden once again returned to the story of his working class father in bed at night ‘staring at the ceiling’ wondering whether he was going to be able to pay the rent or what would happen if he or his wife got sick because they didn’t have health insurance. That’s where Mr. Biden lives, and Thursday he showed how that shapes his agenda when he preceded again referencing his father’s economic anxiety by saying, ‘I want to change the paradigm. I want us to reward work not wealth.’ He later went on to say he wants to ‘rebuild the backbone of this country, the middle class.’ Hurrah for that.”

In an MSNBC column, Hayes Brown said that “the journalists in the room tried to make news, most hammering away at the story leading the current news cycle, the situation on the southern border. But unlike Trump, Biden wouldn’t bite. He responded to each frantic inquiry by giving thoughtful, substantive answers in place of drama.

“I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ multipart documentary on the Roosevelts these last few days. And I saw something of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Biden’s responses — not just for the size of the policies he’s championing, but because one of FDR’s greatest skills as a politician and leader was to know when to hit the gas on a policy, when to pump the breaks and how to wait for the right moment to strike a deal.”

In a CNN op-ed, Frida Ghitis praised Biden, specifically for his focus on policy.

“He called out the hypocrisy of Republicans suddenly concerned about the size of the federal deficit after having expressed no qualms about massive tax cuts that so lavishly have benefited the rich,” she wrote. “Biden's first news conference was not just a startling departure from his predecessor's -- he never insulted anyone, didn't praise himself, and spoke in full, coherent sentences. It was a strong performance by any standard. Anyone who watched after listening to the absurd claims in right-wing media that Biden suffers from cognitive troubles could see that the smear is patently false.”

My take.

I’ll tell you what I liked first: I liked the way Biden framed our need to rebuild America’s infrastructure, which I thought was the most powerful moment of the whole press conference. Here was what he said:

Bridges: More than one third of our bridges — 231,000 of them — need repairs. Some are physical safety risks or preservation work. One in five miles of our highways and major roads are in poor condition. That’s 186,000 miles of highway. Aviation: 20 percent of all flights — 20 percent of all flights weren’t on time, resulting in 1.5 million hours lost in production. Six to ten million homes in America still have lead pipes servicing their water lines. We have over 100,000 wellheads that are not capped, leaking methane.

I liked that he called out the hypocrisy of many Republicans now sounding the alarm about the deficit, when they made nary a peep during the Trump years. I liked the framing he put forward about China — the fact it’s not just a global trade competition but a competition between autocracy and democracy.

Now I’ll tell you what I didn’t like: He told quite a few whoppers, especially on immigration. He accused President Trump of starving children to death at the border, an absurd and egregious claim that the left would be up in arms about had the roles been reversed. There are no reports of any kind from the Trump years to support such an assertion.

He claimed he was sending back the majority of families who appeared at the border, which is another lie — Axios reported on March 23rd that just 13% of families were sent back the week before, and in all of February 41% of families were expelled (overall, 72% of all 100,441 people encountered at the border in February were expelled under Title 42). He also claimed “nothing has changed” at the border from the Trump administration, which is so ridiculous I’m not sure where to begin (he was either mixing up statistics or lying, but it doesn’t really matter).

I also thought the press pool did a fairly laughable job. There was not a single question about the pandemic, which absolutely floored me. There were no questions about the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan either.

Why was the bill tied to reopening schools if most of the money won’t be spent until next year and the years following? When can Americans expect to gather in public places? What is he doing about the handful of states who have not committed to his guidance to open vaccine eligibility to all adults by May 1st? Why is he settling for 200 million vaccine doses in 100 days when it’s already clear he’ll outpace that and could set a more ambitious goal? Where is he going to find revenue to pay for the combined $5 trillion of spending he’s planning to sign off on in his first year in office?

Instead, reporters wasted time on questions about whether he’d run in 2024 or if Kamala Harris would continue to be his vice president.

His physical appearance was, as it has been at various points throughout his campaign and presidency, frail and confused. He raised his voice and began yelling at random intervals, he was (perhaps appropriately) indignant with some questions he got from reporters, he seemed to repeatedly lose his train of thought, and he hit several moments where he had little command over the issues he was discussing without referring to his notes. It’s not a crime to point that out — nor is it ageism or an attack on his stutter or low-ball journalism. He’s the leader of the free world and the oldest president in U.S. history, so it’s relevant if he trails off and quits in the middle of answering a reporter’s questions. Of course, we could compare his “performance” to those of Trump that were often incoherent and lie-filled, but that’s a distraction from the president we have now.

All told, the presser was mostly the boring, performative and predictable kind we got used to during Obama’s tenure. I hope the White House press corps comes better prepared with sharper questions for the next one, and I hope Biden actually continues to hold them on a more regular basis than once every two months.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I'm curious if you're paying attention to the ratings declines that Fox News is experiencing? Is this just a reaction to the last few years of divisiveness, or is there something to make here? As millennials and younger generations are more openly discussing their mental health challenges, is fear-based and politically sensationalized news coverage driving away the younger audiences? While you're gaining momentum with a drastically different approach to reporting political news, do declining ratings like this give you encouragement to keep pursuing a less divisive approach to reporting?

— Sam from Virginia

Tangle: While it’s my fervent wish that cable television (and partisan news more generally) sees a decreasing audience due to a rejection of sensational news, I’m not sure at all that’s what’s happening here.

I think there are two things at play: 1) Every news outlet, including Tangle, is seeing anywhere from a slight to a major drop in engagement. I’ve been lucky (and quite thrilled!) that Tangle’s post-Trump slump has been marginal, especially compared to other places. I think that’s due in large part to how we do the news and the kinds of readers we attract. Nobody is coming to Tangle to get hit with endorphins, fear and rage or to have their priors confirmed. They’re here to learn and grow and get out of their bubble — and that’s not changing with or without Trump.

2) Specific to Fox News, I actually think (unfortunately) it’s at least in part the opposite. On top of the post-Trump slump, I think people are also leaving Fox News because they are going deeper into the right-wing echo chamber, and many view Fox as having “sold out” during the election — both for calling the Arizona race early and for doing less to amplify Trump’s bogus claims of a stolen election than, say, Newsmax or OAN. This is harder to quantify, but some polls have shown a growing number of GOP voters turning to even more conservative alternatives.

It’s also not just Fox. As Fox News itself reported, CNN is hemorrhaging viewers, losing roughly half its audience in key demographics since January. On top of being post-election and post-Trump, it could also be that as we approach the end of the pandemic, people are turning off the news and returning to their lives.

All that being said, I do find it really encouraging. I think the proliferation of platforms like Substack, the success of independent writers and a post-Trump slump for more traditional media outlets is a good reminder that quality, measured, informative content is always going to win out in the long run. I also think it’s clear that people are hungry for something new, such as the less traditional approach to politics and the news that I’m offering. For every criticism I get about “bothsideism” or “elevating lies” or being a “dangerous moderate” (none of which I think are fair criticisms, by the way) I get 10 compliments for offering fresh perspectives, a new format, providing actual balance or giving a holistic look at an issue. People are increasingly tired of the stifled debate and only having their views reinforced.

In this political moment, both the right and the left are more aware than ever of how we are all living in our own bubbles, and there are a growing number of people interested in puncturing those bubbles. I’ve predicted for a while now that the exhaustion from partisan flamethrowing would settle in for politically engaged Americans and eventually be replaced by a desire to understand each other better, and while I’m not sure we have “bottomed out” yet, I think we are getting there.

A story that matters.

Thousands of viable businesses were excluded from the Paycheck Protection Program loans that kept many afloat during the pandemic because of a quirk in how the program was administered. According to a ProPublica report, a question on the PPP loan application asks whether the company or any of its owners were “presently involved in any bankruptcy.” Some business owners who were overseeing financially viable companies but experiencing personal bankruptcies due to things like divorce or other matters checked the box, and were then automatically rejected. More than 282,628 people filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy last year.


  • 68. The number of judicial vacancies on district and circuit courts that Joe Biden will try to fill.
  • 72%.The percentage of Americans 65 and older who have received the coronavirus vaccine.
  • 47%. The percentage of U.S. adults who belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque in 2020.
  • 70%. The percentage of U.S. adults who belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque in 1990.
  • 55%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they worry “a great deal” about hunger and homelessness in America.
  • 52%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they worry “a great deal” about the availability and affordability of healthcare in America.

A note from Isaac…

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Have a nice day.

A Brazilian pilot is telling his remarkable survival story after his plane crashed in the middle of the Amazon rainforest and he managed to survive for 36 days. Antônio Sena was 3,000 feet above the forest, transporting 160 gallons of gasoline, when his small-propeller engine went out. He managed to crash-land his plane and escape before it exploded. After a month of wandering the Amazon, and having lost 55 pounds, he miraculously stumbled into a family of nut collectors, which began his journey to safety. (The New York Times)

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