‘Do Something’ Is Not A Plan Or Wise Counsel Or A Way Out

INSIDE: An Anthropology Of The 'Do-Something Caucus'
US President Joe Biden and First lady Jill Biden walk to the White House in Washington, DC, on July 7, 2024, as they return after attending campaign events in Pennsylvania. (Photo by Chris Kleponis / AFP) (Photo by C... US President Joe Biden and First lady Jill Biden walk to the White House in Washington, DC, on July 7, 2024, as they return after attending campaign events in Pennsylvania. (Photo by Chris Kleponis / AFP) (Photo by CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

A special edition of TPM’s Morning Memo. Sign up for the email version.

When I moved to DC to open TPM’s bureau 15 years ago this month, it was a weird time in media, with the digital/new media revolution coming into full swing and TPM being the hot kid on the block.

That first year in DC, I was getting invitations to all kinds of events. And so it was that I ended up in the first half of 2010 at a swank book party co-hosted by some prominent journalists and got my first in-person introduction to what I’ve come to call the “Do-Something Caucus.”

We were in the midst of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. To refresh your memory: The deep-sea oil rig had a blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The subsequent explosion and fire killed 11 workers. The rig sank, and the well hole leaked uncontrollably for months until it was finally capped in an effort that strained the limits of technical and human capability. It was an environmental catastrophe with far-reaching economic consequences for the Gulf Coast.

This book party was in that period when the well was gushing oil and ruining the salt water marshes, the oyster beds, the crab and shrimp industries, and the rich fishing grounds that sustained many local families and communities. It was being described as the first “crisis” of the Obama administration, though that is a little over-determined for reasons I’ll come back to. Regardless, the out-of-control oil spill was the talk of the party.

These were sophisticated people, old Washington hands, folks who’d been around the block more than once. But they were all atwitter about the spill and the Obama White House’s response to it. They were incredulous that this crisis was not yet in hand, flustered that more wasn’t being done about it, and adamant about the political price the Obama administration was paying for it.

As I do, I gently played devil’s advocate about the available options, the tough choices, and the challenges (and wisdom) of operating at the edge of our technological limits. But no one was much interested in that line of inquiry. They didn’t know the oil and gas industry, or the seafood industry, or the delicate fringe of wetland along the Louisiana coast that had been under siege for decades. What they knew and understood was politics.

Finally, in exasperation, the best-known journalist in attendance, someone you would recognize, exclaimed: “Well, they have to do SOMETHING!”

I’m not naming names because that’s not really the point, and in any event most of the principals from that evening, including the “Do Something!” advocate, have since died. But that exchange was striking to me in the moment, has lingered not far from my consciousness for a decade and half now, and is one I’ll probably never forget. It encapsulated so much about the Washington experience, and while I was familiar with it in general I had never seen it up-close before or so vividly.

To even begin to understand it, you have to unspool one of the presumptions that I already called into question above: that this was a “crisis” for the Obama White House. Yes, the federal government had a substantial role in offshore drilling via the old Minerals Management Service, and other agencies had some responsibilities for the immediate response, eventual containment, and the cleanup of the aftermath. But come on. This wasn’t the Obama White House’s doing. We were more than a decade into the new generation of deep-sea offshore drilling, and we’d just come off of eight years with an oilman in the White House. And besides, whenever political reporters talk about a “crisis” for the White House what they mean is a “political crisis.”

Fast forward to the political crisis that President Biden is facing today. Unlike the Deepwater Horizon disaster, you can properly lay the debate disaster and his failure to reckon with his own aging at his feet and his alone. But the feeding frenzy that has ensued, the type of coverage that we’ve been bombarded with for the last 12 days, and the expectation that this drumbeat demanding that he and/or the Democratic Party “do something!” is a choice, a whole series of choices in fact, rooted in a particular kind of news judgment. That news judgment is itself a product of a certain way of seeing politics and political journalism. A prism with some utility sometimes. But it also has its own distortions and limitations.

The greatest of these limitations is that much of political journalism is divorced from policy and the substance of politics. It’s the horserace coverage, the who’s up and who’s down, the who’s in and who’s out. And no matter how complex the topic, or carefully balanced the various competing public interests are on a given issue, or how long the history of tackling the issue in a substantive way, once it enters the realm of political journalism it goes through a reductive process that distills it to whether it’s good or bad politically. Does it help or does it hurt? And if it hurts, what are you going to do about it?

Once you’re in the lane occupied by political journalists, there are certain rules, customs, and expectations that subsume everything else. You’re in our lane now and you’re going to play by our rules. If all you know is politics, everything gets reduced to a craven political calculation. Actually, it’s worse than that. If all you know is political journalism, then it gets reduced to the political journalist’s projection of what politics is, what winning looks like, and who’s losing under that particular contrived set of calculations.

In a complicated and challenging world that exceeds our capacity to understand it, there is comfort in certainty. Political journalism and sports journalism have many unfortunate parallels. Sports itself offers the comfort of reducing the world to what happens between the lines on the field or pitch court, where there are set rules and assigned enforcers of those rules. We can tune everything else out. But politics is not a sport.

An election about whether the United States will continue its two and half century long experiment in representative democracy, where a convicted felon is running to return to the office he tried to seize through extralegal means, where the specter of a new form of fascism looms on the horizon is suddenly consumed by a political death watch for the only person at present standing between democracy and another Trump term in the White House. At some level it makes sense. The stakes are that high. But only up to a point.

I’m not trying to mount a defense of Joe Biden here. I still feel like the noob at the book party 15 years ago gently playing devil’s advocate for a sense of proportion. The sheer volume of stories about Biden’s age and possible infirmities is a choice. Floating the possibility that Biden has Parkinson’s on the basis of unconfirmed insinuations is a choice. Postulating that there’s been a White House coverup of Biden’s true condition based on flimsy evidence is a choice.

We should remain open to the evidence of such things. We should be critical and skeptical of Biden and his White House and of the news coverage that is feeding on and perpetuating itself. Above all, we need to maintain a sense of proportion when everyone around us has lost theirs.

Do you like Morning Memo? Let us know!

Latest Morning Memo

Notable Replies

  1. Avatar for Zemod Zemod says:


  2. Finally, in exasperation, the best-known journalist in attendance, someone you would recognize, exclaimed: “Well, they have to do SOMETHING!”

    1. We must do something.
    2. This is something.
    3. Therefore, we must do this.

    H/T “Yes Prime Minister”

Continue the discussion at forums.talkingpointsmemo.com

928 more replies


Avatar for jnbenson Avatar for steviedee111 Avatar for inversion Avatar for sniffit Avatar for arrendis Avatar for ralph_vonholst Avatar for mch Avatar for theghostofeustacetilley Avatar for fiftygigs Avatar for darrtown Avatar for 21zna9 Avatar for massie Avatar for castor_troy Avatar for kelaine Avatar for PacificSparkles Avatar for bcgister Avatar for eaharrison Avatar for txlawyer Avatar for zenicetus Avatar for dicktater Avatar for dogselfie Avatar for Scoutmom Avatar for mynah1 Avatar for Zemod

Continue Discussion
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: