January 30, 2023
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Make Politics Boring Again – The Atlantic

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This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

Joe Biden promised voters they wouldn’t have to keep thinking about politics all the time. That hasn’t worked out for them, or him.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Plus: Scroll down to read Imani Perry’s picks from the newly launched Atlantic archive.

Hardly Reassuring

Political strategists and pundits sometimes talk about the quest to win the news cycle. These days, the question is less whether Joe Biden will win a news cycle than what kind of defeat he’ll suffer. The president’s struggles stem from a range of causes—inflation, foreign war, the lingering effects of COVID, a conservative judiciary, and sloppy messaging—but one way I’ve been thinking about them is this: Biden hasn’t managed to deliver the boring America he promised when he ran for president.

Biden’s pitch in 2020 was that he would bring a return to normalcy. To him, Donald Trump’s presidency was an aberration, a view that set him apart from his Democratic rivals who saw Trump as the culmination of long-running currents in American society and Republican politics. But for an electorate exhausted by the roller coaster of the Trump years and then COVID, Biden’s reassurance that politics could be boring again was pretty appealing.

As hard as it can be to be interesting, delivering dull is even harder. Former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan supposedly quipped that the most challenging part of his job was “events.” Biden can surely sympathize. Last month’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade stripped Americans of what many consider a basic right. It is also, for the White House, a political migraine. The decision was the product of a Court stocked with conservative justices before Biden was elected. The White House couldn’t prevent the ruling, nor does the president have many (if any) good options to push back.

And yet Biden seems to have made the worst of a bad situation. His top lawyer was somehow taken by surprise by the timing of the decision, according to CNN—a claim that might seem difficult to believe if it weren’t for the lack of any unified response from the White House. The administration seems entirely reactive, announcing, for example, that declaring a health emergency is not a “great option,” before suddenly reconsidering it.

Over the weekend, Biden’s departing communications director slammed “activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party,” a peculiar place to train her fire. Maybe she’s trying to recapture the magic of the 2020 campaign, when Biden was at odds with progressive “Defund the police” activists but in step with voters. In this case, however, voter sentiment is clearly in favor of some access to abortion, and not just among Democrats.

This shiftlessness has taken a toll. As Ed Kilgore writes for Intelligencer, Biden is now polling lower than Trump was at the same point in his presidency. The New York Times seems to run a big step-back story about Biden being old on roughly a monthly basis. Today brought a poll finding that almost two-thirds of Democratic voters would like to see someone else as the party’s nominee in 2024.

Perhaps this negative reaction to Biden is unfair. Even with narrow control of Congress, Democrats have passed blockbuster legislation, such as the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and a major COVID relief package, though they made the mistake of promising a Build Back Better plan that they have been unable to pass. Experts have widely praised Biden’s handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Last week’s unemployment report beat expectations. Gas prices are falling. Some of the other problems, including inflation and COVID, are largely out of his control.

That’s not what voters want to hear, though. They voted for Biden because he offered reassurance, and now he’s flailing because he … can’t offer reassurance. Writing in this newsletter almost a month ago, my colleague Tom Nichols pleaded for voters to leave Joe Biden alone. The problem is that they want to be left alone, too, without having to worry about the cost of filling up their tank or whether they’ll be able to get basic health care if they’re pregnant. And yet politics, or reality, keeps barging in.


Today’s News
  1. After defying a congressional subpoena, Steve Bannon claimed that he is now willing to testify before the House January 6 committee.
  2. The death toll from Russia’s Saturday strike on a Ukrainian apartment block in the Donetsk town of Chasiv Yar rose to 31.
  3. This afternoon, the White House previewed the first image captured by the largest space telescope in history.


The Atlantic Archive: Race, Roots, and Hope
Photo illustration with November 1857 issue
(The Atlantic)

Today, The Atlantic makes all 165 years of its journalism available online. Read Jeffrey Goldberg’s editor’s note about the new archive, explore The Atlantic Writers Project, or continue below for a take on four of the stories by the writer of Unsettled Territory, a newsletter of “American rootwork.”

When I was a teenager living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I often walked by the home of the abolitionist and Union officer Thomas Wentworth Higginson. I remembered that Ida B. Wells may have visited Higginson there, and romantically imagined myself in her footsteps, walking up Buckingham Street. So it has been particularly exciting to find Higginson’s abolitionist writings in the Atlantic archive.

In this essay from the June 1861 issue, he recounts the insurrection led by Denmark Vesey in South Carolina about 40 years prior. He isn’t as brutally honest about racism as Wells, but Higginson’s recognition of the nobility of self-emancipation is meaningful, especially at the dawn of the Civil War.

Two other writings from the archive that aroused my interest both come from the September 1859 issue. The first is a description of a trio’s visit to Martha’s Vineyard, long before the island became associated with the elite resort glamour that characterizes it today. The displacement of the Gay Head tribe, the whaling industry’s impact on the island’s ecology, and the local language and culture of New England are rendered vividly. If you are familiar with the landscape, the description of the Vineyard’s geography and beauty will be wholly familiar. But this story tells something about the root of the place and how it became the treasured enclave it is today.

The other article from that issue is another account set in what is now a popular tourist destination: Savannah, Georgia. Specifically, it is a laudatory review of a pamphlet by the American Anti-Slavery Society about an event known historically as “the weeping time,” the largest slave auction in United States history. As the pamphlet reveals, it was a Philadelphian who held the auction—a potent reminder that although antebellum slavery was centered in the South, its beneficiaries were elites all over the country.

Finally, this 1954 article, published two months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, gives a potent, if brief, history of school segregation. But what strikes me about it is the author Arthur E. Sutherland’s hopefulness regarding desegregation—a hope that was soon dashed by massive resistance and the anemic “all deliberate speed” mandate of the second Brown opinion. Now, of course, though Brown doesn’t appear to be immediately under threat, the ideology of white supremacy that undergirded legal segregation is on the rise. Nearly 60 years later, hope feels harder to come by.

Imani Perry

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
cartoon illustration of a slushie with a straw, with a question mark on the cup, and a swirly pattern in the background
(The Atlantic)

Read. “Lucky,” a new poem by Carl Dennis: “No way to explain to a car, which always waits / Just where you leave it, the human capacity / To drift in thought away from the body / Just when the body is in need of guidance.”

Watch. Already seen Top Gun and in the mood for more explosive action? Watch Déjà Vu (available on Disney+ and to rent on Amazon Prime), a 2006 Tony Scott–directed thriller with Denzel Washington that turns into a “sort of high-tech Vertigo.”

Or try something else from our writer’s list of 26 brilliant movies that critics were wrong about.

Drink. It’s Free Slurpee Day at 7-Eleven. What the hell is a slushie, anyway? Find out here.

Play our daily crossword.


It’s a pleasure to be filling in here this week, especially because it gives me a chance to celebrate the hottest team in baseball. I routinely search for consolation in Tom Scocca’s paean to the 2011 Baltimore Orioles, who finished last in the AL East but spoiled the playoff hopes of the hated Red Sox on the final day of the season. Scocca notes how small (even petty) victories can make rooting for a bad team feel worthwhile. The O’s will almost certainly finish in the basement again this year, but they’ve just won eight games in a row, and they’re guaranteed not to lose tonight, because it’s an off day. Here’s to small victories—or even better, eight of them.

— David

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.

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