Jen Psaki is not your friend

Celebrating Biden's press secretary as a truth-teller is shocking.

Hello friends,

This edition of the newsletter has a 4 minute read time:

(1) I argue that the emerging Jen Psaki fan club is terribly disturbing.

(2) What I’m reading.

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Jen Psaki is not your friend

Jen Psaki has a fan club. Joe Biden’s press secretary — nimble, composed, worldly — seems to be a smash hit among many liberals. A seasoned vet of the Obama administration, she politely parries reporters’ questions with well-prepared talking points and extemporaneous riffs often delivered with a smile and a tinge of snark. Videos of her swatting away pesky questions are going viral regularly, accompanied by reactions about how refreshing it is to see intelligent White House staff committed to speaking honestly. She has fan accounts, fan-created merchandise, and her one-liners have produced their own popular hashtag: #Psakibomb. The hashtag appears to have been coined by the upstart Democratic advocacy outfit MeidasTouch, whose slogan is: “Because truth is golden.”

The whole phenomenon is embarrassing, and rather dangerous. It speaks to how the Trump era has impoverished the public’s understanding of truth and politics, and how the foil of Trump is poised to make citizens — and some of the press — inattentive when it comes to scrutinizing the White House’s actions.

There can be no doubt that there’s a stark contrast between the Trump administration’s disinformation operation and fondness for “alternative facts” and the Biden’s press shop. Psaki did not kick off the administration’s first press conference fabricating claims so plainly false that a casual observer could identify them as propaganda. She has not been brazenly disrespecting the journalists she deals with. And Biden is not encouraging his supporters to assault reporters and calling them “the enemy of the people.” 

But to celebrate Psaki as a truth-teller is to fundamentally misunderstand her job — and abandon one’s duties as a citizen of democracy. 

All politicians lie, even the ones you think are good. Not because they’re pathologically mendacious, but because it’s part of the job: the pursuit of power is always in tension with truth. American presidents rely on not being straightforward about many of their positions, policy decisions, and plans in order to maximize their political capital as they balance attendance to a complex web of constituencies; and as heads of the national security state and guardians of empire, they cannot speak honestly about their knowledge and intent when it comes to the exertion of force.

The press secretary is in some ways the very nerve center of a politician’s obligations to traffic in untruth. Their job is to obfuscate and dodge, to deceive through omission, insinuation and language games. Their goal is maximizing the president's power and brand. If they excel at their job then they will be good at thwarting transparency — which is key for democracy — all while looking quite honest as they go about it. In short, no press secretary, no matter how clever or seemingly aligned with your values, is your friend.

Smart politicians are subtle about their adversarial relationship with the press. Obama is not remembered by the general public as hostile to the media, but there’s plenty of evidence he was. Here’s former White House press reporter Julia Mason cataloguing some of Obama’s transparency issues:

Obama, who campaigned on a promise to protect government whistle-blowers, made greater use of the Espionage Act to prosecute leakers and menace journalists than all other presidents combined. Obama’s Justice Department accessed the personal email of a Fox News reporter and surveilled the reporter’s parents and colleagues. They seized the home, work and mobile phone records of journalists at the Associated Press. ... Obama routinely banned news photographers from official events. He went months between press conferences and used social media to circumvent reporters. First lady Michelle Obama took policy trips overseas with no press on her airplane. The White House scrubbed public visitor logs of names it didn’t want in the news. The Obama administration posted the worst record in history for fulfilling requests for public records under the Freedom of Information Act.

Obama, like all presidents, also broke plenty of promises and used rhetoric to cover up missteps or confusion on issues such as who’s responsible for failing to close Guantanamo Bay, drawing a “red line” on Syria, distorting the record on his donor base, and claiming “there is no spying on Americans” after the Snowden revelations. Obama’s comms operations were obviously front and center in these kinds of maneuvers.

While it’s still early days, we’re already seeing Psaki doing her job of fudging the truth. For example, she falsely claimed the US doesn’t place sanctions on leaders of foreign governments to justify Biden’s reluctance to put maximum pressure on Suadi crown prince MBS over his role in the Khashoggi killing. (She later changed her language after it was revealed this wasn’t true.) While Psaki is winning #Psakibomb plaudits for zingers on how different Biden’s immigration policy is from Trump’s, immigrant rights’ advocates have expressed concern about the continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations in their carceral approach to child migrants.

Fandom culture on social media is, alas, also probably part of the problem. People are eager to adore any figure or boost any sound bite that matches their tribe, without any analysis of power or institutional context. And, disturbingly, it seems like some prominent media outlets and journalists are keen to exploit this cultural tendency, by editing clips showing Psaki deflecting inane or foolish questions from some reporters which then get tons of views.

I’m the first in line to criticize the White House press corps for asking idiotic questions. But the solution is to criticize the press — not decide that someone whose job it is to spin things is your ally. Making that pivot is to turn one’s back on democratic dynamism, and to present oneself as a fan rather than a constituent.

All politicians will lie to you. Don’t make it easier for them to get away with it.


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What I’m reading

China is not ten feet tall.

Historical context for Biden’s embrace of organized labor with his strikingly pro-union speech.

Biden has quietly hired a top labor advisor who laid the legal groundwork for gig companies like Uber to undermine workers’ rights.

David Shor on why Trump was good for the GOP and how Dems can win in 2022.

Far-Right Groups are splintering in the wake of the Capitol riot.

The next frontier for animal welfare: Fish.

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