During her daily press conference on Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki once again offered up the kind of sarcastic barb that’s become something of a trademark. This time, Psaki’s comment — likely received by some as some sort of epic clapback — was prompted by a tough but well-founded question from a member of the press corps:
Frankly, things just seem like they’re going pretty poorly right now for the White House. Build Back Better is being blocked, voting rights are being blocked, diplomatic talks with Russia doesn’t seem to have brought us back from the brink of war, inflation is at a forty-year high, the virus is setting records for infections. So, as we hit this one-year period and a period where everything seems like it’s in pretty rough shape, or nearly everything . . . I’m wondering, at what point do you take stock and say that things need to change internally? Whether it’s your outreach from the hill, whether it’s your leadership in the White House . . . you seem to be stymied on an incredible number of fronts right now.
Given how poorly things are going for the Biden administration as it approaches one year in office, there’s probably no good response to such a question. But Psaki’s reply, reminiscent in many ways of a sarcastic rejoinder she offered to NPR’s Mara Liasson last month, carried with it an undeniable hint of condescension amid a list of the White House’s accomplishments to date (Psaki citing, among other things, the American Rescue Plan, vaccination rates, and the bipartisan infrastructure bill). “So the sense is that things are going well?” the reporter pressed after Psaki’s initial answer, to which she responded:
I think that, having worked in a White House before, you do hard things in White Houses. You have every challenge laid at your feet, whether it’s global or domestically. And we could certainly propose legislation to see if people support bunny rabbits and ice cream, but that wouldn’t be very rewarding to the American people. So the president’s view is that we’re going to keep pushing for hard things, and we’re going to keep pushing the boulders up the hill to get it done. [emphasis added]
Seen one way, of course, a phrase like “bunny rabbits and ice cream” can be read as an expression of sheer exasperation — perhaps symptomatic of poor morale among the White House senior staff as things go from bad to worse. To some extent, it probably is that. Still, it’s hard not to read a bit more into Psaki’s flourish, given the long-standing way adherents to centrist liberalism have tended to frame what’s politically possible.
Though they’ve largely been forgotten now, Psaki’s turn of phrase bears a certain resemblance to comments about Bernie Sanders made by Hillary Clinton in her 2017 book What Happened. As Clinton characterized things, Sanders’s proposals were the equivalent of a “magic abs exercise routine” — a kind of utopian con detached from the realities of governing. “Someone sent me a Facebook post that summed up the dynamic in which we were caught,” Clinton wrote, citing a post that began as follows:
Bernie: “I think America should get a pony.”
Hillary: “How will you pay for the pony? Where will the pony come from? How will you get Congress to agree to the pony?”
Without relitigating insufferable debates from 2016, there’s actually something to this way of framing things. In one conception of politics on offer here — in this case, the once being derisively dismissed — leadership and governance are defined by the pursuit of clearly stated goals and policy objectives, with strategic considerations flowing outwardly from them. In the other, supposedly more realist version, both start by acceding to whatever political or institutional impediments already exist and negotiating from there (almost invariably downward). When things are seen this way, it’s easy to write off more ambitious demands as free stuff or goodies: boutique items that are nice in theory but impossible to actualize in the real world.
During the first several months of his presidency, many commentators thought Joe Biden was attempting to do a version of the former: pitching a big, ambitious legislative program and aiming to use the Democrats’ congressional majority to put in place an unusually transformative and quasi–social democratic agenda. The subsequent year, however, has instead seen the White House retreat to familiar bromides about bipartisanship and negotiate its initial offering down in the process (as of this week, two key pillars of that offering — namely the Build Back Better spending bill and major voting rights legislation — appear effectively DOA).
Apparently, that means retreating to more familiar centrist rhetoric about what is and isn’t possible as well — rhetoric all the more striking now that the Democrats are actually in power and ostensibly committed to a large suite of legislative reforms. The real problem with Psaki’s comment is that what it appears to be implying isn’t remotely true. Many of the key items in Build Back Better are very popular, as is the major voting rights legislation currently on offer. That the administration has been unable to translate this actual popularity into legislation it can get through Congress represents a transparent political failure, not some immutable law of nature playing out.
It’s also hard to miss the subtext of derision contained in references to ponies, ice cream, and bunny rabbits — the “goodies” in question, after all, quite literally being desperately needed action on climate change, the federal protection of voting rights from right-wing onslaught, and whether people in need of medical treatment can actually get it (to name just a few). For an administration that talked a big legislative game out of the gate, Psaki’s comments are a striking reversion to the norm — and a morbid symptom of what may ultimately be its direction of travel over the next three years.