My wife and I recently found ourselves on a pleasant Sunday morning drive in a rural part of our state that is also deeply Republican. As if on cue, a panel truck with an extension ladder on the roof pulled alongside at a stoplight. One the back were two identical bumper stickers that read: “Muck Biden.” Except, of course, that’s not precisely the language used (and I’m not talking about the Biden part). Neither I nor my wife was especially surprised by this. Indeed, it was so on point given local sensibilities that we wondered if this not represent the makings of a travel game: Hey, kids, spot the next expletive directed at the president of the United States. Winner gets to choose the radio station.
I won’t pretend we were deeply offended. Lately, we’ve been watching (for perhaps the third or fourth time) all five seasons of “The Wire” to mark the Baltimore-based show’s 20th anniversary. It would take at least 200 more bumper stickers to catch up with the F-word pace in Season 1, Episode 1 alone and, as Season 5 reveals, the language used in The Baltimore Sun’s newsroom will never be mixed up with a Papal address even on His Holiness’s worst day. Nor would I use this space to decry the coarsening of our debate and the polarization of our politics. All that is a given. Surely, the driver knew he wasn’t going to persuade anyone of anything. He may even be well aware that his county’s school board recently voted to keep the gay pride flag out of classrooms for fear children could not handle hearing about how — gasp — a classmate has two dads or two moms. Throwing a double F-bomb at little Johnny or Jane while they’re headed to or from school is apparently fine, though.
No, what I wish people like my traffic light neighbor would consider is something far simpler yet frequently overlooked of late: While everyone makes mistakes, including U.S. presidents, if you really want to screw things up in a big way, it takes a village. Ask anyone who has been within cursing distance of power and you will learn that presidents get far too much credit when things are going well and far too much blame when they are going poorly. The economy moves in cycles, macroeconomic forces are at work, oil prices are set at the international level, COVID-19 caused the worst pandemic in a century, supply chain disruptions caused by the Russian invasion can’t be cured overnight, and on and on.
The problem with describing these realities is that they sound like excuse-making, especially to those brought up to believe that presidents have either been great saviors or villains, a simple distinction often made along political party lines or seen differently whether one lives in a city or suburb or small towns or whatever. The truth is far more complicated and unsatisfying. Better to dumb things down and use adverse circumstances as a rallying point to establish or strengthen some group identity. It works both ways, of course. When times are good, it’s used as evidence that whomever is in power is the next best thing to sliced bread.
This isn’t just a Fox News and GOP thing. Democrats love to elevate their importance, too. And the media shares the blame. We commonly describe whatever debate is happening right now as the most important thing you will ever hear about. The truth is that public policy moves much like molasses in the winter or perhaps like a container ship stuck in the mud of the Chesapeake Bay. Oh, you can turn things around or you can make them worse but it will take you months and months if not years and years to accomplish anything of note. Consider, for example, how many children have died in school shootings in recent years and even now, efforts to pass some modest reforms in Congress face challenges from GOP senators.
That’s not to give the Biden White House a free pass on anything. But it’s notable that bumper stickers never say “Muck Biden’s Executive Order on Government Ethics.” Or even “Muck the American Rescue Plan’s Emergency Grants to Small Businesses.” Those would at least hold the president accountable for actions he’s actually taken and have had enough time to make a difference in his 17 months, good or bad. Big things like inflation and gas prices are more like that stuck container ship. There are greater forces at work than are at the disposal of one man even one serving in the most powerful post on the planet.
I was reminded of all that watching “The Wire,” which, even two decades later, does a masterful job of explaining how legacy institutions become undone by forces at work, both great and small, and that includes the courts, police, local governments, schools, blue-collar employers and the media. And what happens by the end of the show? Not much, really. The good are not always recognized nor the bad punished. Instead, perhaps the best we can expect is to find good people willing to work hard to make things slightly better. They probably won’t succeed, mind you, but it’s worth a mucking try.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.