Psak and Awe
What the next Press Secretary can learn from Spider-Man
Everyone knows Spider-Man’s origin story. The specifics vary from one telling to another, but the basics are generally consistent: an adolescent Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider that gives him super strength, super speed, super senses, and a cornucopia of arachnid-like abilities. For all the reasons you’d expect from a teenager, Peter initially eschews the hero's life and instead uses his powers for some combination of fun, personal gain, and revenge.
It’s the death of his Uncle Ben that spurs Peter to heroism. Peter has a chance to stop a robbery but pettily allows the thief to go free. The criminal then murders Ben, leaving his blood on his nephew’s hands. Realizing that his inaction has grave consequences, Peter learns the meaning of Ben’s signature saying: With great power comes great responsibility.1 His subsequent commitment to doing what’s right no matter the cost is as central to his character as his web-slinging. It’s why so many great Spider-Man stories revolve around the personal sacrifices he must make to protect the city.
It’s trite to analyze actual politics through the lens of fictional characters, but this is one instance where I think the moral is even clearer in our world. Peter Parker is a teenager who accidentally stumbled his way into extraordinary abilities. He did not ask to become a superhero. By contrast, our democratically elected leaders and the pols who work for them specifically seek the power to shape our lives. They share their visions, they make promises, and — if elected — our taxes fund both their livelihoods and their plans to shape our society. Thus it is not just reasonable to expect our politicians to do whatever they can to make the world a better place, but imperative.
Last week, as I was writing about MSNBC’s disturbing decision to continually platform a Holocaust revisionist, another piece of news about the network broke: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki is leaving the Biden administration to become a TV talking head.
As the public face of the Biden administration, Psaki has become a popular figure among moderate-liberal circles in her year-plus on the job. Obviously Psaki represented a welcome contrast to the Trump administration just by maintaining an air of competence and professionalism. She’s also gotten plaudits from Democratic circles for how she handles bad-faith questions from Fox News reporters, and many The West Wing fans enjoy how much she reminds them of CJ Cregg.
Yet parts of her tenure have been troublesome. A couple months ago, she responded to a basic follow-up question about a military operation in Syria by accusing the reporter of being sympathetic to ISIL. Her advice to frustrated constituents after the defeat of critical voting-rights legislation — take a weekend of self-care, then keep on fighting — came across as tone-deaf, both for diminishing the importance of the moment and for assigning the work to the public rather than to the leaders we elected to pass such protections. (Let them
eat cake drink margaritas.) And perhaps most famously, she parried a question about the administration’s lack of progress on popular initiatives by sarcastically proposing a bill for “bunny rabbits and ice cream.”
But I will always associate Psaki with another moment, one that represents maybe the nadir of my optimism for the future. It was hardly the gravest or most-significant political event of my lifetime, but it was the time when I had the least hope in our system’s capacity for progress and change.
On December 6, 2021, just as COVID cases were starting to spike from Thanksgiving gatherings and the Omicron wave, NPR reporter Mara Liasson asked Psaki why the Biden administration was not providing rapid tests to its citizens on-demand the way other countries had done. Psaki responded by touting the administration’s plan to make COVID tests reimbursable from insurance — a benefit that by her own admission would help fewer than half of Americans (to say nothing of how difficult it can be to get insurance claims processed) and did nothing to address how hard tests were to find. Liasson asked if such a solution were needlessly complicated: “Why not just make them free and give them out, and have them available everywhere?”
“Should we just send one to every American?” Psaki shot back sarcastically, as though such a concept were beyond the pale. “Then what happens if every American has one test?” she continued, apparently not occurring to her that making them continually available could be a feature, not a bug.
Obviously, declining to provide self-administered COVID tests to the American public was problematic, as many public-health experts noted at the time, and is even more starkly apparent after seeing the tragedy of the Omicron surge. It wasn’t an unrealistic idea, seeing as the Biden administration had considered such an initiative months earlier, and that they ended up doing so a month later (albeit in a way that disadvantaged anyone not living alone in a single-residence building). But what has stuck with me months later is how reflexive Psaki’s scorn was for a potential public-health initiative that would have saved lives.
There’s a certain brand of Democratic partisan who talks more about what’s possible than what’s right. You can argue that this makes sense in the midst of an election, when one of two people will be your leader so you should pick the one who offends you less, or if you’re counting votes in Congressional cloakrooms, when you need to know what you can whip support for. But a rigid belief that better things aren’t possible, that any expectation that the government should do more for its citizens is naïve, is not a progressive ideology. “Should we just send one to every American?” is what happens when such self-styled pragmatism is seen as a virtue unto itself.
This is the best that things are going to be politically for a while. The Democrats will probably lose at least one of the House and Senate in the upcoming midterms, and maybe both. Given Biden’s approval ratings, he would be a significant underdog if he runs for reelection in 2024, and there’s no obvious alternative waiting in the wings. Barring a sizable shift in public opinion, that means this is the most power the Democrats will have at the national level until at least 2029 — and considering recent GOP rhetoric about voting rights and the 2020 election, regaining power once Republicans control the federal government will be an uphill battle. If the face of the most-liberal government we’re likely to see this decade instinctively scoffs at a modest and pragmatic public-health initiative, what hope do we have of fixing the rest of the healthcare system? Of fighting inequality? Of solving climate change?
Of course, Psaki does not operate in a vacuum. It is not her fault that so many of the administration’s campaign promises and policy initiatives remain unfulfilled. She wasn’t the one who put the kibosh on the proposal to send free tests last fall. (Ironically, the brouhaha about her press conference probably inspired the eventual tests-by-mail program.) Even conflating follow-up questions about security claims with enemy propaganda is not unique to her — it bore a striking resemblance to how State Department Spokesman Ned Price bristled at journalists the same day. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the next face of the administration to at least be outwardly sympathetic to the notion that our elected leaders should do more for their people.
Psaki presumably has bigger things to worry about than fictional superheroes, but I wonder what she would think of Spider-Man. I picture her shaking her head in frustration as Uncle Ben warns Peter of his great responsibility, seeing him not as a revered martyr but a radical charlatan. In an alternate Marvel universe, Aunt Jen rolls her eyes as her nephew swings through the city to fight Doctor Octopus: “Should you just save everyone?” After all, starting next month, insurance will cover property damage caused by robotic arms. What more could these people want?
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Since I know someone will correct me: In Spider-Man’s first comics appearance, this line is spoken by an unnamed narrator, not Uncle Ben. However, most modern adaptations attribute the quote (or something like it) to Ben.