Jim Shella: For the president, image is the problem

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Jim ShellaJoe Biden has an image problem. In fact, he has a couple of them.

First of all, there is the growing image that his leadership is failing. It is fed by multiple crises tying up the White House while a domestic agenda is in jeopardy.

Second, and maybe more important, there are the video and photographic images that have been created by those challenges.

Here are three examples:

◗ The most recent crisis at the Southern border resulted in images of white border-patrol agents on horseback rounding up black Haitian immigrants and, in one case, whipping one of them with the horse’s reins. It was inhumane. Even the White House press secretary admitted that.

◗ The tragic evacuation of Afghanistan produced horrifying and unforgettable images of refugees chasing American military planes down a runway, and the bombed-out car of peaceful citizens misidentified as terrorists. The White House and the Pentagon have both been unable to get in front of this public relations disaster.

◗ Then there are the continuing images of exhausted health care workers and dying patients prompted by a pandemic that eludes control because of failure to reach necessary vaccination levels. This comes despite government mandates and pleadings. The Biden administration set unattainable goals for vaccination levels and raised hopes unnecessarily for a return to normal life sooner than what is possible.

Why do these images matter?

Let me take you back to the Reagan presidency of the 1980s to supply the answer. Ronald Reagan employed a top aide named Michael Deaver, who was tasked with creating an image for the president. Deaver had a background in television. He was a master, using flags and balloons, props and people to make the former actor appear presidential.

Lesley Stahl, the “60 Minutes” correspondent who covered the White House for CBS News at the time, caught on to it. She thought she had a big scoop when she created a TV story that showed the images arranged by Deaver while pointing out that the policies behind them were shallow. When asked about Stahl’s story, Deaver said, “We were delighted with it,” according to The New York Times.

A Reagan insider told Stahl, “They didn’t hear what you said; they only saw those pictures.”

It’s the image that counts.

And the Biden people know it. That’s why an order was issued that prevents border-patrol agents from using horses for the foreseeable future. They still don’t have a coherent immigration policy, however.

It’s why we now see efforts being made to demonstrate how Afghan refugees are being welcomed to the United States.

It’s why Biden rolled up his sleeve on camera to receive a COVID vaccination booster shot. It’s also why Biden created a vaccine mandate for government workers and employees of large companies.

Ultimately, policies might matter more than pictures. But the images are not only hard to forget, they are the foundation for campaign ads. Biden needs to be concerned about how well his Democratic Party will perform in the 2022 elections. If his party loses control of the House, or the Senate, or both, the second half of his term will be even more difficult.

Cue the picture of the president with his head in his hands while a reporter asks an unwelcome question.

Democrats will argue that Biden inherited unsolvable problems at the border, in Afghanistan, and with the pandemic. All of this is Trump’s fault, they will say.


But the pictures don’t tell that part of the story.•


Shella hosted WFYI’s “Indiana Week in Review” for 25 years and covered Indiana politics for WISH-TV for more than three decades. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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11 thoughts on “Jim Shella: For the president, image is the problem

  1. Image may be a problem but I assure you that his policies, Lies, corruption, and the fact that he is compromised by China are all much larger items for an individual that should never have been placed in The Whitehouse.

    1. These words sound vaguely familiar save for replacing China with Russia.

      By the way, if Biden was compromised by China, why didn’t he roll back Trump’s trade policies?

    1. In what manner are people better off?

      Donald Trump is not in office. We don’t have someone repeating anti-science lies and hatred and racism from the highest office in the land.

      Just think how America, awash in vaccine doses, would be if the anti-vax lies had been exposed for the nonsense they are. It Trump used his pulpit to lead, as opposed to telling people what they wanted to hear because he liked being popular more than being a leader. We wouldn’t have COVID ripping through schools. We wouldn’t have rural citizens overwhelming their healthcare systems and dying. We’d be open for business.

      One can only hope the scales fall from the eyes of Republicans and they recognize the mistake they’ve made and they discard Trumpism to the ash bin of history.

  2. Shella’s article discloses much about the failure of both media and journalism in America. He focuses on “images” while policies and actions and how real people’s lives are impacted by those policies and actions play second fiddle. The focus should be the families of the marines lost at the Kabul airport. And the families of the countless victims that have overdosed on the flood of fentanyl and other narcotics coming across America’s southern border at epic proportions due in great part to Joe Biden’s failed immigration policies. (This was far better and much more “in control” under our former president. Biden inherited a very functional immigration condition at our southern border … and dismantled it to enact his failed policies resulting in the numerous tragedies taking place daily. Only a partisan hack would term this an “unsolvable problem”). He talks about “a pandemic that eludes control because of failure to reach necessary vaccination levels. This comes despite government mandates and pleadings” … while the Biden immigration policies allow unvaccinated illegal immigrants to pour across America’s southern border and then be transported all across America at taxpayer’s expense. WHERE IS THE MEDIA’S OUTRAGE AT HOW BIDEN’S DIRECT ACTIONS AND HIS ADMINISTRATION’S POLICIES HAVE CAUSED LOSS OF AMERICAN LIVES !?! We have reached a (very low) point where the media is complicit in the tragedies that have cost American lives. The media’s failure to call Joe Biden and his administration to account for these losses make them collaborative contributors to the tragic loss of life and limb Americans and their families have suffered since Joe Biden was inaugurated January 20. Apparently, one must “turn in their conscious” in order to report news today. Americans deserve better news media. One without “narratives”. To continue this path dooms America to failure.

  3. This was an interesting article in that it is repeating the whole right wing narrative of the Biden Presidency and Jim failed to point that out. Having witnessed the body bags being loaded onto helicopters in the Viet Nam era, I would say almost everything Jim repeated is overblown, but very well spun hype and propaganda.

    Jim has even bought into the spin that the current strain on the healthcare system is Biden’s fault. The large majority of the unvaccinated straining the healthcare system is the direct result of Trump and all of the Republican politicians that will sow dissent to gain or maintain power even to the point of killing Americans.

    I will admit it looks like like a image problem to somebody that does not posses critical think skills, but sadly that may be more people than I realize.

    1. Dan – a whole lot of Americans don’t have those skills and, to boot, they get fed a lot of nonsense.

      Witness Mark hyperventilating about immigration. He’s not concerned about how bad it looks to treat people crossing the border like a wild animal, he’s just repeating that they are an “other” who must be blamed for something. I can literally tell where he gets his news from, because what he’s ranting about is what right wing media focuses on. They know an angry viewer is an engaged viewer who keeps coming back for more every day.

      I mean, the makers of OxyContin killed a quarter-million Americans and they knew they were killing their patients. And we let them keep the money they made AND gave them immunity. But I’m supposed to think that foreigners are the problem, not the Sacklers.

      Is Joe Biden perfect? Oh heck no. But compared to the Republican party that doesn’t believe in democratic elections any longer and is quietly working on making sure they can cheat to “win” the next set of elections, it doesn’t matter.

  4. Jim raises a good point – the Biden administration has a huge image problem. As Mr Shabazz mentioned in his opinion piece the Democrats are a party without ideas. To be fair, Biden did inherit chaos on many fronts, but it seems that his administration is unable to develop solutions and ideas to resolve these issues. 2022 isn’t that far away – if the Biden administration, and the Democrats in many areas, cannot reverse their declining image problems then the GOP will have a golden opportunity to make gains across the board.

    1. With their own ideas, which are … what? Science is bad, voting is only for white people, everything is the fault of the foreigners/blacks/LBGTQ, and Trump is never wrong?

      I mean, spare me the old bit about Republicans being for fiscal prudence, personal responsibility, and national security. That ship sailed a few years ago, but was scuttled during the Trump administration.

      The Democrats are the least bad option. Which is sad but true.

    1. Bob, you already showed me that two weeks ago and I replied. Are they only a monthly? Do you have anything new to add?

      If corruption is a big deal I sure missed all the complaints about a President who pocketed lots of money from his hotel in Washington DC from foreign businesses … and still couldn’t turn a profit.

      Oh, my daughter fixed me cookies a couple days ago. They were yummy. But thanks.

      Here’s a new article you can read – “ Wondering why society went off-kilter during the pandemic? It was all predicted in this book”. Longish excerpt below.


      We’re approaching 700,000 dead in the U.S., and yet every day I still get feedback from readers who insist it’s all overblown. Or that it’s no worse than the flu. (I long ago stopped responding to the flu comparison people, but if I did, I would note that it takes 20 years for the flu to kill this many people.)

      This past week, the entire state of Idaho has moved to crisis standards of care, in which resources are stretched so thin that patients may be treated based on who has the best chances of survival. Still, that news, which seems alarming enough to me, isn’t necessarily getting through. I’ve noticed that hospitals increasingly are inviting reporters directly into the ICU wards, in a maddening bid to try to convince the public, after all these months, that the pandemic even exists.

      But it turns out this denial behavior is not only normal, it was totally foreseeable, according to Steven Taylor, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C.

      Taylor would know because he predicted it. He wrote a remarkable little book back in 2019 called “The Psychology of Pandemics.” Its premise is that pandemics are “not simply events in which some harmful microbe ‘goes viral,’” but rather are mass psychological phenomena about the behaviors, attitudes and emotions of people.

      The book came out pre-COVID and yet predicts every trend and trope we’ve been living for 19 months now: the hoarding of supplies like toilet paper at the start; the rapid spread of “unfounded rumors and fake news”; the backlash against masks and vaccines; the rise and acceptance of conspiracy theories; and the division of society into people who “dutifully conform to the advice of health authorities” — sometimes compulsively so — and those who “engage in seemingly self-defeating behaviors such as refusing to get vaccinated.”