Media Said Biden's Election Meant 'Competence Is Making a Comeback.' So How Did the Defense Secretary Go AWOL?

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
January 12, 2024

Revelations that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had been hospitalized and incapacitated for days, unbeknownst to the American people, shred media claims from early in President Joe Biden's tenure that his election would restore transparency and competence to the federal government.

The public was only informed last Friday that Austin, Biden's top military adviser, was in the intensive care unit at Walter Reed Medical Center, four days after he checked in. It took four more days for the Pentagon to reveal that Austin's "elective medical procedure" was surgery for prostate cancer. The White House said it received both updates just hours before they were made public. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks was on vacation in Puerto Rico when Austin transferred "some operational responsibilities" to her on Saturday, and she only learned he was hospitalized two days later, the Pentagon has said.

Austin has faced calls to resign, including from a Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee, but the White House has said Biden will not fire him or accept his resignation.

Flashback: In the Biden White House's first press briefing, in January 2021, then-press secretary Jen Psaki affirmed the president's campaign pledges "to bring transparency and truth back to government, to share the truth, even when it's hard to hear." The media ate it up.

The New York Times hailed Psaki's words as a "striking departure" from the last four years of former president Donald Trump's "falsehoods and hostility." The Associated Press praised "smooth Psaki" for her commitment to "providing the unvarnished truth" on issues to the American people. CNN aired a chyron editorializing about "how refreshing" Psaki's promises to share "accurate info" were.

"The images of Biden's first hours in office made an abrupt shift in style evident," ABC News gushed, adding that returning Obama administration staffers brought an "air of competence" to the West Wing "after an administration that prioritized inexperienced Washington outsiders."

Many reported strong competence vibes from the White House. Before Biden was even sworn in, the Los Angeles Times talked up how his hiring focus on "expertise" would mean "returning to norms" and "making government work."

The Associated Press declared that Biden's prioritization of "experience" meant that "competence is making a comeback."

According to the Washington Post, the choice of Ron Klain as White House chief of staff was Biden "sending an early signal that he intends to rely heavily on experience, competence and political agility after a Trump presidency that prized flashiness and personality."

When Merrick Garland was named to run the Justice Department, CNN reported that Biden made the choice because he "believes the nation demands competence."

Biden's first week of "refreshingly presidential behavior"—including the return of "policy wonks and message discipline"—inspired the New Yorker to ask in a headline, "Did Biden Just Make Everything Normal Again?"

Keeping America safe, the media affirmed, was the Biden administration's strength among strengths. The Economist billed Biden's national security team as "reassuringly familiar" people who "reflected a stress on unflashy expertise," "pragmatism," and "competent governing." An Atlantic staff writer called the crew "sleepily reassuring," full of "hypercompetent public servants" whose steady hands were like a "warm cup of Ovaltine with a melatonin chaser."

The New York Times reported that the Obama alumni returning to the Situation Room were "prepared to restore foreign policy principles discarded by President Trump," to the "enormous relief" of "establishment insiders, who are desperate to see seasoned hands regain control of national security."

"The adults are back in charge," a CNN analyst concluded in June 2021 after Biden's uneventful summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva.

In real life, Biden went on to oversee crisis after crisis—record-high inflation, record-high illegal immigration, a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan—even as he stone-walled the press, dodged accountability, and tamped down on online criticism. Nevertheless, sympathetic news outlets have continued to defer to Biden and his technocrats.

The American people, however, have drawn their own conclusions. According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans polled last month disapproved of Biden, including "large majorities of Americans [who] express little or no confidence in Biden's ability to handle a number of issues." A November poll from George Washington University found Biden trailing Trump on leadership by double digits.