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Unity is Already Being Weaponized Against Biden
Less than two days into the Biden era, the conversation around "unity" has taken a turn towards stupid
The best campaigns can be summarized in a world or a phrase. For Obama that was “change.” The Trump campaign was embodied by the phrase “Make America Great Again” emblazoned on ill fitting hats. Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign was all about unity.
Bringing the country together was the centerpiece of Biden’s announcement speech way back in May of 2019 (approximately one pandemic, one coup, and a hundred lifetimes ago). Many political observers (raises hand) questioned the viability of such a message in the age of Trump. In that speech, Biden pushed back on that tidbit of conventional wisdom.
I know some of the smart folks say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity. The angrier a candidate can be, the better chance they have to win the nomination. I don’t believe it. I really don’t. I believe Democrats want to unify this nation.
At every stop on the campaign, Biden pushed this message. He never wavered — even when he was losing primary after primary. It’s a testament to the President and his team that they found an authentic message and had the intestinal fortitude to see it through to the end.
Biden assumes office as the President of an America that is even more divided than it was when he started the campaign. A division that was embodied at the Inauguration by the absence of Trump, who won’t acknowledge Biden’s victory, and the presence of Ted Cruz, who helped incite an insurrection.
If there was any doubt about Team Biden’s commitment to unity, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain greeted reporters wearing a mask that was half red and half blue. Ron is not some naive newcomer who just fell off the first turnip truck from Delaware. He has been in more battles against the Republicans than most and understands the value — and challenge — of seeking out unity.
Despite the armed insurrection, the pouting former President, and a Republican Party that is still spreading lies about the integrity of the election, Biden used his Inaugural Address to double down on his unity message.
With unity we can do great things. Important things. We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus. We can reward work, rebuild the middle class, and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice. We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world. I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real.
Joe Biden’s presidency will be covered through the prism of unity. In fact, that process has already started. During Wednesday’s parade — before Biden had even arrived at the White House to start the job — a reporter yelled at Biden “Can you unite the country?”
Fair question, but maybe let him put his pens in his desk first. There is nothing the political class likes more than to view idealism as naïveté in order to validate their engrained cynicism. The “unity” conversation is going to be constantly distorted with unfair expectations, bad faith arguments, and general stupidity.
The chattering class may want to judge Biden unfairly and play gotcha, but we don’t need to let them.
Unity is about more than just DC Politics
Much of the discussion of Biden’s pledge for unity will be focused on whether he can work with Congressional Republicans — the majority of whom promulgated a conspiracy theory about the legitimacy of his win. However, that is a reductive interpretation of Biden’s unity message. ‘Healing the soul of the nation’ is about much more than Congressional politics.
Donald Trump’s response to the the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia was the centerpiece of the video that launched Joe Biden’s campaign. Biden believed that Trump’s divisive rhetoric was an existential threat to the nation and that we needed a President who would try bring people together.
To the extent that Donald Trump was ever a leader, he was the leader of the MAGA movement, not the United States. He never tried to speak to the majority of Americans who didn’t vote for him. His primary occupation (other than watching TV) was weaponizing the divisions in the country for his political gain and personal enjoyment. Biden found Trump’s behavior to be dangerous and a symptom of a larger cancer in the country. He ran for President to do something about it.
In some ways, Biden will fulfill this promise simply by not waking up and being a giant asshole on Twitter, but I imagine he has loftier goals about reaching out to all Americans — those who voted for him, those who voted for Trump, and those who didn’t vote. The illness that Biden seeks to heal includes — but is much bigger than — the inability of Republicans and Democrats in Washington to work together.
To be clear, Biden pitched himself as someone who can work with Republicans and he should be judged on whether he makes an effort to do so. But that is not the sum total of his message. Healing the soul of the nation is about much more than making Congressional Republicans happy.
Enacting your Agenda is Not Divisive
This quote from the New York Times sums up how a lot of people will approach the unity conversation.
Despite an inaugural address that called for unity and compromise, Mr. Biden’s first actions as president are sharply aimed at sweeping aside former President Donald J. Trump’s pandemic response, reversing his environmental agenda, tearing down his anti-immigration policies, bolstering the teetering economic recovery and restoring federal efforts to promote diversity.
Mitch McConnell echoed a similar theme in remarks on the floor of the Senate yesterday morning. The Minority Leader (who denied the legitimacy of Biden’s election for months) expressed surprise and disappointment that President Biden was doing the things he said he was going to do.
Some reporters also queried White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about whether Biden removing unqualified officials that Trump had burrowed into government agencies ran counter to his unity message.
What are we doing here? Of course not.
Joe Biden won the election. Republicans lost. Joe Biden doing the things Americans elected him to do is not divisive. The Republicans may not like it, but that’s their problem. A majority of Americans voted to rejoin the Paris Accords, repeal the Muslim ban, implement more comprehensive pandemic measures and so on. Pushing forward on agenda items supported by the majority of Americans is not divisive just because Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson find it irksome.
Biden’s obligation is to reach out to Republicans to try to find common ground, it is not to abandon his agenda in favor of the rejected Republican agenda. The opposition is trying to set up a false choice between unity and progress, we can’t let them do that.
Republicans are still the Problem
During the Obama years, sour relations between the Democratic President and the Congressional Republicans were blamed on Obama’s failure to do more “outreach.” Why didn’t Obama golf with John Boehner? Why didn’t he get a drink with Mitch McConnell? I will stipulate that our White House could have done more outreach, but the problem wasn’t socializing, it was structural.
Most Congressional Republicans were so afraid of their base that they were unwilling to be seen breaking bread or sharing a beer with the Black Democratic President. Nearly every Republican leader skipped out on a White House screening of the film Lincoln. They couldn’t even celebrate a Republican President if it meant being seen with a Democratic one.
For a number of reasons, Biden has the potential to have more bipartisan success than Obama, but the structural problems still exist. A recent Pew poll found a huge disparity in the appetite for cooperation. Sixty-two percent of Democrats think Biden should “try as best he can to work with GOP Congressional leaders to accomplish things.” However, nearly six in 10 Republican voters want their Congressional leaders to stand up to Biden even if it makes it harder to address critical problems.
This asymmetry is why Republican are much more likely to be the impediment to unity in Washington. More than half of the House Republican caucus voted to overturn the election results. Several members of the Senate incited a violent insurrection because they thought it would be politically beneficial. As I write this, Mitch McConnell is using the filibuster to prevent Democrats from taking the majority they won.
Biden’s pledge to unite Americans is politically, substantively, and morally correct. He absolutely needs to reach out to all Americans, including Congressional Republicans, but it takes two to tango. President Biden should be held accountable for his efforts, but that judgement should be fair and it shouldn’t absolve Republicans from responsibility.