Biden’s push for unity collides with entrenched partisanship
President Biden is struggling to make good on a campaign promise to unite the country as his administration runs up against an increasingly divided Washington and polarization among the broader electorate.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, Biden spoke of bringing the country together and “breaking the fever” with Republicans.
“You’re going to be surprised,” he said on a call with grassroots supporters in December just weeks before taking office, going so far as to predict a Republican “epiphany.” He said GOP behavior would change without Donald Trump in office, but that it would take six to eight months to change.
But little has changed inside the Beltway as Biden approaches the nine-month mark without a major piece of bipartisan legislation signed into law. While the president secured an infrastructure deal after intense rounds of negotiations with Republicans, the bill remains in limbo in the House more than two months after it passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support.
Outside Washington, the country remains deeply divided on social and cultural issues, including wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“He’s been able to move the needle a bit, but I think the expectation was that he’d be able to reset the mood of the Congress and lessen the tension around the nation,” said one Democratic strategist. “I do think he’s been able to normalize some things after the Trump era, but a lot remains unchanged.”
Some political observers, however, say Biden deserves credit for trying to put aside partisanship in favor of unity.
“It’s more about aspiration than achievement,” said historian Michael Eric Dyson, who was invited to the White House earlier this year as part of a larger group of academics to discuss “big ideas” with Biden. “Voters are savvy enough to know that you’re not able to do everything you want to do because you’re not acting by yourself. What they want you to have is the desire to do so.”
Dyson argued that voters recognize the challenge of a Democratic president to work with congressional Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.).
“There’s a great deal of understanding and forgiveness for Biden when they know he has McConnell on the other side, Josh Hawley on the other side,” Dyson added. “It’s not that unity has been tried and failed. We haven’t tried it.”
Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, attributed today’s divisions to a confluence of factors: the coronavirus pandemic and related economic downturn, Trump’s tendency toward sowing division, 24/7 news coverage and social media.
She described the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol as the type of “violent disunity” last seen during the Civil War era.
“All of these relate to and develop and perpetrate the divisions that we now see, so that it’s very hard for any president to try to bridge those gaps,” Perry said.
Biden has made some progress toward bringing about the kind of unity he talked about on the campaign trail. He revived bipartisan meetings at the White House after they fizzled under Trump. And last week, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) joined Biden and other Democrats for a signing ceremony on legislation to assist U.S. officials who are victims of “Havana syndrome.”
While Democrats passed Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill without Republican support early on in his presidency, the White House has repeatedly highlighted the measure’s bipartisan support among voters. A Morning Consult-Politico poll from March, for instance, found that a majority of GOP voters backed the stimulus package even after being told that it was a Democratic bill.
Allies of the White House also believe that Biden is on the cusp of a major bipartisan victory with the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill awaiting a vote in the House.
More recently, however, Biden has been focused on uniting members of his own party over an expansive economic agenda to address climate change and provide support for families. Congressional Democrats have disagreed over the size, scope and timing of the package.
In virtual remarks to the Democratic National Committee’s fall meeting on Saturday, Biden emphasized the need for Democrats to “stay unified” heading into the 2022 midterm elections, when they’ll be defending razor-thin majorities in each chamber.
“My message is simple: We need to stay together,” Biden told the audience.
Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and director of the public policy program at Hunter College, said Biden has forged unity among unique coalitions when it comes to some of his policies, like the infrastructure bill, which has support among many on the right.
“I think he’s been able to unify the country, but not necessarily in the ways he thought when he became president,” Smikle said.
Still, polls have shown partisan rifts on issues like mandates for coronavirus vaccines or masks in schools, as well as Biden’s handling of various issues.
“I think that he is facing an unprecedented polarization that even a man with his gift and his ability to bring people together is finding it and will continue to find it extremely challenging,” said Moe Vela, a former Biden adviser who worked in the Obama White House, adding that Biden isn’t to blame for the persistent divides in America.
Democratic strategist Christy Setzer cited the Senate infrastructure bill and getting a majority of Trump voters vaccinated as notable bipartisan accomplishments.
“For most of this year, he effectively found the space between what GOP voters want and what GOP elected [officials] want to get his agenda supported by the majority of the public,” Setzer said. “Honestly, it was amazing.”
“But Joe Biden isn’t a miracle worker,” she added. “A significant minority of the GOP is just entrenched in opposition on everything, no matter what. There’s a limit to what you can do without vaccine mandates. There’s a limit to what you can do without removing the filibuster.”
“If anything, Biden’s problem has been that he’s not naive, but too optimistic,” Setzer said. “That’s why he waited probably longer than he should have before calling for mandates, and why they’re slowly coming around on the filibuster now. At some point, optimism collides with reality — and we’re at that moment.”
Smikle, meanwhile, argued that Biden has been able to create a united front through “coercion” in mandating vaccinations. Biden’s decision to announce requirements for federal workers and businesses spurred similar requirements with many state and local governments.
While there is still some opposition to coronavirus vaccines and accompanying mandates, majorities of the public have gotten vaccinated and support the mandates. Polls show that Republicans are more likely to buck the vaccine, though the opposition to the shots is not strictly partisan.
Still, reaching those who have resisted the vaccine remains an enduring challenge for the administration.
Asked if Biden was naive in talking about unity, Dyson replied: “Of course he was.”
“But we don’t need bad faith actors,” he said. “We need someone who has enough naivety to believe that it’s possible. Thank God for that.”