President Biden campaigned for the White House on a promise to heal “the soul of America.”
He hasn’t succeeded so far.
But whose fault is that?
Democrats and progressives bridle against a narrative that holds Biden to blame for the divisions in the nation.
They cite instead fiery and near-monolithic Republican opposition to his agenda, the influence of former President Trump on the GOP and a political media culture that rewards polarization over cooperation.
Put more starkly, Biden’s defenders wonder how exactly he is supposed to unify a nation in which around one-third of the population falsely believes his election win was illegitimate.
“You cannot heal those who do not choose to be healed. You cannot lead the unwilling,” said Moe Vela, who worked as a senior adviser to then-Vice President Biden during the Obama presidency.
“Look, maybe he was faced with an unrealistic expectation — partially the fault of his campaign and maybe partly the fault of the media — that he was going to heal the nation in the short-term. There is no human being who could heal the divide right now.”
Biden also did his part in creating those expectations, of course.
In his inaugural address, the new president asserted that, in a nation beset by troubles, “to restore the soul, and to secure the future, of America requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.”
Now the public lays at least some of the blame for disunity at Biden’s feet.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week indicated that Americans believed Biden was doing more to divide than to unite the country, 49 percent to 42 percent.
Worryingly for the White House, independents saw Biden as more of a divider than a uniter by a 12-point margin, 50 percent to 38 percent.
A CBS News-YouGov poll released Sunday asked whether the word “unifying” could be applied to Biden’s presidency. Only 36 percent of all respondents, and just 31 percent of independents, said yes.
The framing of these questions irks progressives, who contend that the media elevates bipartisanship for its own sake.
Progressives believe that this lens distorts the political battlefield, sapping Democrats of leverage and fetishizing the “middle ground.” Many on the left contend that it is useless, or worse, for Democrats to try to stake out a middle ground with a GOP radicalized by the Trump years.
“The claims for ‘bipartisanship’ that we hear from the Acela corridor are really a false standard that the elites in D.C. and New York only put on Democratic presidents,” said Murshed Zaheed, a progressive strategist and former Capitol Hill staffer. “We never heard about the need for bipartisanship when Trump was pushing his tax cuts roughshod through Congress.”
Zaheed nonetheless expressed his own indignation with Biden’s approach.
He argued that the president had been too concerned about preserving bipartisan comity at the expense of some of the agenda items most cherished by his base, such as tackling student debt.
“If people look at the polls closely, the biggest hit Biden has taken is from young folks and millennials,” he said. “Biden should be scoring on easy layups like executive orders to cancel student debt. Instead, he is always chasing the bipartisanship unicorn and throwing up airballs.”
Biden’s defenders would point to the passage of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill late last year as an example of how bipartisanship can still work. They also note that Republican opposition has not always thwarted the president. Just two months into his presidency, he passed a huge COVID-19 relief bill without a single GOP vote.
Still, recent weeks have piled frustration upon frustration for the White House, with the Build Back Better bill stalling out and a vigorous push for voting rights legislation foundering almost as soon as it began.
The latter effort was also a reminder of the fine needle Biden is trying to thread.
From the left, advocates complained that he had not made voting rights a priority soon enough. Some key activists, including Stacey Abrams, even stayed away from his big speech last week in Atlanta making his case.
But in that speech, Biden compared those who opposed the legislation with villains of history such as Jefferson Davis and Bull Connor. That, in turn, drew rebukes even from the most moderate Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) complained on the Senate floor that Biden had imputed “sinister, even racist, inclinations” to anyone who opposed the Democrats’ favored legislation. “So much for unifying the country and working across the aisle,” Romney added.
Longtime observers on the GOP side — including some who have been harsh critics of Trump — contend that Biden does bear some blame for division. His quests for sweeping legislation during his first year have misread the mood of the nation, they say.
“If you want large-scale change, you need to convince the country that is the direction they want to go,” said one such Republican strategist, Rick Tyler. “He arrived with neither an overwhelming mandate nor big majorities in Congress — and that’s just now how our system works.”
Tyler added that, when it comes to a failure to bring the country together, “You can’t just say, ‘Well, that’s just the Republicans being mean to him.’ Sorry, that’s the job he signed up for.”
The problem may be that the job of unifying the nation is too big for any president.
The combined forces of cable news, social media and hyperpartisan websites encourage people to dig deeper into their partisan trenches.
The ultracombative attitude extends to the halls of Congress where, just in the past year, one Republican member smeared a Muslim Democratic counterpart as a suspected terrorist, and another tweeted an animated video of himself killing a high-profile Democratic congresswoman.
Biden, in his inaugural, reached for optimism.
“We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors,” he said. “We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature.”
But one year on, it’s not clear that we will.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.