As President Joe Biden said in his inaugural address, “To restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words, it requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy, unity.” Yet Biden also knows that to gain the trust of more Americans, and help unify the country, his immediate focus must be ending the pandemic and economic crisis. This is of course good policy. But it is also Biden’s fundamental political strategy.
Competent, urgent action by the federal government working with states, localities, businesses and civil society, is crucial to solving the pandemic and rebuilding the economy. This is deeply ironic since the recent attacks on the U.S. Capitol were the logical end point of decades of relentless demonizing of government, as even the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib noted recently. Indeed, we are now learning that elements of the Republican Attorneys General Association itself seem to have supported and inflamed the Capitol riot.
Over time, Biden’s hope is that by delivering for average Americans he can gain widespread political support and trust from the still-decisive American political middle. It may also begin to “lower the temperature” of today’s hyper-partisan passions, as Biden phrased it, passions which are now more virulent than at any point since the Civil War.
In remarks a few days after the Capitol attack, Biden made this case emphatically: “I’m focused on the virus, the vaccine and economic growth,” he said. “What the Congress decides to do [on impeachment] is for them to decide. But,” he added quickly, “they’re going to have to hit the ground running” on ending the pandemic and improving the economy.
Last week, Biden announced a $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief stimulus package that includes a huge ramp up of vaccine distribution and inoculation, $1,400 checks for all qualifying Americans, an extension of employment insurance funding, and small business relief for millions of struggling firms.
“People are really, really, really in desperate shape,” Biden said: more than 400,000 of our people have died from COVID-19; tens of millions have lost their jobs, and millions their businesses — and millions more are isolated, scared and wondering where rent money and food money will come from when the last stimulus money runs out. In contrast, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE deliberately politicized protective measures like mask wearing and social distancing, leading to many more infections and deaths.
But trust in government is alarmingly low. A September poll found that only 20 percent of Americans trusted the federal government. But this may have been a response to Trump’s incompetence and deliberate fomenting of Americans to distrust each other. A brand new survey last week by the Washington Post finds that 49 percent of Americans trust Joe Biden. But this number is still down from the 61 percent who trusted Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEmanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing Public officials are under physical and digital siege We must protect and support our health care safety net MORE.
This new data supports the notion that Biden must win back trust in government which has been purposefully undermined by Republicans for decades as a political strategy.
Replacing Donald Trump with Joe Biden, even by a narrow margin, was a good start in improving our government, but make no mistake: The 147 Congressional Republicans, including eight Senators, who supported Trump's attempt to overturn the election results knew Trump was inciting violence and potential insurrection, yet they sought only to exploit it for their own political gain. These are the most disgraceful actions by a president in history; he has rightly been impeached for it, but it’s also the worst by members of Congress in our lifetimes.
Many Americans, including millions of Republicans, must be hoping that the terrible events at the Capitol will finally break the fever of demonization, conspiracies and hatred. Maybe now Republicans and Democrats can look each other in the eye and say — “this has gone way too far. We must talk to each other, discuss our disagreements, work together to build back better and make American great again.” But it is sobering to reflect that nearly half of Republicans surveyed after the assault on the Capitol supported it.
As the Civil War loomed, in his first inaugural address, President Lincoln said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Lincoln was right then, and now, but he still could not prevent the war. Today, we must bring out the “better angles of our natures” that both Lincoln and now Biden invoked, while we still have time.
Joe Biden understands this. In his inaugural address, he urged that we view each other “not as adversaries, but as neighbors, treating each other with dignity and respect.” But first President BidenJoe BidenWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Jayapal says tuition-free community college 'probably won't' be in spending plan Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt MORE knows he must prove that he cares about helping all Americans, “even those who didn’t vote for me,” so that all Americans are open to the unifying “path forward” he envisions.
Paul Bledsoe is president of Bledsoe & Associates, a policy and communications consultancy, a lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy and a strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute. He served as staff member in the U.S. House, Senate Finance Committee, Interior Department and on President Bill Clinton’s White House climate change task force. He also served on the executive council of Clean Energy for Biden, a group of more than 5,000 clean energy experts and professionals who supported Joe Biden for president.