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The thesis of Joe Biden’s inaugural speech Wednesday was hard to miss: Eleven times he said the word “unity” or “uniting," or about once every two minutes.
Yet within hours, official Washington was back in business.
Biden fired the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, a Donald Trump appointee. America Rising, the Republican opposition research firm, began trashing Biden’s Cabinet picks. And on Thursday — one day after Biden urged the nation to “start afresh” — Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, was on the Senate floor accusing Biden of already taking “several big steps in the wrong direction.”
It all served as a bracing reminder of Biden’s arduous task ahead, and the obstacles in his path. The very structure of modern Washington, as Biden knows from his work in the Senate and as vice president, is built around the machinery of partisan war. Even in the absence of Trump’s polarizing presence, compromise remains anathema. And the best intentions and earnest rhetoric aren’t enough to alter that reality, even for a day.
“Every presidential inaugural is about unity,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way. “But how do you do your presidential inauguration about unity at a moment when your predecessor tried to execute a coup two weeks before?”
He said, “I don’t think there’s been a moment like this since the civil war … How do you govern like that?”
It is the question that frames his presidency. As Biden begins his four-year term, a large majority of Republicans still view him as an illegitimate president — convinced of the lie, perpetrated by Trump, that the vote was rigged. More than half of Americans say the biggest threat to American society today is “other people in America,” not foreign adversaries or economic or natural forces.
The division in the country is so acute that, as Biden took office, the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group listed a divided United States — and what it called “the asterisk presidency” — at the top of its annual list of global risks.
“My concern,” said Bill Richardson, the former Democratic governor of New Mexico, “is that Biden’s decency and bipartisanship will not be reciprocated in the short-term, because the Trump faction within the Republican Party is so strong … They’re still there.”
The Biden administration is not yet two days old, and already that factionalism is flaring. On the eve of Biden’s inauguration, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, a leader of the effort to block the certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory, announced he would object to the quick consideration of Biden’s nominee for secretary of Homeland Security, single-handedly delaying Biden’s formation of his national security team. On Thursday, seven Senate Democrats filed an ethics complaint against Hawley and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for their part in objecting to the presidential election results on Jan. 6.
McConnell and the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, are arguing about whether Schumer should commit to preserving the filibuster, the tool which would allow Republicans to block an array of Biden’s legislative priorities, despite Democrats — with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote — holding an effective majority.
The fractious politics of Congress are already at the White House doors. Republicans berated Biden for rejoining the Paris climate accord and for revoking a permit for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package has met resistance from some Republicans, raising the prospect that Democrats may have to push a bill through using budget reconciliation, the process by which Democrats can pass major budget-related measures on a simple majority.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters on Thursday that he was “disappointed to see within hours of assuming office, the new administration was more interested in helping illegal immigrants than helping our own citizens, more interested in virtue signals to the climate activists than supporting the union workers who were building the Keystone pipeline,” among other complaints.
At the same time, the Republican National Committee was busy amplifying that message by characterizing the newly inaugurated president’s first hours in office as ones spent “curbing American competitiveness, killing jobs and unveiling a plan to grant amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants.”
None of that criticism is abnormal in government, and Biden never suggested unity would come without policy disputes. But partisan rancor is almost certain to become more — not less — pronounced in the coming days, when the Senate begins its second impeachment trial of Trump. Republicans and Democrats alike are still beholden to base voters, and disunity is just as bad outside of official Washington as it is inside of it.
During a focus group of Trump supporters organized by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz last week, participants were asked for a word or phrase to describe Biden united around their common disdain for him. Responses ranged from “corrupt” and “pathetic” to “not my president,” “on his deathbed” and “pure sleaze.”
When Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican and co-chair of the bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus,” joined the call, one of the focus group participants, a man from Texas, told him not to bother with “this reaching across the aisle stuff.”
Sooner or later, he said, “you’re going to reach across that aisle and pull back a stump.”
There is optimism among Democrats that, if any politician could usher in an era of unification, it would be Biden. More than 81 million Americans — a record — voted for him. A majority of Americans approve of the way Biden handled his transition, and he comes into office with a relatively high public approval rating.
“I think Joe Biden is basically the only person that could do it,” said Bennett, given “his entire narrative … the way he ran his life, has been about bridging differences and finding ways to connect.”
And even if Biden doesn’t have everyone now singing from the same page, the dawn of his presidency — for Democrats who still remember Trump’s fire and brimstone inaugural — is still far more promising than it might otherwise have been.
“I think that we need to look at the glass being half full, rather than half empty,” Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader, said of the governing climate Biden inherits. “Why do I say that? What kind of position would Democrats be in if we’d only carried one of the Senate seats in Georgia?”
Reid, a longtime proponent of abolishing the legislative filibuster, said Biden should give Republicans “a month or two or three” to “see if McConnell’s going to try to be the grim reaper with everything,” scuttling legislation with the filibuster. If he does, Reid said, “we’re going to have to get rid of the filibuster.”
That timing — a month or two or three — is important, because as divisive as things are for Biden today, partisan attitudes are only likely to become more calcified once politicians turn their focus from his first months in office to the midterm elections.
“They’re going to have to rush through everything they can possibly get in the first 100 days,” said a Democratic adviser to major party donors. “They’re going to get a lot of shit done, and pork is going to run wild … Then you’ve got to focus on the midterms.”
Unity can’t be a concern, the adviser said, when in 2022, “We’re probably going to lose the House. Who the f--- knows on the Senate side of things. You’ve got a very short window before you’re a lame duck and can’t do anything.”
That is, in part, an overstatement. Divided government or not, Biden can still bend the arc of Washington in meaningful ways on his own. He has already signed executive orders to rejoin the Paris climate accord and to rescind Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, among other measures.
“To try to end child separation, to rejoin the Paris accord to continue … the pause on evictions and student loan payments and to end the Muslim ban, all of these things are really important to people to say that elections matter,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Still, Weingarten said, for Biden and Harris to successfully confront the challenges they face — from a still-raging pandemic and an economic crisis to a reckoning with the nation’s own democratic ideals — will require them to “pierce through an environment where a sizable amount of the country lives in an alternate reality.”
That will at least require unification around a shared set of facts, if nothing else. And the nation isn’t anywhere close to that.
“There’s no playbook for this, and what Biden and Harris will confront is formidable,” Weingarten said.