Biden's midterm report: President has failed to deliver on his promise to unite Americans
Two years ago, President Joe Biden devoted his inaugural address to healing America's rifts.
“To restore the soul and to secure the future of America requires more than words,” Biden said from the Capitol steps, two weeks after they were defaced by the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. “It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity. … This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”
At the time, I asked myself: Could he be a sort of Nelson Mandela, who, upon winning the South African presidency in 1994, toured regions where he was unwelcome and had tea with his opponents?
That clearly didn't happen. When it came time for Biden to govern, the healing could wait.
Hostility will grow in next 2 years
His White House hustled to reverse executive orders from the previous administration, advocated for appointees who long contributed to Washington’s partisan acrimony and pursued policies that Republicans swore to block. The next two years promise far more hostility with Republicans narrowly in control of the House.
Where does this leave unity – the hallmark of Biden’s inaugural, the self-declared legacy of his presidency?
The president’s actions since his inaugural address reflect the reality of the chief executive. They are not elected as neutral intermediaries; they have a partisan agenda that they explicitly campaign to pursue.
After his party gained control of the House and Senate in 2020, Biden felt pressure to make use of a rare opportunity to achieve longstanding Democratic policy goals.
Perhaps it also was naive to think that one person could undo the decades of polarization that political opportunists, talk show segments and unregulated algorithms have wrought on U.S. politics. According to a poll by Ipsos, party identification is now a more meaningful source of difference than race or religion for many Americans today.
Any politician will be handicapped when he or she embodies the social boundary they aim to transcend – even Biden: Ultimately, he is a Democrat, and that almost in itself disqualifies him from bridging the partisan divide.
To the extent that any U.S. political leader has unified Americans in the past century, it has taken place in the context of a greater external enemy. Al-Qaida. The Soviet Union. The Nazis.
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Without an obvious enemy or the desire to construct one, Biden’s initial agenda focused on actions that most Americans would understand and benefit from – subsidies for child care and to the unemployed, businesses loans and student loans, free and accessible COVID-19 testing and vaccines, infrastructure and action against climate change.
But Biden has been vilified by his opponents anyway. The headwinds and old habits of American politics ensured that even consensus-building measures were polarizing.
Biden chose to attack 'MAGA Republicans'
Finally, in Biden’s stern Jan. 6 retrospectives and his September castigation of “MAGA Republicans” in front of Independence Hall, a potentially unifying enemy emerged: Donald Trump.
Exhausted by Republicans’ refusal to work with him and the persistence of Trump’s baseless election irregularity allegations, Biden has begun to regularly invoke the name of his predecessor to publicly condemn him and the threat he poses to American democracy.
Evidently, the president and his advisers concluded that unity is impossible if the American people cannot even agree on a common historical narrative. But any remaining illusions of Biden as an aisle-crossing unifier have been dispelled.
Despite his exasperation, the president cannot give up. The scourge of polarization and social division that motivated Biden’s inaugural two years ago remains; it is the greatest social challenge facing our country, a multidecade project.
Passing laws – no matter how popular – was never going to be a viable path to reunifying the nation anyway.
A conversational road map: We meet weekly for lunch and talk politics. We don't always agree. But we're always civil.
The roads toward unity all venture away from politics and public policy; we build bridges when we pursue common goals. Connections are made when someone covers for us at work. When we lean on a neighbor. When we bond over our love for basketball. Neighbors don’t ask whom you voted for before they jump-start your car. Basketball teammates only care about your jump shot. And it’s those cross-cutting connections that open our ears to listen, empathize and overlook what might have once divided us.
A president cannot simulate these intergroup interactions, and he can only do so much to facilitate them. But he can live the change he wants to see in the world.
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Biden’s legislative presidency is largely over. Consensus-driven, Washington-based policymaking will be rare in the next two years. Inspired rhetoric will seem out of touch when Republicans begin investigations into Biden’s son and his Justice Department.
If Biden is still devoted to restoring the soul of America, there is only one way forward. Like Mandela, President Biden must have tea.
He can take to the road and visit the places he is least welcome, including the small towns and suburbs that not so long ago roared for Trump’s politics of fear, fury and retribution. He can meet those who raged against him and his party, much like he did on tours of the Kentucky towns devastated by tornados and the hurricane-hit Florida coastline.
In these meetings, he can listen more than he talks, he can agree to disagree, he can find common ground. With farmers, pastors, sheriffs and gun enthusiasts. He could thus cast a different model for future American politicians and work to instill faith in democratic institutions.
The problem is that Washington, D.C., insiders believe that such boundary-crossing outreach is too risky, that it does nothing to mobilize base voters, that it distracts from the policy agenda.
And so, it takes a natural disaster for us to realize that our fate is linked. But a far greater risk than Biden’s political demise is that this realization of our nation’s common interests comes too late.
Justin Gest is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden promised unity. At midterm, it's still Democrats vs Republicans