It all served as an invigorating reminder of Biden’s uphill task ahead and the obstacles in his way. The very structure of modern Washington, as Biden knows from his work in the Senate and as Vice President, is built around the mechanism of partisan warfare. Even in the absence of Trump’s polarizing presence, the compromise remains anathema. And the best of intentions and serious rhetoric aren’t enough to change that reality, even for a day.
“Every presidential inauguration is about unity,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way. “But how do you make your presidential nomination on unity at a time when your predecessor tried to execute a coup d’etat two weeks before?”
He said, “I don’t think there has been a time like this since the Civil War … How do you rule like that?”
This is the question that frames his presidency. As Biden turns four 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 they are “other peoples in America”, not foreign adversaries or economic or natural forces.
The division in the country is so acute that when Biden took office, political risk consultancy Eurasia Group listed the United States divided – and what it called “The asterisk presidency” – at the top of its annual list of global risks.
“My concern,” said Bill Richardson, former Democratic governor of New Mexico, “is that Biden’s decency and two-party politics 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 this factionalism is already on the rise. On the eve of Biden’s inauguration, Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a leader in the effort to block certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory, announced he would do so. object to quick consideration Biden’s candidate for Homeland Security secretary, single-handedly delaying Biden’s training of his national security team. Thursday, seven Senate Democrats filed an ethics complaint against Hawley and Republican Senator Ted Cruz for their part in opposing the results of the January 6 presidential election.
McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer argue over whether Schumer should commit to preserving systematic obstruction, the tool that would allow Republicans to block a range of Biden’s legislative priorities, despite the Democrats – with Vice President Kamala Harris’ decisive vote – holding an effective majority.
The turbulent politics of Congress are already at the gates of the White House. Republicans berated Biden for joining the Paris climate accords and revoking a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline project. Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package has met resistance from some Republicans, hinting at the prospect that Democrats may have to push through a bill using budget reconciliation, the process by which Democrats can pass major budget measures by simple majority.
Minority House Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) Told reporters on Thursday he was “disappointed that within hours of taking office the new administration was more interested in helping illegal immigrants than to help our own citizens, who are more interested in the signals of virtue. to climate activists to support the union workers who were building the Keystone pipeline, ”among other complaints.
At the same time, the Republican National Committee was busy amplifying this message by characterizing the newly inaugurated president first hours in power when they spent “curbing American competitiveness, killing jobs and unveiling a plan for amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants.”
None of these criticisms are abnormal within government, and Biden has never suggested that unity would come without political differences. But the partisan grudge is almost certain to become more – not less – pronounced in the coming days, when the Senate begins its second Trump impeachment trial. Republicans and Democrats are always beholden to the rank and file voters, and the disunity is just as serious outside official Washington as it is inside.
During a focus group of Trump supporters hosted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz last week, attendees asked for a word or phrase to describe Biden united around their common contempt for him. Responses ranging 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. not bother with aisle stuff.
Sooner or later, he said, “you’re going to cross this alley and pull out 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 how Biden handled his transition, and he takes office with a relatively high public approval rating.
“I think Joe Biden is basically the only person who could do that,” Bennett said, given “his whole story … the way he’s run his life, has been about bridging the differences and finding ways. ways to connect.
And while Biden doesn’t have everyone now singing from the same page, the dawn of his presidency – for Democrats who still remember Trump inaugural fire and brimstone – is still much more promising than it could have been otherwise.
“I think we have to look at the glass as half full, rather than half empty,” Harry Reid, the former Senate Majority Leader, said of the governing climate Biden inherits. “Why am I saying this? What kind of position would the Democrats be in if we had won only one Senate seat in Georgia?
Reid, a longtime advocate for breaking down legislative filibuster, said Biden should give Republicans “a month or two or three” to “see if McConnell will try to be the reaper with everything,” scuttling legislation with systematic obstruction. If he does, Reid said, “We’re going to have to get rid of the filibuster.
This timing – a month or two or three – is important, because as divisive as things are for Biden today, partisan attitudes will likely only become more calcified once politicians focus on his early months. in power towards the midterm elections.
“They’re going to have to rush through whatever they can get in the first 100 days,” a Democratic adviser told major party donors. “They’re going to do a lot of shit, and the pork is going to go wild… Then you have to focus on the midterms.
Unity cannot be a problem, the adviser said, while in 2022, “we’re probably going to lose the House. Who f — knows on the Senate side of things. You have a very short window before you are a lame duck and there is nothing you can do.
This is partly an exaggeration. Government divided or not, Biden can still bend Washington’s arc significantly on his own. He has already signed executive orders to join the Paris climate accords and to overturn Trump’s travel ban in several Muslim-majority countries, among other measures.
“To try to end child separation, to join the Paris agreement to continue… the pause on deportations and student loan payments and to end the Muslim ban, all of these things are really important to people to say elections matter, ”said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Nonetheless, Weingarten said that in order for Biden and Harris to successfully meet the challenges they face – from an ongoing pandemic and an economic crisis to taking account of the nation’s democratic ideals – they will need to “ to break into an environment in which a considerable amount of the country lives in an alternate reality.
It will at least require unification around a set of shared facts, if nothing else. And the nation is not far from it.
“There’s no manual for this, and what Biden and Harris will be up against is great,” Weingarten said.