Kate Robinson ‘21
In the months and weeks leading up to his inauguration, Joe Biden was optimistic. Or at least, he had become practiced at projecting optimism. After his long and arduous battle for “the soul of America,” as he had become fond of saying on the campaign trail, he had won and seemed confident in his ability to take the reins of a divided country. At his inauguration- fittingly themed “America United”- Biden said, “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.” The new President Biden had some caveats as well. “I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days… I know the forces that divide us and they are real.”
Three months later, Joe Biden hasn’t given up on unity. But, he has steadily shifted the goalposts. Biden frequently cites his long time in the Senate and his friendships cultivated across the aisle, and his administration hosts frequent meetings with Republican and bipartisan legislators. He has restored some degree of the oft-lauded civility that pundits and institutionalists were left pining over during the Trump years. So far, however, this celebration of bipartisanship has been more of an aesthetic choice than an actual policy commitment.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package passed through the House and Senate with only Democratic votes. Despite a stated willingness to compromise and meetings with congressional Republicans, the Biden policy team never budged from their original $1.9 trillion proposal. The package did go through some significant changes and adjustments before its passage, most notably when the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the proposed $15 minimum wage could not be passed through budget reconciliation, Democrats’ only legislative option for avoiding Republican filibuster. But congressional Republicans had no moderating influence on the bill.
A Biden supporter with the Obama years still fresh in their mind might argue that regardless of what Democrats tried, Republicans would refuse to cooperate on legislation and fall back on the trademark obstruction they employed over the course of Obama’s eight years in office. That supporter wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Democrats, either wiser from their congressional history or traumatized from it, have learned from the bloody months-long saga of fruitless bipartisan Obamacare negotiations, which resulted only in revealing that Republican leadership had no intention of compromising and handing Obama a successful landmark bipartisan deal and made the budding Affordable Care Act steadily less and less popular.
But Biden and Democratic leadership haven’t thrown bipartisan policy to the wind and embraced large scale partisan legislation in a time of crisis. Biden and Press Secretary Jen Psaki would insist the historic relief bill was a victory for unity and bipartisanship, and that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. The President has cited the package’s remarkably high approval rating across partisan lines, with 62% of voters supporting the $1.9 trillion package over a smaller, more bipartisan relief bill (this poll was conducted by Data for Progress, a well-respected pollster popularly used in progressive politics). But that same poll found that voters still professed the virtues of bipartisanship, with 49% saying the broader concept was important to them. And seemingly, that broader concept is important to Joe Biden too. It just has yet to come into practice.
As Democrats gear up to begin the sausage making process for their equally bold and wide reaching infrastructure bill, the same theatrical gesture towards bipartisanship seems likely. Republicans are currently unified in their opposition to the bill, which is also quite popular across the aisle, but Biden tipped his hat towards negotiation. “Debate is open. Compromise is inevitable,” he stated. But the ambitious bill is also unlikely to face meaningful change as meetings begin with Republicans. As Biden also said, “we will not be open to doing nothing. Inaction is simply not an option.”
Joe Biden is, in many ways, a true institutionalist. As such a longtime veteran of the Senate, he has accrued decades of experience witnessing real deal making. Despite his current press strategy and claims of unity, he clearly knows what actual bipartisan legislation looks like. Either Joe Biden is lying, or after the obstruction of the Obama years and the vitriol of the Trump years, he believes his current legislative strategy is as close as we can get to unity in the America he’s been tasked with governing.