Just about everybody has something to say about the “unity” thematics that dominated Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address. Some hopeful, if naïve, observers credulously think Biden could be on the brink of introducing some sort of new Era of Good Feelings. Progressives fear Biden is betraying a premature willingness to compromise an agenda that united Democrats before it has even been announced. Republicans are using the unity talk as a cudgel in making demands that Biden do exactly what progressives fear on subjects ranging from COVID-19 stimulus to the Trump impeachment trial. One conservative writer professes to be offended by calls for unity, which smell to him of totalitarianism!
Perhaps Biden’s unity plea seems odd because of the bitterness of the election that lifted him to the White House, a victory he was able to claim for sure only after an attempted coup failed less than two weeks before the inauguration. But let’s remember that most presidents offer similar rhetoric, whether sincere or simply ritualistic. Even Donald Trump made the occasional unity plea early in his presidency, though he kept interrupting himself with attacks on all his enemies.
The previous Republican president, George W. Bush, distinguished himself when running for the office with a “base plus” strategy that didn’t involve much outreach beyond his own ranks. But he also called himself a “uniter, not a divider” and said this in his own first Inaugural Address:
[S]ometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country.
We do not accept this, and we will not allow it. Our unity, our union, is the serious work of leaders and citizens in every generation. And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.
This wasn’t strictly rhetoric, either. His political wizard, Karl Rove, developed a domestic agenda aimed at expanding the Republican base with targeted appeals to seniors (a Medicare prescription-drug benefit), women with kids (No Child Left Behind), and Latinos (comprehensive immigration reform) before the Bush presidency became defined by its foreign-policy excesses and a poorly managed economy.
Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, of course, became a breakout national celebrity with a unity speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. And he carried these themes into his presidency, as I noted in 2009:
From his emergence onto the national political scene in 2004 throughout the long 2008 campaign, Obama has consistently linked a quite progressive agenda and voting record to a rhetoric thoroughly marbled with calls for national unity, “common purpose,” and a “different kind of politics,” and scorn for the partisanship, gridlock, and polarization of recent decades. Call it “bipartisanship,” “nonpartisanship,” or “post-partisanship,” this strain of Obama’s thinking is impossible to ignore and has pleased and inspired some listeners while annoying and alarming others.
Neither Bush nor Obama was under any illusion about leaders of the two major parties sitting down to work out the nation’s destiny in comity. Both were hardheaded politicians who wanted to undermine the opposing party’s politicians by appealing over their heads to their own and to unaffiliated voters. The idea was to expand the president’s coalition at the opposition’s expense while placing pressure on that opposition to cooperate in order to maintain its own following. In Obama’s case, I labeled his strategy “grassroots bipartisanship.” It’s obviously something Biden is intimately familiar with.
But Biden also presumably knows that Obama’s “grassroots bipartisanship” didn’t work. Instead of a segment of the Republican rank and file moving some of its elected officials in Obama’s direction, something like the opposite occurred: GOP pols in Congress decided on a strategy of obstruction, and the Republican grassroots followed them into polarization. Obama’s Gallup job-approval rating among self-identified Republicans declined from 41 percent just after his inauguration to 25 percent in mid-May 2009 and continued slumping to 16 percent by year’s end (eventually hitting single digits in 2010).
So why would what didn’t work for Obama now work for Biden? The ever-insightful Ron Brownstein thinks the new president has a small but potentially important sliver of Republican support he can use to create a more significant “wedge” into the opposition. He writes in The Atlantic:
Recent polls have repeatedly found that about three-fourths or more of GOP voters accept Trump’s disproven charges that Biden stole the 2020 election, a number that has understandably alarmed domestic-terrorism experts. But in the same surveys, between one-fifth and one-fourth of Republican partisans have rejected that perspective. Instead, they’ve expressed unease about their party’s efforts to overturn the results — a campaign that culminated in the January 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of Trump’s supporters.
Those anxieties about the GOP’s actions, and about Trump’s future role in the party, may create an opening for Biden to dislodge even more Republican-leaning voters, many of whom have drifted away from the party since Trump’s emergence as its leader. If Biden could lastingly attract even a significant fraction of the Republican voters dismayed over the riot, it would constitute a seismic change in the political balance of power.
By linking his unity appeal to a firm rejection of the Capitol riot and the lawless president who incited it, says Brownstein, Biden is seeking to establish “a new dividing line in American politics, between those who uphold the country’s democratic system and those who would subvert it.” Maybe the moment has arrived when just enough Republican pols are sufficiently motivated to break with Trumpism to make bipartisan legislation possible — or maybe if they don’t, they’ll lose enough voters to give Democrats an advantage now and in 2022 (when the normal midterm swing might otherwise be expected to undo the narrow Democratic margins in Congress).
If this gambit fails, of course, Biden and congressional Democrats can always return to partisan hardball tactics with Republicans bearing much of the blame for polarization. The question is how far Biden will take his unity campaign and how much time and opportunity he is willing to sacrifice to pursue it.
But there’s really no reason for progressives to fear, or for conservatives to hope, that Biden is so gripped by nostalgia for the back-slapping Senate bipartisanship of yore that he will sacrifice his and his party’s agenda via sellout compromises or simple inaction. What he’s doing so far is entirely traditional, even if it feels exotic thanks to the receding shadow of Donald Trump. His unity plea can best be understood as the opening bid in an effort to secure broader support in Congress and/or in the broader public. If it goes nowhere, and it certainly may, other plays are at his disposal.