Depending on your political perspective, the inauguration of Joe Biden as president is either a relieving return to regular order, or a depressing and somber triumph of the establishment. In either case, it is pretty hard for one side of that debate to see the world through the perspective of the other.
Yet that won’t stop a stampede of politicians, talking heads and, yes, newspaper columnists from talking about the need for this country to “heal” and “unify” after a divisive four years. We get this kind of platitude every election cycle, and this year is certainly no exception.
Biden certainly says that he wants to unify the country, and his inaugural address was filled with flowery rhetoric meant to suggest he wants to bring us all together. But with due respect, speeches don’t bring people together, actions do, and Biden is — believe it or not — perfectly situated to actually be a unifying president, if he wants to be.
To explain why, let’s go back to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He had just won a resounding popular and Electoral College victory, and most Americans were filled with hope that he might represent a new and better kind of politics, a politics most of us have wanted for decades.
Sadly, that promise was never realized, and it was actually Obama’s electoral success that doomed him. The year Obama was elected, the Democratic Party also picked up eight seats in the Senate and 21 seats in the House, leaving them with overwhelming majorities — very close to supermajorities — in both houses of Congress.
Because of this, Obama was seduced by an opportunity to govern successfully from the left. Right out of the gate, he spearheaded a nearly trillion dollar stimulus bill, and followed that up with a major push on healthcare, as we all know.
In both cases, Obama had a big decision to make. Would he seek a deeply left-wing partisan bill and attempt to get his dream legislation with only the votes of his massive Democratic majorities, or would he seek some kind of broad, bipartisan consensus?
In the end, the idea of getting the most left-wing version of the bill passed in Congress was too alluring to pass up, and so the stimulus bill was constructed straight out of the Keynesian playbook, and the Affordable Care Act shut out conservative congressional input.
And while I understand the calculus, Obama could have chosen a different, albeit more difficult path. He could have actually sought out collaboration with the Republicans from the very beginning. In fact, he very nearly did exactly that later in his presidency, when he was within inches of coming to a “grand bargain” with Speaker John Boehner on spending, taxes and debt.
Had he brought the right into governance rather than isolating and shutting them out in the beginning, so much of the Republican intransigence — and with it, Democratic reactions to it — that was the hallmark of his time in the White House never would have happened.
Don’t take it from me, take it from Mitch McConnell himself. Moments after his now-famous statement in 2010 that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president” he also said, “If President Obama does a Clintonian backflip, if he’s willing to meet us halfway on some of the biggest issues, it’s not inappropriate for us to do business with him.”
Meeting Republicans halfway was never something Obama really did.
But Biden? Biden is a famous back-slapping creature of the Washington establishment, and is genuinely friends with many people in the Senate. More than that, though, he may very well be — given his age — a one-term president. And on top of it all, he was not given major majorities. He is now forced to deal with an evenly divided Senate, and very closely divided House.
Everything is set up for him to throw caution to the wind, and do what Obama couldn’t, or wouldn’t do 12 years ago: Pursue bipartisan, reasonable, broadly supported legislation, seek consensus and seek common ground. Ignore your hard left flank, and reach for the broad middle of the country instead. He would have to ditch deeply ideological and partisan ideas like his immigration reform bill and nearly two trillion dollar COVID spending extravaganza and instead focus on other less contentious ideas. But he could do it if he wanted to.
If he does that, then maybe, just maybe, there is a shot that he could be the unifying figure he says he wants to be.