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There are diverging opinions about President Joe Biden’s address to Congress on Wednesday night. Some people watched and saw a transformative vision of what government can be, while others saw a socialist snoozefest.
That people could watch the same speech and have such different reactions is no great surprise. After all, some have wondered if Democrats and Republicans even speak the same language anymore. These drastically different reactions to Biden’s address again demonstrate the gulf in political perspectives among our leaders and across the country.
With this as a backdrop, the idea of bipartisanship seems to increasingly be framed as a quaint afterthought, a uniquely American inconvenience or even a punchline. However, we continue to see its value — and its necessity, really, with a closely divided U.S. Senate and longstanding rules that empower the chamber’s minority party.
So it was good to hear Biden highlight several instances of either ongoing or successfully completed bipartisan negotiations. Among the applause lines Wednesday night, Biden may have gotten the biggest reaction when he called for police reform while also stressing that most officers serve their communities honorably.
Having said that, we can’t help feeling like Biden missed other easy opportunities to give some Republicans credit, and really lean in to the idea of both parties working together and crafting solutions that they and a diverse nation can support.
For example, Biden mentioned the recent success in the Senate to overwhelmingly pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in response to the troubling rise in anti-Asian hate documented recently. He could have done more than thank the Senate; he could have thanked the individual senators who made that legislative victory possible.
Without bipartisan work from Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, that vote could have had a much different outcome. Biden should be going out of his way to applaud this kind of work and the specific people involved, not just the result. It would have been a small lift — an extra sentence in a speech — that could have made a big statement about working together.
Similarly, Biden missed a chance to highlight a recent bipartisan step forward on climate change. He is right to emphasize the ways that tackling climate change is both a global imperative and job-creating opportunity. But he also could have quickly mentioned the bipartisan Senate action earlier that very same day to pass a resolution, cosponsored by Maine independent Sen. Angus King, to reinstate methane rules that the Trump administration had rolled back.
Sure, a return to stronger methane regulation is a bit in-the-weeds, and three Republican votes (Collins again, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina) don’t exactly amount to a groundswell of bipartisan support. But it sends a hopeful message of (at least some) agreement across the political aisle on the hugely important issue of addressing climate change.
We’re not the only ones who noticed Biden missing chances to give Republicans credit Wednesday night.
“Missed political opportunity by Biden to note the efforts of previous [administration] on vaccines,” Politico White House reporter Meridith McGraw tweeted after the speech. “While mistakes were made that was a remarkable public-private effort.”
Say what you will about all of the COVID-19 mistakes former President Donald Trump and his administration made, and we’ve said plenty, but there should be little doubt that Trump’s Operation Warp Speed played a role in vaccines being developed faster than many thought possible. “Remarkable” is a good way of putting it. Biden should be able to credit his own administration for its vaccine distribution efforts the past few months while still acknowledging this fact about vaccine development.
One of the stronger moments in Biden’s speech Wednesday night was when he went off script and thanked Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for suggesting a past cancer research bill be named after Biden’s son Beau, who died in 2015 from brain cancer. Biden also had an interesting exchange with Republican Rep. Troy Nehls, a former sheriff in Texas, who approached the president and said he wanted to work with him on criminal justice reform. Nehls said he didn’t know how to reach out to Biden to discuss the issue. “I’ll reach out to you,” Biden said. His administration reportedly reached out to Nehls’ office the next morning.
This is the Biden we want to see more of.