Sun, October 17, 2021

in-focus

Biden struggles to define his 'unity' promise for a divided nation


WASHINGTON - Barack Obama offered "hope and change." Donald Trump vowed to "Make America Great Again." George W. Bush promised "compassionate conservatism."

And for President Joe Biden, the slogan comes down to one word: "unity."

Biden campaigned on - and came to office promising - the ineffable concept of unity, a feel-good catchall that proffered bipartisan bonhomie, but with few tangible specifics.

Now, Biden and his team are working to implement that amorphous goal, which has already been weaponized by Republicans who disagree with Biden's policy aims and challenged by some fellow Democrats.

Facing a deadly coronavirus pandemic and a troubled economy, as well as the slimmest of congressional majorities, Biden and his advisers are attempting to implement a blueprint of unity for a country that can only seem to agree on how much it disagrees.

Even coming up with a common definition for what unity should mean has proved impossible to unify around.

"I do think it means a lot of different things," said John Anzalone, a top Biden adviser and campaign pollster. "When we would ask people in polls what was Joe Biden's message, they understood it was unity. They would say 'bringing people together' or 'unity.' "

"It may have meant different things to them," Anzalone added. "Maybe it was bringing the different parties together. Or healing the country by using a different tone and demeanor."

Republicans - citing various Democratic initiatives that Biden is putting forth - have already sounded anti-unity alarms, claiming that the fact Biden is governing as a Democrat means he is not committed to his campaign mantra. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., defined "unity" differently still, arguing Sunday on CNN's "Inside Politics" that the phrase perhaps should mean Democrats being "unified against insurrection," a reference to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of angry Trump supporters.

The upcoming Senate impeachment trial of Trump over his alleged role in inciting that riot underscores the riven nature of the nation's politics, with all but five Republican senators voting Tuesday to challenge the constitutionality of impeaching a former president.

Biden and his aides have offered broad, and sometimes conflicting, definitions of what unity entails.

The president told reporters Monday that it means trying to "eliminate the vitriol," "trying to reflect what the majority of the American people - Democrat, Republican, independent - think," and trying to "stay away from the ad hominem attacks on one another."

But Biden also said consensus should not be confused with bipartisanship, and left open the possibility muscling through his coronavirus relief package over the objections of congressional Republicans.

"Unity also is trying to get, at a minimum, if you pass a piece of legislation that breaks down on party lines, but it gets passed, it doesn't mean there wasn't unity," Biden said. "It just means it wasn't bipartisan."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing Monday that unity signifies "approaching our work on legislative issues through a bipartisan lens," but also "projecting that he is going to govern for all people and address all of the issues that the American people are facing."

"Unity is about the country feeling that they're in it together," Psaki said, "and I think we'll know that when we see it."

Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., echoed the same phrase, which is often associated with the definition of obscenity famously offered by then-Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.

"I'll know it when I see it," Hickenlooper said when asked how to recognize unity. "Isn't that what they say about pornography?"

Early polling indicates that most Americans agree with Biden's call for bipartisanship, with 71% saying they would rather see congressional Republicans work with Biden than focus on keeping him in check, according to a new Monmouth University poll conducted in the days after the inauguration. About 6 in 10 Americans have some confidence that Biden will be able to get Washington to be more cooperative, and nearly 8 in 10 said it was very or extremely important that the federal government address the lack of unity in the country.

But Republicans argue that by pursing policy goals with which they disagree, the new president is spurning his own appeals for unity. The stance is arguably disingenuous, but also potentially politically effective, allowing Republicans to undercut Biden's entire organizing principle.

In a tweet, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, linked to a story on Biden's move to end Trump's ban on transgender soldiers serving in the military, writing: "Another 'unifying' move by the new Administration?"

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., criticized Biden's aspirations, as well. "I just wish that his actions matched the words of his inaugural in terms of being unifying and healing," Johnson said this week. "I'm not seeing his initial actions being that, which is disappointing."

And Mark Levin, a conservative talk radio and Fox News host, used his show to lambaste what he said were Biden's false claims of unity. "Joe Biden made much of the word unity," he said last weekend. "Nothing that Joe Biden has done since his inauguration speech demonstrates any form of unity."

Writing online, Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama, moved to temper the realm of the possible: "The 'unity' conversation is going to be constantly distorted with unfair expectations, bad faith arguments, and general stupidity."

Natural partisan disagreements, he wrote, should not be misconstrued as disunity, and one metric for success should be consensus from a majority of the country, not a majority from the opposing party.

"Joe Biden won the election. Republicans lost. Joe Biden doing the things Americans elected him to do is not divisive. The Republicans may not like it, but that's their problem," Pfeiffer wrote. "A majority of Americans voted to rejoin the Paris Accords, repeal the Muslim ban, implement more comprehensive pandemic measures and so on. Pushing forward on agenda items supported by the majority of Americans is not divisive just because [Republican Sens.] Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson find it irksome."

At the same time, even some of Biden's Democratic allies have struggled to articulate the exact meaning of the word in a Biden administration, often defining it by what it is not.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., said unity can be observed and felt, but not necessarily measured. "Unity to me simply means finding common ground - it doesn't mean unanimity," he said. "I don't know why people think you can't be unified unless you're unanimous. That's all Biden is talking about: trying to find common ground."

Clyburn liked it to his 58-year marriage to his wife, who died in 2019.

"There was never any disunity to our marriage," he said. "But there was a whole lot of difference of opinion. We were seldom unanimous in what we did and what we thought, but there was always unity."

Still, Clyburn added, though he believes Biden's main goal is seeking common ground, the concept can also be warped - and even dangerous.

"I don't want to be unfair about this, but one of the reasons I don't like this unity argument is because I've been Black all my 80 years and in the South," he said. "The South was unified against me. There was Southern unity for segregation. So you have to be relative about this. You can be unified and be inhuman. Unity is to me something we have to be careful about."

Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., who often talks with Biden and spoke to him as he prepared the foundation of his campaign, said that some of the symbolic actions in the early days of Biden's presidency - a day of service shortly before his inauguration, a memorial for coronavirus victims and a bipartisan invitation to lawmakers to join him for a church service - were designed with unity in mind.

"It doesn't mean uniformity, it doesn't mean conformity or unanimity, it doesn't mean we're all going to agree on everything," Coons said. "Bringing unity to the country starts with telling us the truth, having a real and concrete plan. It's not just brave words. It's actually doing the job of being president."

Hickenlooper, a former governor of Colorado, laughed out loud when confronted with the question of how unity can be measured. "I'm not sure how you measure when you're there," he said. "But I do think that what President Biden is putting out is a road map."

The concept has been a guiding force for Biden since the earliest days of his campaign, when he was meeting with advisers at a home he was renting in McLean to sketch out his fledgling bid.

"We choose unity over division," Biden said, again and again, in the climax of almost every stump speech.

On the campaign trail, he frequently used unity and civility interchangeably, often while mentioning the lesson imparted to him by the late former Democratic senator Mike Mansfield: "It's always appropriate to question another man's judgment, but never appropriate to question his motives."

Biden's rhetoric was generally cast as naive in a Democratic primary in which candidates often engaged in partisan warfare, as Biden trumpeted his ability to work with Republicans.

"I kept talking about unity, and everybody said, 'No, you can't have unity any longer. It's changed so fundamentally, Joe. It can't be put back together again,' " he said during a 2019 fundraiser. "Well, if that's the case, we're all dead. We're in real trouble, because our constitutional system requires consensus."

Late in the campaign, Biden delivered a major speech in Gettysburg, Pa. - a place chosen to highlight the perils of division, and the merits of unity. "The closing argument is that we need to unify the country," Mike Donilon, Biden's chief strategist, said at the time. "He won't represent just Democrats or Republicans; he'll represent everyone."

In his inauguration speech, Biden mentioned "unity" more than a half-dozen times, at one point citing other challenges that tested the nation - the Civil War, the Great Depression, two world wars and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"In each of these moments, enough of us came together to carry all of us forward," he said, referring not to an end of partisanship but an idealistic joining of the nation. "And, we can do so now. History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity."

One example of Biden's approach occurred at the end of a brief question-and-answer session with reporters Monday. As Biden's aides began to wrap up, ushering the media out of the room, the president paused and turned to Fox News Channel's Peter Doocy, who as a reporter covering the campaign often rankled Biden and his team with his pointed questions.

"I know he always asks me tough questions, and he always has an edge to them," Biden said. "But I like him anyway."

"So," the president continued, addressing the reporter from a network whose prime-time hosts frequently propagate false conspiracy theories against him, "go ahead and answer - ask the question."

Published : January 29, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Ashley Parker, Matt Viser, Annie Linskey