Joe Biden used his inaugural address this week to call for a new era of national unity, promising to put his “whole soul” into bringing the country together after the vitriol, violence, and collective trauma of the Trump years. And how are Republicans responding? Largely by trying to club the president with his own words, accusing him of being “divisive” every time he opens his mouth or signs a sheet of paper.
The effort to, as Pod Save America’s Dan Pfeiffer put it, weaponize Biden’s rhetoric against him is proceeding down two parallel tracks. Some conservatives have worked themselves into a righteous huff by accusing the president of demonizing them during his speech, in which he said the country faced “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat” and urged Americans to “reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
To the average listener, these lines may have sounded like a straightforward acknowledgment of the fact that a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters, a number of whom were decked out with white supremacist symbols, had just sacked the U.S. Capitol after being fed lies about a stolen election. But Republicans like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said they took personal offense. “If you read his speech and listen to it carefully, much of it is thinly veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book, calling us people who don’t tell the truth,” he told Fox News. Assuming it isn’t just pure bad faith, Paul’s reaction seems to say more about him than it does about Biden.
Most Republicans, however, seem to have wisely chosen not to align themselves with a group of insurrectionists. Instead, they’ve stuck to accusing Biden of preaching togetherness while governing as a partisan, or pairing “unity themes and divisive actions,” as Sen. John Cornyn charged. Some are keeping the criticisms vague and general. Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that a “radical leftist agenda in a divided country will not help unify our country, it will only confirm 75 million Americans’ biggest fears about the new administration.” Others have singled out specific moves, such as Biden’s executive orders aimed at halting new fossil fuel development. “When it comes to energy policy, the Biden administration is off to a divisive & disastrous start,” Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso carped.
Even niche regional issues risk separating Americans back into warring camps, if Republicans are to be believed. Mitt Romney, for instance, suggested that Biden’s moves to restore the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah back to their previous sizes, after Donald Trump slashed them with a controversial executive order in 2017, “will not solve the root of the problem and will only deepen divisions in this country.”
All of these criticisms amount to a single idea: that Biden is somehow betraying his promise to try and bring together the country by fulfilling his campaign pledges and governing like an actual Democrat. This claim is fundamentally wrong, but it benefits from having just enough surface-level plausibility that some reporters and reflexively centrist pundits may buy it. After all, when a sitting president does things that the opposition party doesn’t like, it is by definition divisive, in the sense that it leads to disagreement. There is no real way around that fact. What’s more, Biden has said many times that he wants to govern in a bipartisan fashion when possible, but so far, he hasn’t really proposed much yet that Republicans would obviously want to sign on to, a point that the New York Times’ Michael Shear latched on to during Thursday’s White House press briefing:
Like if there’s this call for unity that the president made in his speech yesterday, but there has so far been almost no fig leaf even to the Republican Party. You don’t have a Republican Cabinet member, like President Obama and, I think, President Clinton had. You—you know, the executive orders that he’s come out the gate have been largely designed at erasing as much of the Trump legacy as you can with executive orders, much of which the Republican Party likes and agrees with. You’ve put forth an immigration bill that has a path to citizenship but doesn’t do much of a nod towards the border security. And you’ve got a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that has, as folks have said, already drawn all sorts of criticism. Where is the—where is the actual action behind this idea of bipartisanship?
And when are we going to see one of those, you know, sort of, substantial outreaches that says, “This is something that, you know, the Republicans want to do, too”?
Aside from the odd use of “fig leaf” (I assume he meant “olive branch”), there are a few things wrong with the way Shear and Republicans are framing this issue.
First, making bipartisan gestures in Washington and unifying the country may be related, but they are not the same thing. Republicans oppose many policies that are overwhelmingly popular with the public, such as raising the minimum wage or reducing carbon emissions, and while Democrats might create conflict in Congress by pursuing them, they wouldn’t necessarily be dividing voters in a meaningful way. Furthermore, many of the conflicts tearing the country apart are fundamentally cultural battles over identity that have very little to do with specific policy debates in Washington, and it’s possible for Biden to present himself as a president who—unlike Trump, who constantly denigrated his opponents—respects and cares about voters who didn’t back him without caving to Republicans on, say, the size of a national monument or whether we allow oil drilling in Alaska.
Second, it’s a bit odd for Republicans or the press to talk about Biden’s failure to be sufficiently bipartisan when Republicans haven’t proposed much that they’d like to work with Biden on. So far, even moderates like Romney and Sen. Susan Collins seem to be cold on the idea of a new relief package, and it’s not clear yet where else there’s space for collaboration. If Republicans want bipartisanship, they should make clear where they think there’s room to work together.
Finally, the whole point of Biden’s inaugural was that we need to coalesce around some of the basic civic and democratic ideals that Donald Trump tried to shred so that we can go back to disagreeing about policy without trying to murder one another. As the president put it: “Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.” He asked Americans to relearn how to love their neighbors; he did not promise to make Republicans happy with every executive action. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.
If Biden can’t ultimately find some areas of policy compromise with the GOP, he will have failed on his specific promise to revive bipartisan deal-making. But the idea that he’s being “divisive” merely by acting like a Democrat is silly bait that, hopefully, most of the media—not to mention the president himself—will be smart enough not to take.