WASHINGTON — Maybe “unity” doesn’t mean that Republicans and Democratic politicians agree on everything.
Or that a handful of Republican lawmakers get veto power over any policy.
Or that no one ever faces a tax increase.
Maybe it just means: Treat your fellow Americans with dignity, even when you disagree. At least, that was the subtext of President Joe Biden’s speech to Congress on Wednesday — and a theme of his presidency so far.
Biden has proved a challenging adversary for Republicans to vilify. He’s a generally congenial and empathetic politician, who has a compelling personal story rife with loss. He has working-class bona fides and has resisted conscription into Republican-framed culture wars. Republicans have tried caricaturing him as old and ineffectual — yet also somehow unusually effective at transforming the country into a socialist hellscape. (GOP strategists appear aware that these critiques are somewhat at odds.)
So, Republicans keep returning to a Swift-boat-like attack: Strike at his strength — his compelling message of “unifying” the country — and portray it as a devious ploy to divide Americans instead.
Republicans argue that Biden offered a bait-and-switch, that he ran on healing our divisions but now plans to ... pass a bunch of social programs benefiting the poor and middle class. If you’re wondering how that latter agenda supposedly contradicts the former, you’re not alone. The connective tissue, according to Republican officials, is that programs redistributing money to help the poor and middle class are somehow inherently divisive (class warfare!), regardless of the polls suggesting their popularity; or, in the GOP telling, only the programs Republican lawmakers vote for should count as unifying.
In other words, Republicans have decided that the test of Biden’s desire to unify the country is whether Republicans themselves defect from the project — and they have made clear their decision to always do so. As Republicans learned during the Obama years, the easiest way to ensure a president fails at achieving promised cooperation is to refuse to cooperate.
So that’s what they’re doing, including on initiatives that they’d previously supported (under another president, of a different party), such as investments in child care, paid leave or infrastructure. Even when Republicans have announced a supposedly reasonable compromise or counteroffer, they were clearly not serious attempts to negotiate. See their recent infrastructure proposal, which was an insultingly lowball bid, disguised with accounting gimmicks.
Unity, under this thinking, means that Biden must grant Republicans a veto that they’ve pledged to consistently exercise. Some Republicans have indicated they’re practically obligated to obstruct his agenda, because the president had the gall to propose reversing part of the 2017 GOP tax cut to pay for new spending.
For his part, Biden has magnanimously credited Republican lawmakers for popular policy initiatives, even when those same Republicans stood in the way.
During his remarks to Congress on Wednesday, for example, Biden noted that he inherited a crisis that demanded action. Thanks to “the overwhelming support of the American people — Democrats, independents and Republicans — we did act. Together we passed the American Rescue Plan, one of the most consequential rescue packages in American history,” he said. The implication was that Republicans contributed to passage of that $1.9 trillion fiscal relief bill — even though not a single one voted for it. (Some Republican legislators have similarly implied they deserve credit for the legislation, despite voting against it.)
Biden went on to say: “I applaud the group of Republican senators who just put forward their own proposal” on infrastructure, referring to that insultingly lowball offer. And on gun control, when imploring Republicans to close background-check loopholes, he stressed that he didn’t “want to become confrontational.”
The speech was rife with such conciliatory rhetoric. What then has been conspicuously absent from the president’s public comments, both Wednesday and the previous 100 days of his tenure?
Well, unlike his predecessor, Biden doesn’t make inflammatory references to “American carnage,” or fearmonger about invading foreigners. There have been no lists of those who aggrieve him, or attacks on kneeling athletes, or media personalities, or high-profile politicians of color — really nothing demonizing political enemies, real or perceived. The few contingents that Biden framed as adversaries on Wednesday were terrorists (domestic and abroad), the violent mob that sieged the Capitol, and countries with whom we compete for economic and political influence; all others within the United States, or hoping to someday immigrate here, were portrayed as deserving of fellowship.
Even as he makes an aggressive case for his agenda, even as he lays out disagreements with political opponents and tries to win them over, Biden has consistently portrayed Republicans as potential partners operating in good faith.
You might call the approach unifying.