Inaugural addresses are meant to be aspirational, so President Joe Biden might as well have doubled down on his call for unity in his address on Wednesday.
Presidents have made such appeals going back to George Washington. More recently, George W. Bush billed himself as a uniter, not a divider, and Barack Obama rose to prominence urging us to transcend the differences of red and blue America. Even Donald Trump occasionally called for unity—in speeches from the teleprompter, of course.
After the events of January 6, there’s much to be said for more unity, or at least less poisonous division, and Biden’s emphasis on unity was deeply felt and entirely sincere.
“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path,” he said. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
Who can disagree?
But by making unity his goal and the standard by which he’ll be judged, Biden is setting himself up for failure. When Biden was walking the final leg of the inaugural parade route, a couple of CNN journalists shouted out, “President Biden, can you unite the country?”
He didn’t answer, but if he had, honesty should have compelled to say, “Actually, probably not.” Just as no one really got tired of all the winning under President Trump, no one is going to get tired of all the unifying under President Biden.
There are two problems with calls for unity. One is that they tend to be nebulous, leaving out what we are all supposed to be unifying around.
We should all respect and honor one another as Americans, and seek to preserve our governing institutions, but beyond that, it gets fuzzy (and even whether we should preserve those institutions and how to go about it are matters of dispute).
The other problem is that calls for unity can carry an expectation of unity, i.e., the belief that truly reasonable people can’t or shouldn’t disagree in good faith on matters of profound significance. This is how self-styled unifiers end up becoming high-handed and divisive (Obama often fell into this trap).
Regardless, there are deep factors in our politics and society that make unity more difficult to achieve than when Biden came up in politics.
The media landscape is not as conducive to fostering and—de facto enforcing—a consensus as it was in the pre-cable, pre-internet era of three broadcast networks. Attempts to impose a consensus via decisions about what content to allow and suppress on today’s social networks and websites won’t succeed—in fact, as acts of censorship directed overwhelmingly at conservatives, they will (besides being wrong) fuel a backlash that’s already well underway.
As issues with a cultural charge have moved to the fore in recent decades, divisions go deeper and are less prone to compromise or negotiation. The difference, for instance, between the 1619 Project and the Trump 1776 commission (immediately canceled by Biden) involves profound questions about the nature of our country that can’t be worked out at a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee.
Finally and relatedly, the parties have become ever more purely arrayed in ideological, cultural and geographical opposition to each other. These differences can’t be bridged simply by good faith and goodwill.
Then, there are the more immediate practical issues.
Sometime soon, Trump will become the focus of Washington again at an impeachment trial that will stoke the fury of his populist supporters. That’s not a reason to shelve the proceeding, but no one should pretend that a post-presidency trial attempting to disqualify Trump from holding federal office will be anything other than a highly contentious drama blotting out whatever is happening to get the new Biden administration underway.
On substance, Biden is not going to pursue a consensus, bipartisan agenda, but a progressive one. That is his right. He’s a Democrat who has always been in the center of gravity of his party, which has steadily moved left over the decades. He’s not going to act on the more extravagant demands of the left of his party—ending the filibuster, adding new states—both as a matter of temperament and because he lacks the votes in the Senate to do it. But almost everything he does unilaterally or pushes legislatively will inherently be anathema to the GOP.
On top of this, with Trump exiting at such a low point, there will be temptation to ignore any lessons of his rise. That one of Biden’s first big legislative proposals is yet another “comprehensive immigration” reform of the sort that has failed repeatedly after mobilizing massive grassroots opposition on the right shows an impulse to learn nothing.
All that said, President Biden can do his part to lower the temperature of our politics, and raise the tone, simply by not stirring the pot every day the way Donald Trump did and by honoring the norms his predecessor cast aside. This won’t be transformative, but there actually might some unity around the proposition that it will be a welcome change.
Read more: politico.com