- Bringing a sense of unity to US politics was a central theme of President Joe Biden’s inaugural address.
- Now that he’s working to implement his campaign promises, the GOP says Biden is undermining that call.
- Critics say the GOP is misconstruing what Biden meant by “unity,” and asking the president to abandon his agenda.
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After four years of lining up behind one of the most divisive presidents in US history, Republicans in Congress and their allies are accusing President Joe Biden of undermining his calls for unity by not pushing for policies they find palatable.
“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,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted on Friday, inaccurately rounding up the number of votes Trump received in 2020.
“Biden had a good message of unity,” Alyssa Farah, who was the Trump administration’s last White House communications director, said in a tweet on Thursday. “But the policies so far are aimed at only half the country, those who supported him, with no sign of outreach to those who did not.”
Farah did not mention that Biden defeated former President Donald Trump by more than seven million votes (roughly 81.2 million votes to 74.2 million) and won the support of a majority of US voters (roughly 51%). Despite the fact he won more votes than any presidential candidate in US history, Republicans have effectively been calling on Biden to abandon his campaign promises.
GOP Sen. Tom Cotton in a tweet decried Biden’s push for unity as a “lie” because the president’s potential pick to spearhead Iran policy is a former Obama administration national security official, Rob Malley, who isn’t hawkish enough for the Arkansas Republican’s tastes.
Indeed, just weeks after Trump provoked a violent insurrection at the US Capitol, which was in many was brought on by Republicans enabling the former president’s baseless claims of mass voter fraud, the GOP is defining “unity” in the Biden era as the president only pursuing an agenda that is agreeable to both parties.
‘No, that’s not how we do this’
After broadly endorsing Trump’s anti-democratic effort to overturn the election, Republicans are generally putting the onus of unifying the country entirely on Biden. Critics say the GOP is being disingenuous, and skirting accountability over the Capitol riot earlier this month.
“If they’ll work with him, he will work with them,” John D. Podesta, who was White House chief of staff under the Clinton administration and counselor to President Barack Obama, told the New York Times. “But it doesn’t mean throw out your core program. And if he says, ‘I think you went too far in cutting taxes on the wealthy,’ and they say, ‘Well, that means you’re not serious about unity,’ that’s just a joke.”
“The offense by the Republicans is to go out and say ‘well we’re gonna do unity, but we’re gonna do unity on our terms. And anything that’s not, well that ain’t unity,'” former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said on MSNBC Thursday. “What Joe Biden has to do now is go, ‘no, that’s not how we do this'”
—Deadline White House (@DeadlineWH) January 21, 2021
“There is a difference between Biden calling for unity as an opening theme and instantly conceding to Senate Republicans who have shown zero evidence of being willing to make a deal,” Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian, tweeted on Thursday.
“The burden is on [Sen. Mitch McConnell], particularly after a GOP incited insurrection,” Zelizer added.
Biden: ‘Disagreement must not lead to disunion’
Unity was a central theme of Biden’s inaugural address, during which the president contended that political agreement is not a prerequisite to civility.
“We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature,” Biden said.
“For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury, no progress, only exhausting outrage, no nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge. And unity is the path forward,” Biden said. “Hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion.”
Based on Biden’s framing, unity does not necessitate being on the same page on major issues at all times, but it does require a basic consensus to keep the peace even when people don’t see eye-to-eye.
“Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” Biden said.
A Morning Consult poll released on Thursday found a strong majority of voters (74%) approved of Biden’s call in his inaugural address for an end to political division in the US, including 51% of Republicans. The poll also found that a majority of voters (74%), including 61% of Republicans, agreed it’s more important for the US to have a leader that unites the country than one who represents their prefered policy positions and values.
But in pledging to bring back a sense of unity to the US, the president was always going to have his work cut out for him — especially with millions of Americans doubting his mandate to lead. Recent polling has suggested that most GOP voters do not view Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election. Biden also has to contend with growing divisions within the Democratic party, as progressives continue to clash with moderates on array of topics.
Biden’s ability to implement his early agenda will depend on his ability to overcome the convoluted array of political forces vying to pull him in diverging directions.
With that said, Biden is seemingly aware that the path ahead will not be easy, and that establishing any sense of unity could prove elusive.
“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new,” Biden said. “Victory is never assured.”