Commentary

Divided Biden stands, united he falls | Fletcher McClellan

February 5, 2021 6:30 am

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 18: The U.S Capitol Building is prepared for the inaugural ceremonies for President-elect Joe Biden as American flags are placed in the ground on the National Mall on January 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. The approximately 191,500 U.S. flags will cover part of the National Mall and will represent the American people who are unable to travel to Washington, DC for the inauguration. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In his inaugural address on Jan. 20, President Biden Joe pledged that “today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation.”

Fletcher McClellan (Capital-Star file)

Two weeks into his administration, Biden has gotten off to a fast start. Whether his initiatives unite or divide the nation is the question Republicans want to raise.

So far, Biden has issued more than 40 executive orders to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, combat climate change, promote access to health care, foster racial equity, change immigration enforcement, and ban discrimination against transgender people.

Additionally, the president proposed a $1.9 trillion rescue plan that would provide $1400 per person to eligible recipients, increase and extend unemployment payments, provide rental assistance, expand food security programs, support state and local governments, and boost the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Biden wants Republican support for the rescue bill “if we can get it.” Ten Republican Senators – enough to overcome a filibuster – tested his determination by offering a scaled-down package. But Democrats are moving on a fast track with or without GOP support.

The Republicans claim that by acting unilaterally, issuing ultimatums, and pushing a left-wing agenda, Biden is breaking his promise to unite the American people.

Among his various definitions of unity, Biden asserts what we need is decisive action to confront the multiple crises facing the nation. Solving the crises is what brings about unity.

What’s clear is that political leaders are divided about what unity means.

For Republicans, unity means bipartisan cooperation and compromise. Democrats say those are code words for delay and obstruct.

Democrats believe they earned the right to lead by winning the 2020 elections. Furthermore, they argue that nearly all of the president’s initiatives have majority support in the polls, although not necessarily from a majority of Republicans.

Frankly, the GOP has its own unity problems.

Most Republicans believe Trump won the election. Many deny the severity of the coronavirus and the existence of climate change. A substantial number subscribe to ridiculous and dangerous conspiracy theories.

State GOP parties are at work purging members who challenge their alternative reality. This includes members with impeccable Republican credentials.

All but five Republican senators voted against an impeachment trial of President Trump, the man accused of instigating an attack on the U.S. Congress and Vice President Mike Pence.

Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his House counterpart, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., are at odds, following McCarthy’s pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago.

Aside from McConnell, no Republican leader is willing to denounce the loony new House member, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.. McCarthy rewarded her and gun-toting U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., with plum committee assignments, which the Democratic majority may take away.

Biden must be saying to himself: With enemies like these, who needs friends?

With Republicans gone to the extreme, the president needs only to denounce domestic terrorism, white supremacy, and scientific denialism to win the unity debate. That, and don’t be Trump.

The investigation of the assault on the U.S. Capitol and the forthcoming impeachment trial of the ex-president should provide further opportunities to expose Republicans as irresponsible governing partners.

Maybe unity isn’t the issue after all.

After all, the U.S. Constitution makes presidents uniters and dividers.

Presidents symbolize the nation, performing rituals such as the Inaugural Address, defending Americans when they are attacked, and providing comfort in times of national tragedy.

At the same time, presidents are charged with governing. They are chief executives, chief legislators, and party leaders. They campaign on a platform and set the national agenda.

What made ex-President Donald Trump unique among presidents was his contempt for playing the unifier, both before and after the election.

Though Biden plans to restore the symbolic role of the presidency, the job now is to govern hard.

Besides the magnitude and difficulty of problems Biden must confront, he has a small window to get things accomplished.

If history is any guide, Biden and the Democrats will lose one or both houses of Congress in 2022. So many things can go wrong in the meantime.

Though pleased with Biden’s actions thus far, progressives will pressure the president to do more for the base.

Given his propensity for verbal gaffes, Biden could offend the wrong people at the wrong time, and not just Republicans.

To succeed, Biden will have to do what his Democratic predecessors, including ex-PresidentBarack Obama, could not: Convince people that government action can change their lives for the better.

What if the government can’t act? Whether to remove the filibuster may be the ultimate choice between unity and division.

Ironically, Biden may be compelled to conclude that divided he stands, united he falls.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @mcclelef.

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