Biden’s elusive goal: A divided nation united

Biden urged Americans to unite even if they differ, but conservatives said some of his initial steps would be divisive

President Joe Biden points to guests attending his inauguration as the 46th president of the United States. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
President Joe Biden points to guests attending his inauguration as the 46th president of the United States. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 20, 2021 at 6:43pm

President Joe Biden was eager Wednesday to begin writing his own chapter in American history, urging Americans to unite even if their views differ, then signing a stack of executive orders that conservatives said were anything but unifying.

Biden hit the theme of unity repeatedly in his speech, making the pitch that the country can solve its greatest problems if it only comes together.

“With unity we can do great things, important things,” Biden said. “We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus. We can reward work and rebuild the middle class and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., said the inauguration represented a pause in the heated debates but predicted they would quickly resume, specifically citing Biden’s executive orders.

[Photos of the day: Inauguration 2021]

“The executive orders are not controversy-free,” Zeldin told reporters. “They’re executive orders that some people will love and others will take a strong issue with, and we will go right back to debating.”

Direction

Still, Biden’s initial actions reflect the direction his incoming administration will take for the first 100 days and beyond as he seeks to tackle the country’s significant ongoing crises.

“We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world,” Biden said after taking the oath of office. “Any one of these will be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is, we face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had.”

Declaring a need for “boldness,” Biden spent his early evening issuing orders aimed at confronting those issues head-on.

To help battle the coronavirus pandemic, Biden moved to increase Americans’ mask-wearing, reengage with the World Health Organization and create a new position responsible for coordinating all aspects of the government’s response.

On the environment, he is rejoining the Paris climate agreement, canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and rolling back a long list of related Trump administration actions.

He moved to extend moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures and a pause on federal student loans to help Americans who are struggling economically.

Biden also had teed up orders preserving and bolstering the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, halting construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and reversing Trump’s travel restrictions on predominantly Muslim countries.

Invigorated Democrats hailed both Biden’s words and actions as a welcome change from the previous administration.

‘Play ball’

Speaker Nancy Pelosi presented Biden with the flag that flew during Wednesday’s ceremonies and reflected on listening to the national anthem.

Pelosi said the anthem is often followed at sporting events by a shout of “Play ball!”
“So we’re going to get ready to play ball,” Pelosi said. “We’re ready to go with the inspiration of our flag flying.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said in a statement that the day was cause for both “celebration and resolve,” as it comes in the middle of one of the darkest winters in American history.

“Today, our nation begins the hard work of turning the page on a dark chapter marked by racism, division, and incivility, as we set out to write a new one of hope, freedom, and equality for all,” Merkley said.

Congress starts a new session with Democrats holding the slimmest of majorities in both chambers. They and Biden indicated Wednesday that they will prioritize ending the pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans. But they also cited the need to address racial inequality and climate change.

“Let’s get to work,” Merkley said.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., praised Biden’s speech while questioning whether his theme of unity was reflected in Biden’s initial orders.

“I thought it was a good speech, and I hope that, in terms of serving as president, he sticks with that,” Barrasso said. “My concern is, of course, some of the executive orders that are coming, specifically in regard to the Keystone XL pipeline — it was a speech of unity, and it’s important to govern that way as well.”

Contrary

The conservative Heritage Action for America was more pointed in a statement that criticized the executive orders as directly contrary to the president’s calls for unity.

The group questioned the effectiveness of mask mandates, said that denying the Keystone XL pipeline would cost jobs and characterized halting border wall construction as harming national security.

“At best, these measures are misguided — at worst, they’re destructive,” said Jessica Anderson, Heritage Action for America’s executive director. “At a time when the president should be looking for opportunities for more American jobs, he’s going in the opposite direction. These orders will sacrifice the American economy for a far-Left, progressive agenda.”

Biden also has already released legislative proposals for top priorities, including immigration, with a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

Asked about the prospect of getting something done, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, noted that he had warned members of the House Judiciary Committee weeks ago to expect an early and sweeping immigration proposal from Biden.

He told reporters he hadn’t read the specifics of Biden’s plan yet but raised the prospect of opposition.

“The country is not for amnesty, so I hope that’s not where they go,” Jordan said.