Note to Joe Biden: Unity is more than just words

President’s early actions don’t match his promises of consensus-building

President Joe Biden is making the same mistake as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in defaulting to the demands of his base instead of the priorities of the broader coalition that elected him, Winston writes. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden is making the same mistake as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in defaulting to the demands of his base instead of the priorities of the broader coalition that elected him, Winston writes. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted January 27, 2021 at 6:00am

There has been a lot of talk about unity in the days leading up to the inauguration and since. President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the talking heads on cable, and many Republican leaders have urged unity in this bitterly divided country, asking for people to come together and put aside their differences in an effort to find common ground.

In this first week of a new Congress and a new presidency, there have been flickers of hope for those who yearn for the country to “bind its wounds,” put aside malicious partisan rancor and “strive to finish our work.” Most notably, Democrats Joe Manchin III and Kyrsten Sinema deserve praise for standing firm against calls to end the Senate filibuster and, with it, the minority party’s voice in the chamber.  

Both understand that doing away with a tradition that has served the Senate and the country well would only add to the bitterness we see clouding the judgment of partisans on both sides. This builds on the efforts of Sens. Susan Collins and Chris Coons in 2017 to protect the filibuster. Their courage — bucking either base isn’t easy — gave leaders Mitch McConnell and Schumer a path forward to a power-sharing agreement for governing over the next two years. Let’s hope it holds through the legislative battles ahead.

That’s what America wants. More unity. Less division. More attention paid to the nearly 60 percent of voters who are not part of either party’s base and hold more centrist views. But recent history shows us that presidents tend to cater to their party’s base, especially in the first year. 

Biden’s first actions in office certainly suggest that the views of the 49 percent of the electorate who didn’t vote for him, almost half the country, are not likely to factor into the Democrats’ plans for America. 

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Base first

So far, his support for unity has been more rhetorical than substantive. Biden’s unilateral executive orders will only further divide the nation, but his approach isn’t very different from his most recent predecessors. Whether it was Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, Donald Trump or Biden, right out of the gate, each focused on policies that reflected base priorities rather than looking for compromises that might have avoided what has been a downward spiral of bitter partisanship in Washington.

Democratic leaders in the Senate and House have been trying valiantly to make the argument that voters in 2020 gave them a mandate to push forward Democratic/progressive policies. While Biden clearly won the presidency, he only won it with 51 percent of the vote. The Senate tied at 50-50. Republicans made significant gains in the House, leaving Democrats with an extremely small majority, and Democrats also lost ground at the state legislative level. Hardly a mandate. 

Biden and his compatriots on the Hill are making the same mistake Clinton, Obama and Trump made, defaulting to the demands of their base rather than the priorities of the broader majority coalition that elected them.   

For Clinton, it was his decision to focus on health care, putting Hillary in charge; to raise taxes; and to prioritize the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — when the economy was the No. 1 issue. In 1994, Republicans took back the House after 40 years in the wilderness.

Obama made similar mistakes. Despite the terrible state of the economy, he began with a stimulus bill that failed to juice the economy as unemployment spiked to 10 percent. He then took up health care and green energy when people were asking, “Where are the jobs?” In 2010, Republicans won back the House.  

Trump’s first initiatives were repealing Obamacare and building the wall. Going into the 2018 election, instead of talking about jobs reports, his message was muddled by his talk about caravans and immigration and his addiction to explosive tweets. His base loved it. Women and independents hated it, and House Republicans got trounced that year.

More of the same?

Cynics could justifiably ask if there has ever been a sustained sense of bipartisan unity in the history of Congress. Have most of our previous 45 presidents really sought to find common ground with the opposition as they tried to move the country forward?

Let’s be honest. Bipartisan moments have been few and far between, especially recently. A few notable exceptions come to mind, the months after 9/11 being a good example. 

Partisan wrangling is as old as the country. But the country seems to have crossed a line where the old constraints that made us a civil society and a representative government of the people seem to have given way to brutal, hate-filled campaigns that make bipartisan legislating amid the wreckage afterward almost impossible, regardless of who wins.

Usually, the inside-the-Beltway crowd, winners and losers, shrug and say, “There’s always another election,” once the political dust has settled. This time, as the transition of power begins, something seems different.

People are talking about changing long-standing rules to gain power and push an extreme agenda that half the country vehemently opposes. Here’s what Americans need. They need to see signs that this new administration and its call for unity will be different.

They need to see that when Biden promised to be a president for all Americans, he meant it. They need to believe that when Biden told a town hall last October, “[There are] things you can’t do by executive order unless you’re a dictator. We’re a democracy. We need consensus,” he meant it. 

Most of all, they want Biden to keep the promise he made in his inaugural address: “We must end this uncivil war.”

Yet, in the first three days of his term, he signed almost three times as many executive orders as his four predecessors combined in their first three days. These were executive orders designed to satisfy his base with little regard for the 49 percent of Americans who did not vote for him. 

When presidents and congressional leaders of both parties put their prospective bases before “binding our wounds,” there are consequences. Nothing gets done. When partisans create an environment where good people on both sides are not valued, there are consequences. None of them good.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.