Joe Biden faces an impossible job to unify America
President-elect’s aim is almost childlike in its innocence in a deeply partisan nation
US president-elect Joe Biden: Tends to see a bipartisan Washington as the natural order of things. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP
On course for 300-ish electoral college votes, the US president-elect aimed to “bind the wounds of division” and serve “all Americans”. The prospect of “one united people” was not so exotic to a man reared in the bipartisan midpoint of the 20th century.
Perhaps Donald Trump suppressed a smirk as he offered that olive branch four Novembers ago. But then Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton made the same noises upon their own ascensions to the White House. Whether we blame them or the implacability of their opponents, each failed. No doubt, Joe Biden, who “doesn’t see red states and blue states”, will be fifth time lucky.
This is a crass moment, I know, to play down the change of president. Washington and other liberal cities caroused as news of Biden’s projected victory spread on Saturday. Killjoys must – the ghastly demotic is fitting for once – read the room.
It is just that a blast of cold water to the face is so plainly in the offing. Whatever Biden’s achievements as president, such as a rolled-out vaccine, or a resurgent Nato, national unity will not be among them. Once he is sworn in, Republicans are liable to rediscover the fiscal conservatism they unaccountably mislay between Democratic presidencies. Their new Congressional members, elected under Trump, will bring freshness to the partisan fray. A President Biden will be stymied at all turns.
His two Democratic predecessors were so tenaciously resisted as to have their legitimacy impugned. Each lost Congress in their first midterm elections to insurgent movements that strayed into the wilder edges of rhetoric. The hope that Biden will escape their fates seems to rest on his personal emollience and unthreatening, milk-and-water centrism. But Clinton had more of both and Obama was not wholly lacking in either. It made little difference. Partisanship is in the structure and culture of Washington. It is not a matter of this or that president.
This is still a country in which a large minority of Democrats would be unhappy if their child married a Republican – Republicans are only slightly breezier about the inverse. It is one where the victorious running mate, Kamala Harris, can equate her party’s win with nothing less than that of “science”.
There is self-flattery and bad history in the global left’s recent pose as the Enlightenment Party. It used to be they, inspired by French academe, who saw truth as relative or “constructed”. Whatever the conceit, though, Harris is clear-eyed enough to see that Americans inhabit distinct mental worlds now. What counts as a fact is in dispute.
In her glumness, she is more realistic than her boss. Last week, Trump showed that a president can do almost anything and win near to half of the vote, while his enablers can make gains in Congress. Next to group loyalty on this scale, Biden’s pledge to “heal” and “unify” can seem, as jarring as this is in a 77-year-old, childlike in its innocence.
Because he rose in a bipartisan Washington, where Republicans voted to impeach their own Richard Nixon, Biden tends to see it as the natural order of things. And conflict as aberrant, easily transcended with goodwill and blarney around the deal table. The trouble is that 1970s Washington was never natural or typical. It was the product of contingent circumstances that no longer hold. Among them was the hugely disciplining presence of a foreign enemy.
In retrospect, the end of the cold war scrambled the civic life of the winning nation, not just the loser. While the US faced an external threat, there were prudent limits to its domestic squabbles. Within my lifetime, it was normal to see a unanimous confirmation of a supreme court justice and a 400 electoral-college vote score for a presidential candidate. There hasn’t been one of either since 1988. An unchallenged nation has felt at liberty to pick at its own seams. In theory, the Chinese threat will usurp the Soviet one as the great American adhesive. It is taking its time.
To say the US will remain unhealed is not axiomatically to be bleak about it. The bipartisanship of yesteryear was often purchased at grievous cost: the splitting of differences on big questions, the skirting of them altogether. Core to the postwar inter-party truce was a tacit agreement to put off the civil rights issue, for instance. Biden’s best shot at a harmonious four years is to attempt nothing of note. If only a stricken US economy, or the global one it helps to drive, could afford benign neglect. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020