Barack Obama built his first campaign for president on a theme of national unity. “I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time,” he said on the trail, “unless we solve them together.” But that bipartisan dream ran into a brick wall when he assumed office, thanks to a Republican party that would barely treat him as a legitimate president, let alone work with him. Obama didn’t “make Republican outreach a priority,” former House Speaker John Boehner, the president’s friendly foe on Capitol Hill in those years, recalls in his forthcoming memoir, an excerpt of which appeared in Politico Friday. “But on the other hand—how do you find common cause with people who think you are a secret Kenyan Muslim traitor to America?”
More than a decade later, in a country even more divided, facing an even more radical GOP, Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, took office with his own promise of unity—one that sounded nice, but also naive. Did he learn anything, many in his party wondered as he campaigned, from the eight years he spent watching Republicans obstruct Obama? From the last four years watching them follow Donald Trump? The answer, it seems, is yes. Biden continues to talk about working together and uniting as a country, but it has become clear, as he works to dismantle his predecessor’s legacy through executive order, delivers his $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill over Republican lawmakers’ objections, and throws his momentum behind bold plans like the infrastructure package he proposed this week, that he means something very specific when he speaks of unity. Six dozen days into his presidency, Biden has sought to change the tone in Washington, but he has also put a condition on his offer of compromise: that all sides are arguing in good faith.
That approach was summarized neatly by his chief of staff, Ron Klain, in a Politico interview Thursday. Speaking about the first part of the infrastructure plan Biden announced Wednesday, Klain described the administration as open to collaborating with members of his party and Republicans to develop a proposal. “Let’s work together and see if there’s a way for us to deliver this,” Klain said. But in the next breath, he made clear that the administration would not mistake obstruction for the sake of obstruction—a hallmark of Mitch McConnell’s reign as the leader of Senate Republicans—for real negotiations. “The president was elected to do a job, and part of that job is to get this country ready to win the future,” Klain said. “That’s what he’s going to do.”
McConnell and the Republicans have, of course, already lined up against the plan. “I’m going to fight them every step of the way, because I think this is the wrong prescription for America,” the minority leader said in a news conference Thursday. “That package that they’re putting together now, as much as we would like to address infrastructure, is not going to get support from our side.” Part of the opposition will be based on characterizing Biden’s plans as a “‘kitchen sink’ of wasteful progressive demands,” as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy put it Thursday. Another part will be complaining that they’re being shut out of the process. “A Senate evenly split between both parties and a bare Democratic House majority are hardly a mandate to ‘go it alone,’” Mitt Romney tweeted Thursday. “The President should live up to the bipartisanship he preached in his inaugural address.”
But bipartisanship only works if each side is working in good faith. Biden’s American Jobs Plan may define “infrastructure” more broadly than some, particularly Republicans, might—and he may have to double-check some of the math behind it. But it puts forth real solutions to real problems facing the country, and would likely create real jobs along the way. “Let’s start on the areas where we agree,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week. “If people have alternative proposals, we’re happy to hear them.” So far, the Republican opposition seems to be shaping up to look a lot like their crusade against Obamacare: they had four years to do something about it but didn’t and are offering objections without any counter-proposals. “The Biden ‘infrastructure plan’ is not about improving America’s infrastructure,” Republican Senator Tim Scott wrote the day the president unveiled it. “It’s yet another Trojan horse for the far Left’s agenda.”
Biden’s bet is that the American people, including Republican voters, won’t see it that way. He was already proven right once: no Republican senators voted for his COVID package, but the American people—including a significant portion of Republican and Republican-leaning voters—overwhelmingly supported it, and the GOP lawmakers who tried to keep it from passing have nevertheless seemed eager to claim credit for it. With voters right now broadly in support of raising taxes on the wealthy to fund infrastructure improvements, the Biden administration is hoping that GOP opposition to the bill is limited to Capitol Hill. “We know it has bipartisan support in the country,” Klain said Thursday. “And so we’re going to try our best to get bipartisan support here in Washington.” The lesson for Biden over the last 12 years, under Obama and Trump, is: don’t count on it.
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