Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Is Biden serious about bipartisanship?

The president is pleasing progressives at the expense of his other campaign commitments

America’s progressives aren’t known to be an especially cheery bunch. Overnight meme sensation Bernie Sanders’s inauguration-day pose — grumpily toughing out the cold and seemingly wishing he were somewhere else — is a good physical representation of the default mood among left-wingers forced to live in a country they are convinced is so irredeemably dreadful.

Yet America’s left-wing activists have been uncharacteristically chipper in recent weeks. And with good reason: the early days of the Biden presidency have been chock-full of progressive action. Biden signed more executive orders in his first two days than Donald Trump managed in his first two months. As well as undoing big parts of the Trump presidency, Biden has banned fracking on public lands, instructed civil servants to put “equity” at the heart of economic policymaking, laid the groundwork for a proliferation of regulations, and much more.

The big cabinet posts may have been filled by moderates like Tony Blinken (Secretary of State), Janet Yellen (Treasury Secretary) and Gina Raimondo (Commerce Secretary), but a look at the lower ranking government jobs reveals plenty of progressive representation. A fleet of Sanders advisors are getting jobs, for example. Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is reported to be pleasantly surprised by the access she and her colleagues have had to the top White House team.

“We’ve learned to love the guy,” Sean McElwee, co-founder of the leftist think tank Data for Progress, told Politico this week. Biden, he said, “is hearing the stuff that progressives are doing and really engaging with it.”

And, perhaps most importantly of all, progressive fingerprints are all over the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill proposed by Democrats. On the first big legislative test of the Biden presidency, the party has seemingly decided that, politically if not economically, there is no such thing as too big. (Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers received very little love from fellow Democrats for a column in the Washington Post this week that dared to contemplate the possibility that the current proposal was too ambitious.)

But while the economic support package is a chance for Biden to prove to Democrats he can deliver legislative results, it’s also an early test of the commitment to unity and bipartisanship that he touted throughout the campaign and emphasised at his inauguration.

The President acknowledged as much this week, when he invited a group of ten Republican Senators led by Susan Collins to the White House for a two-hour meeting about the legislation. Much was made of the fact that the president’s first official meeting in the Oval Office was with Republicans. “I feel like I’m back in the Senate, which I liked the best of everything I did,” Biden said at the start.

By all accounts, a polite conversation ensued. However, there is scant evidence the White House intended for this to be a serious negotiation. Having performed a fairly hollow demonstration of bipartisanship, Democrats are now pressing ahead to pass their own package via the filibuster-proof process of reconciliation.

An administration that actually valued bipartisan support might favour separating out the distinct parts of the package. The ten Republicans who met the President support a package worth $650 billion that focuses on the most urgently needed economic support and funding for vaccination programmes and other Covid-fighting measures. Those ten senators would give such a package the votes it needs to avoid reconciliation. Other longer-term Democratic priorities could then be dealt with in a separate bill.

It’s worth remembering that the two parties managed to agree on Covid support on multiple occasions in the last 12 months. Shouldn’t the president who says he wants to be unifying where his predecessor was divisive not push for another bipartisan bill? And if a president isn’t willing to negotiate even when there is considerable scope for agreement, how much sympathy does he deserve the next time he blames Republican obstructionism for a legislative logjam?

Biden will not be able to please all the people all the time and we are still only a few weeks into his presidency. But so far, he is taking care of his party’s progressive wing at the expense of demonstrating to independents and moderates that his unifying message was more than just rhetoric.

Of course, Biden is a Democrat and entitled to govern as one. A genuine commitment to unity and comity of the sort he made at his inauguration doesn’t mean he has to do everything in a bipartisan manner, but it does mean exploring cooperation whenever it might be possible. Otherwise “unity” means little more than “agree with me, or else”.

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