I can’t provide a link or exact quotes, but I can remember way back to around 2007 when a rising young internet journalist named Matt Yglesias was enthusiastically promoting the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. In praising his candidate, Yglesias noted that Obama does talk a lot of mushy post-partisan stuff about reaching across the aisle to the other party, but that is probably mostly just smart rhetoric. Obama knows better than that; he knows that the Republicans are too hard right to be interested in kumbaya.
Yglesias was wrong. Obama did believe his post-partisan rhetoric, or at least acted as if he believed it. It didn’t work out so well. Obama’s economic stimulus, trimmed to garner a few Republican votes in Congress, was enough to stave off a complete disaster, but not enough to spark a really vigorous recovery from the financial crisis and its aftermath. Of course, the GOP wasn’t blamed for the anemic economy; the president, and his party, got the blame. The result was a Democratic debacle in the 2010 midterm elections. After that, GOP majorities in Congress prevented any really significant progressive policy achievements for the remainder of the Obama presidency. Obama’s repeatedly proffered olive branches were worse than useless.
There was some reason to wonder whether Joe Biden had taken that history to heart. Bipartisanship is a hallowed value in American political culture. Biden has spent much of his political career cherishing bipartisan deal-making as practically an end in itself. It was reasonable to worry that he really believed all his pre- and post-election talk about reaching out to the other side in a noble quest for national unity. It was Biden, after all, who in late 2012 averted the much feared “fiscal cliff” the country was facing by cutting a deal that Mitch McConnell later bragged saved 99% of the Bush tax cuts that were about to expire. Biden had Obama’s backing, but many Senate Democrats, notably majority leader Harry Reid, were angry over the give-away. Two weeks ago, Politico reported that “…Biden’s allies are loudly insisting that finding common ground is possible and exactly what the American people want after the past decade of partisan warfare. The Biden team is aware that many in their own party are rolling their eyes but argue that it’s just the latest instance of the Democratic establishment underestimating Joe Biden.”
That was a couple of weeks ago. It now looks like Biden is perfectly willing to go the nasty, hard-edged partisan route and tell the Republicans where to get off. That’s basically how he responded (with obligatory politeness) to the piddling offer of ten Republican senators to meet the president not quite one-third of the way on his COVID relief plan. The Democrats will use reconciliation if necessary (and it will be) to put over Biden’s $1.9 billion package with only minor changes and little or no GOP support in the Senate. But doesn’t that clash with Biden’s determination to heal our wounds, to bind our country back together again? Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary, had a great answer to that objection:
The president ran on unifying the country and putting forward ideas that would help address the crises we’re facing. He didn’t run on a promise to unite the Democratic and Republican Party into one party in Washington.”
So, it seems, the president will seek common ground not with Republican leaders, but with their voters, over their leaders’ heads. Now that’s the right attitude, and the right strategy. Whatever happened to the old Joe Biden? Maybe wisdom really can come with age and experience.