"The problem is that calls for unity can end up on slippery slopes."
Last week, Joseph R. Biden was formally sworn in as the 46th US President. The 78-year-old former vice president, the oldest to hold that high office, took the reins of government of a decidedly divided nation after a hotly contested election which engendered, in a way, the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters just two weeks before.
That the inauguration was like no other in recent memory speaks well of the difficult task ahead for the Biden administration. Giving in to their fears, the inaugural committee allowed the nation’s capital to be transformed into a kind of Baghdad’s “Green Zone” after the fall of Saddam Hussein with razor wires, check points and 25,000 armed National Guardsmen. One TV host said it had the feel of the swearing in of the leader of the successful coup in some distant land, not the “Shining City On a Hill” of President Reagan. The fact that there were more soldiers than civilians in the inauguration made the dissonance even more pronounced.
But no matter. Quite apart from that scene, President Biden’s ascendance comes at a time of great distress the world over. He has to find ways fast enough to stem the ravaging pandemic which has claimed close to 400,000 American lives. It is still raging and it has grounded the US economy almost to a halt, forcing millions of Americans out of their jobs. He has to reconnect with the world – allies and rivals alike, in a manner that will not only restore its leading role in the family of nations but as a force for good like no other. He will be called upon as well to share America’s wealth, talents and services, even as he has to deliver on his promises to heal a divided nation and bring it back to its core values and strengths.
It therefore came as no surprise that unity and healing were at the heart of Biden’s inaugural address. “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” he said, adding that “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.” Well said, and well received.
The problem is that calls for unity can end up on slippery slopes. It will take hard, continuing and sincere efforts to get both sides of the divide understand each other and move forward for the greater good. It carries an expectation of unity, not a matter of the victor and the vanquished. It carries that understanding that reasonable people can disagree in good faith on matters of profound significance. That there are deep factors in society and in politics which makes unity more difficult to achieve than the self styled unifiers would even dream of. It takes the wind out of high handedness and, as is often complained of, the take-it-or-leave-it attitude.
Which is why this early, a lot of people are betting that Biden’s call for unity may be headed for failure as Trump’s “rigged elections” charge without as much as a genuine effort to build confidence by his actions not just words or, in the case of the 2020 elections, by Trump’s camp to come out with the evidence.
Biden’s promise to be “a President for all Americans,” and that he “will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did” was such a noble statement save for that last minute injunction that “if you still disagree, so be it.” Well, at least he tried.
But he will have to try even harder as the days move on. If his first executive orders are any sign of possible bipartisanship or at the very least a cooling of the temperature, it will probably take more time to get such a lowering. His administration is in for some hard and nasty fights.
That he has somehow let his congressional allies push through with the second Trump impeachment even as the country’s constitutionalists have all but advised not only that it is constitutionally infirm but will further inflame the fires of division speaks well of his inclinations And it is not unity at all cost but unity only on his terms. Take it or leave it.
Then there are the orders he signed on his first working day a good number of which signaled not a cooling off but an all-out charge come what may. There was that withdrawal of the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, a joint US-Canada venture, meant for energy security and economic progress on both sides of the border. It not only offended America’s biggest trading partner and foremost ally but cost 10,000 good-paying jobs in some of the more impoverished parts of the United States. That withdrawal may also cost millions of dollars in damages which can be brought by the pipeline contractors.
A similar divide with Mexico, Central America and the southern states was reopened with those orders on the border wall and the reversal of two Trump orders on immigration. Already, there are howls of illegal immigrants taking jobs away from Americans, pandemic spikes with the migrant caravans out of Honduras and Guatemala and all that. The Chief is toughing it out — and how!