Biden plans to reach across the aisle – but is he walking into a Republican trap? – The Guardian

How do you expect to work with Republicans, Joe Biden was asked at his first press conference since winning the election, if they won’t even acknowledge you as president-elect? “They will,” he replied coolly. “They will.”

Whether this proves a triumph of optimism over experience – Biden has plenty of both – remains to be seen. The Democrat made his reputation for reaching across the political aisle one of the central tenets of his candidacy. He believes he can do it again when he takes office in January.

Yet this bitterly polarised and hyperpartisan Washington looks very different from the clubby Senate he joined in 1973. Biden, who turns 78 next week, seems likely to go head to head with Mitch McConnell, also 78, the Republican majority leader who ruthlessly blocked much of Barack Obama’s legislative agenda.

“He’s going to fall into a trap because he constantly talks about the good old days in the Senate,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “‘He knows how to do it and he’ll bring Republicans in with Democrats.’ This is beyond naive. It’s delusional.

“He’s living in a past that was destroyed a long time ago and the remnants of it have been incinerated by Donald Trump. The cooperation just doesn’t exist except on things that aren’t controversial and that’s not where you need cooperation. You need cooperation to solve difficult problems, not the easy ones.”

During his 36-year career in the Senate, Biden earned admiration – and some criticism – for his commitment to bipartisanship, which included working with Republicans such as John McCain and delivering a eulogy at the funeral of Strom Thurmond, a segregationist “Dixiecrat” who opposed the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

Last year, speaking at a fundraiser in New York, Biden fondly recalled the “civility” of the Senate in the 1970s where he cooperated with Democratic senators committed to racial segregation. Even if they “didn’t agree on much of anything”, Biden said, “we got things done”.

During this year’s election campaign, Republicans such as John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio, rallied to Biden’s side against Trump. In his victory speech in Wilmington, Delaware, last Saturday, Biden promised to be the president of all Americans and called for an end to the “grim era of demonisation”.

Yet he will not enjoy the dominance of Washington that opinion polls had led some to hope. Democrats did hold the House of Representatives but Republicans are favored to retain control of the Senate heading into two runoff elections in Georgia in January. That would leave Biden as the first president since George HW Bush in 1989 to take office without controlling both chambers of Congress.

Mitch McConnell, who has proved Democrats’ nemesis time and again.



Mitch McConnell, who has proved Democrats’ nemesis time and again. Photograph: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

It would be likely to prove a reality check on dreams that Biden could emulate Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal with a historically ambitious agenda to address the multiple coronavirus, economic, racial justice and climate crises. Instead compromise on healthcare, immigration and tax rates seem be the order of the day.

Some observers remain optimistic that Biden, with his vast Senate experience, is ideally suited to meet the moment. Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, said during an online forum this week: “It has been a long time since we had a president of the United States who was as steeped in the legislative process and in legislative background as Joe Biden.

“He spent a lot of years in the Congress, he actually knows a lot about it and knows a lot of the members of Congress. I think you’d have to go back to Lyndon Baines Johnson to find a president who was as much a creature of the Congress as is Joe Biden. Second, Joe Biden likes to cut deals: he’s good at it. That’s one of the things he did in the Obama administration, so I suspect he will try very hard.”

Kamarck also detected hope for Biden in the small band of Republican senators who have broken from Trump by recognising him as president-elect. “Now, if I’m Mitch McConnell, I’m a little worried about that. That might be that there is a bloc that in fact could abandon me, particularly if Biden’s president and particularly if Biden plays his cards right and does manage to figure out a way to bring them in on an issue or two.”

Among these potential Republican rebels is Susan Collins, who won re-election in Maine and offered Biden her congratulations. She told the Associated Press: “I have seen, based on the number of phone calls that I have received from both the Democratic senators and Republican colleagues, a real interest in trying to expand the centre and work together to confront some of the challenges facing our nation. And I’m encouraged by that.”

Biden has worked with McConnell since the Republican from Kentucky was elected in 1984. When he was vice-president under Obama, he found common ground with McConnell to resolve several tax and budget-related disputes, including a tax increase on higher income earners in exchange for renewing most of George W Bush’s 2001 tax cuts. Biden will hope that pragmatism still works.


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Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “When people say ‘bipartisan’, it’s another way of saying that he’s been resourceful in finding allies. It’s not a fixation or the result of romantic ‘post-partisan’ ideas that Obama had in 2008. Biden is skilled at deploying the language of bipartisanship as a tool to try to score legislative wins.”

He added: “Biden knows the bottom line: He needs to deliver on containing Covid and reviving the economy. He will do what he has to to get resources to do that.”

There is also a school of thought that McConnell will be quietly relieved to see the back of the Trump show, with all its volatility and vulgarity, and welcome a return to dealing with a White House steeped in traditional norms.

Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman, said: “McConnell and other Republicans in the Senate who don’t like Trump will be incentivized to get along with Biden a little bit and maybe give Biden a few victories because the last thing in the world McConnell and these Senate Republicans want is Trump running again. So if very quietly they can work with Biden and Biden can get a couple of victories, that will help Biden.”

Yet McConnell has proved Democrats’ nemesis time and again. He notoriously blocked Obama’s supreme court nominee Merrick Garland in election year 2016 but rammed through Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett in election year 2020. A decade ago he told the National Journal: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

He failed in that objective but could prove similarly intransigent in the hope of crippling Biden’s presidency, aware that Trump’s false claims of voter fraud are likely to leave millions of people regarding the Democrat as illegitimate. The context now is four years of extreme divisiveness, tribalism and alternative reality bubbles.

Neil Sroka, communications director for the progressive group Democracy for America, said: “We’re going to have to see what is possible. We all have to be realistic about the tone and tenor that Republicans have taken with the Democrats since long before 2008. I do think that Biden has bizarrely rose-coloured glasses when it comes to the ability to work with Republicans. But who knows?”