WASHINGTON — In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden extended an olive branch to supporters of former president Donald Trump: “Let’s start afresh, all of us. Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path.” He asked them to “hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree so be it, that’s democracy.” But, he said, the time had come to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal” and promised that “my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation.”
For a nation wounded by rancor, division and insurrection, those words were a balm. But, as Biden also noted in his address, delivering on those promises “requires so much more than words.” What he does in his first days in office will determine whether his words will have real meaning. If Biden really wants to restore unity, there are three specific steps he could take.
First, he needs to find a major initiative to work on with Republicans early in his presidency. When President Bill Clinton took office, one of the first things he did was push for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, negotiated by his Republican predecessor and opposed by many in his own party. When President George W. Bush took office, one of the first things he did was to reach out to the most liberal member of the senate, Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and offer to work with him to pass what became the No Child Left Behind act. Biden needs his own equivalent of No Child Left Behind—a major initiative that can bring conservatives and liberals together and help legislators on both side of the aisle begin flexing their bipartisanship muscles again.
Second, unity requires compromise—and the mechanism that ensures compromise and bipartisanship is the filibuster, which allows the Senate minority to delay or block legislation. Biden is the first president since Lyndon B. Johnson who is truly a man of the Senate, so he understands you can’t restore unity while trampling the rights of the minority at the same time. If he wants to restore unity, he and fellow Democrats will have to moderate their demands, agree to some Republican priorities, and sometimes accept “no” for an answer. Senate leader Mitch McConnell is, R-Ky., pressing Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to preserve the legislative filibuster as part of their agreement governing the rules of the 50-50 Senate. Biden should tell Schumer he supports such an agreement.
Finally, Biden can’t restore unity if the Democratic Senate spends the next six to eight weeks presiding over the impeachment trial of his predecessor. As I have made clear in this space, Trump’s incitement of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots was an impeachable offense. Were he still in office, his removal might be warranted. But Trump has left the White House. Does Biden really want Washington focused on his predecessor’s failings, instead of his own priorities, during the first critical weeks of his presidency? A trial would be divisive and distracting. Biden should urge Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to put aside the articles of impeachment, so Congress can start working to enact his agenda.