Why bipartisanship is not a good test of Joe Biden’s presidency

Whether Biden attracts cross-party support is less important than whether he forges a better and more equal society.

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Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden managed to pass his $1.9tn Covid-19 relief bill through Congress. It's a major piece of legislation, one that gives financial relief to many people who badly need it. The bill could also, at least for 2021, cut child poverty by half. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who ran to Biden's left in the Democratic primary, hailed it as "the most significant legislation for working people that has been passed in decades". 

Much of the coverage of the legislation, however, and indeed of Biden's time as president so far, has focused on the fact that no Republican voted for it, as opposed to the financial relief that it will provide.  

"Negotiator-in-chief Biden notches his first win but a bipartisan governing loss," read one CNN news headline. 

"After stimulus victory in Senate, reality sinks in: bipartisanship is dead," offered a piece of analysis in the New York Times. 

"Is Biden's next bid for bipartisanship dead already?," asked Politico Playbook, a daily read for Washington's real and aspiring powerbrokers. 

Leaving aside that two of the three are straight news stories treating bipartisanship as an objective good, as opposed to recognising that those who yearn for bipartisanship are themselves holders of particular political positions, there are two main issues with this framing: it skews the terms and the stakes of the debate. 

[See also: What does Joe Biden's $1.9trn stimulus mean for conservatives?]

In his inauguration address, Biden stressed unity. But the Republican response to this has been that if Biden does not move closer to the position of Republicans in Congress, he is not actually interested in that as a reality. Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, said that Biden's calls for unity ring hollow in light of the Covid-19 relief legislation. Texas Congressman Kevin Brady said Biden's unity plea was "an absolute fraud".  

For Graham and Brady, if Biden is not privileging bipartisanship then he is not privileging unity. According to the CNN story: “Many Republicans don't seem to think Biden's call for unity has brought Republicans into the fold adequately.” 

That is one definition of unity. But there are others. Seventy per cent of Americans support the relief plan — that number includes 41 per cent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters. This week, 770,000 Americans filed unemployment claims — isn't extending unemployment insurance to them, as this bill does, a version of unity too?  

Under the new legislation, Americans paying for their own health insurance through COBRA (which, since I became a freelancer in 2019, I can assure readers is essentially a second rent) don't have to pay for it this year. Isn't removing this burden during a once in a century pandemic an act of coming together as a whole? 

This isn't to say that Republicans in Congress aren't entitled to their definition of unity. They are welcome to equate it with bipartisanship. But the media isn't also required to accept that definition.  

While there are some in the halls of Capitol Hill for whom the most important factor is whether or not there are votes from both parties, that is not the main issue. The matter at stake is not whether Biden can win support from his friends across the aisle. It is whether he, and those who are willing to join him in Congress (evidently in this instance, however, it was only the Democratic Party), will pass and execute laws that ameliorate the pain that American people and families are suffering.  

Whether Biden can get Republicans on board is treated like the ultimate test — but that is too easy. Can Biden get Americans out of and through this pandemic? Can he get relief to people who need it? Can he make life better and more equitable for Americans; those who voted for him and those who didn't? Bipartisan governing would be nice. But it's not nearly as important as whether Biden governs.  

[See also: Why Twitter is a trap for politicians]

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor. 

She co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review

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