Biden’s Jan. 6 push for unity may ‘ring hollow’ in deeply divided nation

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President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with the White House COVID-19 Response Team on the latest developments related to the Omicron variant in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

(The Hill) – When President Biden speaks about the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol on Thursday, he will draw from one of the major themes he ran on during the 2020 presidential campaign: unity. 

But a year later, with the country seemingly more divided than ever, there are questions about whether Biden’s message will resonate. 

Partisan divides permeate the public debate surrounding COVID-19 and related vaccine and mask mandates. Recent polls also show divides between Republicans and Democrats over what occurred on Jan. 6 when a violent mob stormed the Capitol, former President Trump’s own culpability in those developments and current threats to American democracy. 

“There is no evidence that we’re any more unified today than we were a year ago. In important ways, the divisions, I think, have become more entrenched. But this is the work of months and years, and not of one speech,” said William Howell, politics professor at the University of Chicago. 

“The most useful thing that he can do is to plot a course to meet the big challenges that we as a country face and to do that in ways that are inspiring, that speak to core values, that are responsive to the very real anxieties and sources of discontent that Americans feel,” Howell said. 

In his speech from the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, Biden plans to directly take on Trump, who has kept a tight grip on the Republican Party, and his false claims about the 2020 election — a decision that’s unlikely to sit well with Republicans who still back the former president. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that Biden will speak to the “singular responsibility President Trump has for the chaos and carnage that we saw” and rebuke Trump’s “attempt to mislead the American people and his own supporters.”

But Psaki also said that Biden will offer a forward-looking message about how to strengthen democratic institutions and bring Americans together.  

“The president is going to speak to the truth of what happened,” she said. “He will also speak to the work we still need to do to secure and strengthen our democracy and our institutions, to reject the hatred and lies we saw on January 6, and to unite our country.”

Biden is expected to speak to mostly Democrats on Thursday. Many senators are out of town for the funeral of late GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.). The House is out of session, but Trump loyalist Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (Fla.) are expected to hold a Republican “response” to the commemorative events. Both lawmakers were among dozens who voted to overturn the election results last year. That news conference will supplant one that Trump had planned to give himself from his resort in Mar-a-Lago, but canceled.

Observers generally agree that Biden, whose own political standing has eroded since he took office, thus far has fallen short on his pledge to unite the country, especially under the ongoing pressure of the pandemic and high partisan tensions in Washington that have metastasized into the broader electorate.

“We are terribly disunited and polarized on every facet of politics, of the economy, of public policy, of science,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “If we can’t even agree on facts, it’s going to be very difficult on substance to unite the people.” 

Biden succeeded in bringing enough Republicans and Democrats together to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill last fall, but more recently has been more preoccupied with uniting factions of his own party to usher through his sweeping climate and social spending package.   

“Legislative unity was a no-go from the start. It can easily be argued that the Republicans had no intention of compromising with the Democrats, but Biden did nothing to present the case that working together was a potential objective,” said Tobe Berkovitz, professor emeritus of communication at Boston University who also served as a media consultant on several Democratic campaigns. 

Berkovitz pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it has only “widened the divisions” among Americans “moving beyond the traditional political disagreements” to public health. While Biden has credited Trump for embracing the vaccine, he has also sparred with other Republican leaders who have resisted vaccine mandates and blamed the pandemic on the unvaccinated. 

“The president’s messaging on vaccinations has strengthened the divide among various factions of Americans,” Berkovitz said. “Shaming and scare tactics might or might not make sense to increase vaccination rates, but the messaging does absolutely nothing to bring Americans together.”

The partisan divisions have been particularly stark when it comes to the circumstances surrounding the Jan. 6 riot. 

A CBS News poll out late last month detailed the division between the parties in several areas including voter fraud. The survey showed that 66 percent of Republicans say there was widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election, a conspiracy theory that Trump has repeatedly claimed. 

Because of that, political observers say it will be difficult for Biden to once again go back to his pledge of unity. 

“I don’t think appealing to unity will achieve unity,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “The reality is we are deeply divided and it is nearly impossible to convince red voters to switch to support blue.”

But Zelizer said Biden can still benefit from the calls to unify the country and “package himself as the anti-Trump, a leader who still believes in the possibility of bringing people together. Given the turmoil the nation has been through, and continues to go through, this has political value.”

The effort, Zelizer said, also appeals to members of Congress like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) who has been a thorn in Biden’s side for the last year. “Unclear if this will work, but that is part of the strategy,” he said. 

Some Democrats, meanwhile, argue that Biden shouldn’t be worrying about uniting Democrats and Republicans, especially when some Republicans continue to support Trump and his futile effort to overturn the election results. The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack has only two Republican members, both of whom have openly criticized Trump and one of whom is soon retiring from Congress. 

“The challenge is that healing requires that a wound be cleaned and mended in order to heal safely. We haven’t had any of that yet. There’s been no accountability for the people who funded January 6, the people who helped organize January 6, and the people who have cheered on and defended what happened on January 6,” said Max Burns, a Democratic strategist. 

“It is hard to come together when there are people who not only argue that what they did was just and right but also are trying to elect people who agree with that idea.” 

Psaki indicated Wednesday that Biden would also call out Republicans who have declined to push back on Trump’s false claims about a stolen election, but insisted that he wouldn’t be acting in a partisan manner. 

“What you’ll hear the president talk about tomorrow is the fact that you don’t just love your country when you win. You love your country, you love democracy in any scenario. And what is most disappointing to him is that there has been a silence and at times a complacency by far too many Republicans who have sat by and defended the ‘big lie’ and perpetuated misinformation to the American public,” Psaki said. “That is not meant to be partisan; that is meant to be a statement of fact and an important reminder to people of the history of our democracy in this country.”

But Berkovitz argued that returning to previous themes on unity and bipartisanship “will ring hollow” one year after the insurrection.  

“Maybe what’s needed is a time out. A brother from the sturm und drang,” he added. “President Biden is in a no-win situation and he will not win uniting America with a speech on such a dramatic day.” 

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