Does Biden Understand Contemporary Politics?

The president still believes he can reach across the aisle to a radicalized GOP.

A black-and-white photo of Joe Biden speaking at a podium in front of two trucks.
Ryan Collerd / Bloomberg / Getty

With rare exceptions, Joe Biden throughout his presidency has stressed his determination to cooperate with the GOP whenever possible and has minimized his personal confrontations with Republican leaders on both the national and state levels. That strategy has yielded the tangible benefit of the big bipartisan infrastructure bill now marching toward Senate approval, likely in the next few days. It has also allowed him to build strong working relationships with several Republican governors over combatting the coronavirus pandemic and distributing the vaccines.

But, until somewhat sharper comments on Tuesday, Biden’s approach has left him largely silent as other Republican governors in states from Florida and Georgia to Texas and Arizona bar cities, school districts, and higher-education institutions from mandating masking even while COVID-19 cases rapidly rise. And although Biden has been more publicly critical of the restrictive voter laws advancing in those same GOP-controlled states, he has similarly frustrated many civil-rights advocates by resisting a head-on confrontation with Senate Republicans over federal legislation to reverse those changes.

All of these dynamics make clear that one of Biden’s most consequential choices has been to pursue a generally conciliatory approach toward the Republican Party. It’s a distinctive strategy that has many Democrats asking the same questions: Is Biden artfully outmaneuvering the GOP? Or is he sentimentally refusing to acknowledge how far to the right the party has moved since his glory days in the Senate? In other words: In his dealings with Republicans, is Biden being shrewd—or naive?

On one side, the White House, and many party centrists, argue that his pleas for national consensus position him and Democrats for future success by reflecting the public’s desire for unity after the bruising and belligerent presidency of Donald Trump.

“President Biden ran on the message that we need to bring people together to meet the challenges facing our country,” White House senior adviser Mike Donilon wrote last week in a publicly released strategy memo. “And the American people embraced that message. While a lot of pundits have doubted bipartisanship was even possible, the American people have been very clear it is what they want.”

On the other side are Democrats who fear that Biden’s stress on bipartisan cooperation is normalizing the GOP even as the party is radicalizing on many fronts—from restricting voting and defending the January 6 rioters to opposing many public-health responses to the pandemic. These Democrats worry that Biden’s approach makes it easier even for voters who view Trump as unfit for office to back Republicans in upcoming down-ballot races.

Sawyer Hackett, the executive director of People First Future, the political organization founded by Julián Castro, expressed that view when he told me that in 2022 and 2024, “it is going to be tough [for Democrats] to run on a message that these people are too dangerous … to be in charge while simultaneously saying, ‘Hey, look what we’re getting done with the Republicans, Washington still works, look at this infrastructure deal we got done.’” He added: “We’re propping these things up as an example of a functioning Washington while the Republican Party is just moving to the right and becoming more extreme.”

The scale of Biden’s agenda has drawn justifiable comparisons to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. But in his posture toward the opposite party, Biden’s model seems to be a very different former president: Dwight Eisenhower. Like Eisenhower, Biden is largely positioning himself as an elder statesman who has transcended the partisan fray. A promise to unify the country has been a central pillar of Biden’s messaging since he first announced his candidacy. And he’s rarely looked as happy as he did in late June when he stepped onto the White House driveway, surrounded by senators of both parties, to announce the tentative deal on infrastructure spending.

The Eisenhower analogy extends only so far: The former general, in a much-less-polarized era, received high approval ratings from voters in both parties, while Biden has faced overwhelming disapproval among partisan Republicans from the outset. Yet Biden, with his earnest and unpolished persona, hasn’t inspired the visceral backlash from his opponents that Trump, Barack Obama, or even George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did. While White House officials are closely watching for signs of backlash, they remain optimistic that this August recess won’t produce anything like the grassroots conservative uprising in August 2009 against the Affordable Care Act that crystallized the Tea Party movement.

For those Democrats comfortable with Biden’s approach, the benefits are clear. Sean McElwee, a leading pollster for progressive causes, says Biden has found an effective division of labor: By stressing unity and courting GOP officials, McElwee argues, Biden has made it more difficult for Republicans to mobilize their base. “Biden has made politics boring again,” he says admiringly, while other Democrats can call out the GOP’s turn toward extremism on issues from COVID-19 to voting. “I think it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time here,” he says.

To Democrats in this camp, the infrastructure deal “is proof of concept,” especially if Biden can pair it with an ambitious follow-on bill for human-capital investments passed solely with Democratic votes, says Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic group Third Way. If Biden can pass those two massive proposals, and contain the pandemic over the coming months, Kessler insists, he’ll be reelected. “And if he gets reelected, that could be the end of Trumpism,” Kessler says.

But critics of Biden’s approach toward the GOP, and even some supporters, acknowledge that it also comes with costs. Many Democratic strategists believe that one reason the party suffered disappointing results in congressional and state legislative races last November was because of Biden’s choice to portray Trump as an anomaly, rather than the culmination of broader GOP trends. That made it easier for voters to support Republicans in down-ballot contests. Hackett, like others, worries that even if Biden’s bipartisan posture helps him personally, his consistent praise of Republicans as reasonable negotiating partners could have the same effect on other races in 2022 and 2024.

Biden’s generally dovish approach to the GOP is also shaping his response to the coronavirus. After Trump feuded with Democratic governors during the pandemic (even publicly threatening to withhold aid from governors who criticized him), Biden prioritized building a close working relationship with leaders in both parties, particularly when it came to distributing the vaccines. Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, holds a weekly call with governors (now chaired by the Republican governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson) and talks to two or three more each day. “Our approach is to make this nonpolitical, to make this about public health, and to have strong partnerships with Democratic and Republican governors,” said one senior White House official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the administration’s interaction with governors. Republican, as well as Democratic, governors have praised the White House efforts.

But the emphasis on cooperation left the White House somewhat flat-footed when resistance to both vaccinations and public-health protections in multiple red states helped the Delta variant surge across the country. Caseloads have spiked most in Republican-controlled states—particularly Florida, Texas, and others across the Southeast—where vaccination rates remain relatively low and GOP governors, legislatures, or both, have shunned mask mandates and in some cases blocked businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from customers.

Many experts warn that so long as the virus rages in these red states it’s highly unlikely that Biden can fully control it even in the places that are imposing more stringent public-health measures, like restored indoor mask requirements.

“I can’t speak politically about what [Biden] is doing, but if there’s anything we have learned during this pandemic, it’s that no state is an island,” Leana Wen, the former Baltimore public-health commissioner, told me. “You can have great policies in some states, but if we have large portions of this country that are not even allowing mask mandates and are prohibiting businesses from protecting their workers, that is going to spill over into the rest of the country.” Given those dynamics, she added, for the Biden administration, “there is a public-health reason to apply a stronger hand when dealing with this crisis” in the red states.

Until this week, though, Biden almost entirely refrained from criticizing red-state governors who have blocked public-health measures, such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’s Greg Abbott. In a White House speech Tuesday, Biden challenged them more directly than before, but still chose his words carefully. Citing Texas and Florida specifically, Biden declared, “I say to these governors, please help. If you’re not going to help, please get out of the way.” As tongue-lashings go, it was delivered more in a tone of sorrow than anger.

The front that will most pointedly test Biden’s restrained approach to red-state governors is the imminent reopening of the nation’s schools. On Monday, the federal Department of Education issued a “road map” for reopening schools that urged all districts to restore in-person learning this fall, but also to require mask wearing for all staff and students in K–12 classes.

That guidance arrived with a huge hole in it: At least nine states, all with Republican governors, have barred school districts from requiring masks on staff and students. Those states—Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Vermont—together enroll almost 12.8 million K–12 students, roughly one-fourth of the nation’s total, according to federal statistics. As long as the state-level prohibitions on masking stand, that means parents in cities as large as Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, whatever their level of concern about the virus, must send their children to schools where they know that not everyone will be masked.

Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says that in Sun Belt states already seeing cases surge, that’s a formula for more disease and death. “There’s a forest fire raging across the southern United States right now,” he told me. “But in some ways, this is the warm-up act. Schools are opening now, and as schools open, they will start to accelerate things.”

Wen agreed. “Unvaccinated children could spread COVID-19 to other unvaccinated kids,” she said. “Some will become very ill and die; others, if they don’t become ill themselves, could be vectors for transmission and we could see large surges in those communities.”

The Biden administration doesn’t dispute those analyses, but it still believes its best chance of improving conditions in those red states is to emphasize carrots, not sticks. Biden offered sharper words this week, but beyond that, he’s not planning any actions aimed at the GOP local leaders blocking public-health measures. Even with the most recalcitrant GOP governors, the official said, the administration remains focused on providing inducements for cooperation rather than looking for policy mechanisms that might compel it, such as threats to withhold some streams of federal funding. Such direct pressure on red-state governors, the official said, is “not where we think the leverage is … The way we are approaching this is to get as many vaccinated as possible, make schools safe, [and] where there are surges provide resources to the states to deal with those surges.”

Is that enough? Khalilah Harris, the acting vice president for K–12 education policy at the Center for American Progress, a prominent liberal think tank, says Biden must be more forceful and creative in challenging the masking bans from Republican governors. “If we really intend to have students back in school buildings, then the Biden administration is going to have to be more aggressive,” she told me. One option, she said, could be to threaten to withhold education or broader recovery funding from states banning local schools from requiring masks; another could be to sue such states. “As a matter of public health and protecting the civil rights of children, particularly since we know there are disparities in which [minority] communities have higher rates of case positivity, there is a clear and convincing constitutional argument to be made here about equal protection under the law,” she argued.

Public-health experts and political analysts alike agree that governors such as DeSantis, Abbott, and Georgia’s Brian Kemp would welcome a confrontation with the Biden administration over masking in schools as a way to rally their electoral base. (DeSantis instantly demonstrated that by lashing back at Biden on Wednesday and then dashing off a fundraising letter about the criticism.) But the White House’s choice not to confront the GOP governors has consequences too: It means that parents in those states who want more protections are in effect abandoned to their governors’ political calculations. Hackett said that while he’s not sure “what the mechanism is” for Biden to most effectively pressure the GOP governors resisting public-health measures, “it seems to me if you are a citizen of any given state … your health and safety shouldn’t be determined by Republican governors who are trying to outflank each other to the right.”

The dynamic unfolding on voting rights is only slightly different. Compared with his relative reticence on state coronavirus actions, Biden has been more forthright in condemning the laws proliferating in red states since the 2020 election restricting access to the ballot: He’s called them “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” But while he has endorsed federal legislation that would overturn many of these restrictions and establish a new nationwide floor of voting rights, he has resolutely refused to endorse the one step that all advocates agree is indispensable to passing such a bill: creating a carve-out from the filibuster for it.

During a recent CNN town hall, Biden even said he believed Republicans eventually would support such federal voting standards. “I want to make sure we bring along not just all the Democrats; we bring along Republicans, who I know know better,” he insisted. “They know better than this.”

That answer infuriated voting-rights advocates who say there’s no evidence that any meaningful number of Senate Republicans—much less the 10 that would be needed to break a filibuster—will support new federal voting-rights legislation; even the handful of Republicans who have rejected Trump’s discredited claims of fraud, such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, have defended the restrictive state laws. Biden’s “comments did everything he could to avoid the reality of what we’re facing,” Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21 and veteran government-reform activist, told me immediately after the town hall. “This is incredibly dangerous for the rights of millions of Black, brown, Native American, other minorities, elderly, young voters to participate in federal elections in the future.”

Wertheimer’s comments point to the much larger Democratic debate over Biden’s posture toward the Republican Party: Does he truly understand what he’s dealing with in the modern GOP? Kessler says yes; he believes Biden recognizes how many in the GOP have radicalized, but is strategically choosing to position himself as a less partisan figure to advance his goals. “I think Biden is playing a very sophisticated game, sometimes masked with his aw-shucks style,” Kessler says. With the states, for instance, Kessler says, “It seems to me that what Biden is doing is not embarrassing Republican governors who may be doing the wrong thing on masks so that there is space for them to do the right thing and say the right things on vaccinations, because that is the ballgame.”

Others in the party worry whether Biden accepts how much the GOP has changed since the long-ago era when he genially made deals with Senate Republican leaders such as Bob Dole and Howard Baker. When Biden announced the bipartisan infrastructure deal in the White House driveway earlier this summer, he seemed openly nostalgic for those years: “This reminds me of the days we used to get an awful lot done up at the United States Congress,” he exulted.

Yet, at best, the infrastructure deal looks like a onetime exception to a pattern of unstinting Senate Republican resistance that, absent changes in the filibuster, seems destined to doom every Biden legislative priority that can’t be shoehorned into the reconciliation process. The most consequential Democratic priority that could fall victim to Biden’s reluctance to fully confront Republicans is the federal voting-rights legislation meant to combat the red-state moves restricting voting access and providing GOP officials more opportunities to control election procedures.

“Will Joe Biden feel he’s in a good place for reelection when we don’t have the House and Senate, election rules have been transformed in state after state, and we have these [state] election-subversion bills?” asked Hackett, stating publicly what other Democrats are only muttering in private. “His argument about normalizing those relationships with Republicans may be null and void by the time 2024 comes around.”