As Barack Obama’s inauguration kicked off on Jan. 20, 2009, LGBTQ Americans across the country watched with mixed emotions while evangelical pastor Rick Warren delivered the invocation. Though the vast majority of them had voted for Obama, Warren had urged members of his California-based megachurch to vote in favor of a ballot measure stripping marriage rights from same-sex couples; indeed, Proposition 8 narrowly passed on the same night Obama was elevated to the highest office in the land. Election Night had been a double-edged sword for gay and transgender individuals, and Warren’s presence made the inauguration bittersweet as well.
But Obama’s pick of Warren symbolized what ultimately emerged as a stumbling block to his ability to accomplish many of the priorities liberals had voted for in 2008 and which were also broadly popular—action on immigration, climate change, and, at least initially, queer rights. Obama was an incrementalist at heart, and he was still approaching Republicans as rational players in America’s democratic experiment. Including an anti-gay evangelical pastor in his inauguration was one of several olive branches Obama extended to conservatives in the early days of his administration in what would prove to be a fruitless effort to win their cooperation. A dozen years later, however, Obama’s former No. 2—a man who was viewed in the 2020 Democratic primary as far less progressive than Obama had been in the 2008 contest—is quickly advancing a far more unapologetically progressive agenda from Day One of his administration.
In fact, President Joe Biden has quickly dispensed of many of the old Obama-era battles that flummoxed liberals and eventually drew them to the streets to protest the administration’s inaction. Biden has already sent Congress a bold immigration bill that unequivocally includes a pathway to citizenship, expanded green card access, and fortifies the DACA program for Dreamers established by Obama in 2012. Biden also immediately yanked the Keystone XL pipeline permit—an action Obama didn’t take until 2015, after years of pushing by climate activists. And building on the many hard-fought Obama-era wins on LGBTQ equality, Biden quickly signed an order pushing the most aggressive interpretation of Title VII protections for transgender and gay Americans in employment, housing, and education.
Sure, these are old battles. And to some extent, Biden has benefited from a natural evolution of the issues over a decade. That is particularly true on policies concerning the LGBTQ movement, which emerged from Obama’s presidency lightyears ahead of where it began. But it is also a measure of how far the progressive movement has come over the past decade that we aren’t immediately having to go to battle with a Democratic administration that seems less intent on advancing liberal causes than using them as bargaining chips on the way to accomplishing other goals. So far, that vestige of 90s-era Clintonian politics seems to have finally been laid to rest in the Biden White House.
The departure is clearly throwing some Washington journalists for a loop after decades of watching Democrats kowtow to Republicans.
During Thursday’s White House press briefing, The New York Times‘ Michael Shear fixated on why President Biden wasn’t extending more olive branches to Republicans, like Obama had in early 2009. Biden, for instance, doesn’t have any GOP Cabinet members such as Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates—a holdover from the Bush administration. Shear also marveled that Biden’s first directives were “largely designed at erasing as much of the Trump legacy as you can with executive orders”—the inference being that such an aggressive rejection of Trump policies would turn off Republicans, thereby crushing all comity. Gee, what ever happened to “elections have consequences”?
Part of what has gotten lost in translation for journalists is the word “unity,” which Biden peppered throughout his inaugural address in some form or another no less than 11 times. Washington journalists view the word almost exclusively as a measure of bipartisan compromise. And to be fair, Biden’s emphasis during the Democratic primaries on working with Republicans worried many liberals too. But whatever Biden meant by his compromise talk during the campaign, his definition of unity now appears to be centered around coming together to save America’s democratic experiment. This political moment is simply that “dire,” as White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki put it, that fraught. In Biden’s view, no true American patriot needs to sacrifice their values or core beliefs in order to mobilize against white supremacy and the corrosive scourge of disinformation.
In his inaugural address, Biden decried “lies told for power and for profit” and named the truth as one of the “common objects we love” as Americans. Lawmakers, he said, “who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation,” bear a special responsibility to “defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
Biden also declared war on white supremacy, imploring Americans to unite in battling the nation’s “common foes” of “extremism, lawlessness, violence.”
In response, many Republicans are already reverting to their old tricks. They are calling Trump’s impeachment divisive—as if siccing a murderous mob on the Capitol to overturn an election was a great unifier. They say they are uncomfortable with holding a trial for a president who is no longer in office—as if watching the nation’s chief executive unleash an attack on the homeland wasn’t uncomfortable for the vast majority of Americans.
As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters this week: “The fact is, the president of the United States committed an act of incitement of insurrection. I don’t think it’s very unifying to say, ‘oh, let’s just forget it and move on.’ That’s not how you unify.”
And the very same Republicans who saddled taxpayers with some $2 trillion in debt to pass a giant tax giveaway to the rich and corporate-y, are now lining up against Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package to help struggling Americans and shore up the economy.
“The one thing that concerns me that nobody seems to be talking about anymore is the massive amount of debt that we continue to rack up as a nation,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who voiced no such concerns before casting his 2017 vote for the GOP’s tax bonanza for nation’s wealthiest.
The White House has consistently said Biden believes there is bipartisan appeal for the relief package priorities, such as funding for unemployment insurance, vaccinations, and opening schools. “What are you going to cut?” Psaki posited at her first press briefing on Wednesday.
Psaki said Biden plans to be personally involved in rallying support for the package. But she also didn’t rule out using the budget reconciliation process as a way to pass relief with a simple majority vote in the Senate, rather than the 60 needed to bypass a GOP filibuster. Biden has been here before, in 2009, as the country was staring down the Great Recession and negotiations with Republicans yielded a modest stimulus of $787 billion that ultimately hamstrung a quick recovery as many economists had warned. How much patience Biden has for haggling with Republicans in this moment of need remains to be seen.
But what jumps out from his first days in office is both Biden’s resolve and his unapologetic use of the tools at his disposal to take decisive action. He seems uniquely clear about the perils of this political era and what is required to meet them—a distinct break from the centrist dogma that has hung over Democrats for the better part of 30 years. And congressional Democrats across the liberal-to-moderate spectrum seem entirely bought into Biden’s vision.
Republicans, for their part, are playing very small ball. The best any of the saner ones can manage is clinging to the same tired Reagan-era talking points that left the party open to hijack by a vulgar populist demagogue. It seems safe to say that it’s going to require a lot more inspiration and creativity than what we are currently witnessing for the Republican Party to build an electorally viable coalition of voters over the next several years.
If President Biden continues to rise to the moment, the unity he engenders may ultimately be less about winning GOP votes for his policies than it is about unifying some 65% of Americans against a factionalized but dangerous party of seditionists.