President Joe Biden recently used surprisingly incendiary language in advocating for his voting bill, asking, “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?” This language generated a great deal of blowback, with even mainstream media figures and prominent Democrats typically loath to criticize Biden wondering if he went too far.
It is certainly true that Biden’s comparison of racist historical figures with his current opponents was outrageous and offensive. But the primary reason Biden’s statement was so surprising was that it was by far the most flagrant example of the president breaking his “return to normalcy” promise.
Throughout his campaign, and in the early stages of his presidency, Biden sold himself as a unifier who could bring Americans together after the elevated partisan discord of the last few years. In his inaugural address, for example, he said, “We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.” In that same address, Biden promised to “be a president for all Americans. I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.” Calling people with whom you disagree “Bull Connor” and “Jefferson Davis” seems contrary to the concept of fighting hard for those who did not support you.
The idea of a return to normalcy has a long pedigree in American politics. It dates back to Warren Harding’s 1920 underdog run for president. In a May 14, 1920, speech in Boston, Harding said, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.” The phrase “return to normalcy” did not appear in the speech, but it became the slogan of the Harding campaign.
As president, Harding was far from perfect. In fact, he regularly scores poorly in historical rankings of the presidents. For instance, in the most recent C-SPAN ranking of presidential historians, he was eighth worst, below Herbert Hoover and above Millard Fillmore. And his involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal and his extramarital indulgences raised real questions about his character. But to his credit, he was committed to the return to normalcy.
Harding demonstrated this commitment most prominently by pardoning the socialist Eugene V. Debs. Debs, a five-time presidential candidate and active opponent of American involvement in World War I, who had run against Harding on the Socialist ticket in 1920. He had been convicted under the Espionage Act for interfering with the military draft. Running from his prison cell, Debs came in third place, after Harding and Democratic nominee James Cox, whose running mate was one Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Pardoning Debs was a controversial move. Harding’s advisers recommended against it, and socialism was widely unpopular. But Harding went ahead, and he also commuted the sentences of 23 other opponents of the war.
Harding may not have been a good president, but he took his pledge on lowering the temperature seriously. In many ways, Biden seemed like someone who was well-situated to do the same. He was long characterized, not always accurately, as a moderate, and he did to his credit maintain strong relationships with senators on both sides of the aisle. When Biden was vice president in the Obama White House, he earned the nickname “the McConnell whisperer” for his ability to negotiate deals with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. He also went to visit former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole at Dole’s Watergate apartment after Dole’s cancer diagnosis, leading Dole to call him “a great, kind, upstanding, decent person.”
At the same time, Biden’s record also gave reasons for concern on the unity front. In the 2012 election, running for reelection as vice president against Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, he famously warned an African American audience that Romney would “put you all back in chains.” When facing off against Ryan in a vice presidential debate, Biden rudely interrupted and belittled his opponent. As The Wall Street Journal put it at the time, “Joe Biden wouldn’t let Paul Ryan finish a sentence.” And in the 2020 campaign, Biden, though mostly restrained in his basement, did make the divisive comment to a radio host, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
So, when Biden assumed office, there were reasons to argue that he could be either divisive or unifying. But while the inaugural address used unifying language, once the hard choices of governing emerged, Biden’s choices tended more toward the divisive rather than the unifying.
The first divisive decision was on the personnel front. There is a long-standing practice of having a representative of the other party in the president’s cabinet. The practice dates back to Franklin Roosevelt, although it was unfortunately broken by Biden’s immediate predecessor. Biden, however, had an opportunity to reestablish the practice and to pick a Republican cabinet secretary. While Biden did select some members of the opposing party for sub-cabinet or ambassadorial positions—as did his predecessor—he did not do so with any departmental secretaries. This early move showed a lack of willingness to take governing actions that would match his initial unifying rhetoric.
Then, in his first major legislative push, Biden rejected Republican efforts to negotiate on his COVID relief package. At the very beginning of the administration, moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins came to the White House and offered to bring 10 Republicans along if they could agree on a bipartisan COVID relief package. This would have allowed Biden to get past the 60-vote threshold in the Senate and to pass his bill without using the one-party budget reconciliation process. Despite his professed interest in unity and bipartisanship, however, Biden rejected the overture and refused even to put forward a counteroffer. This early decision set the tone for a presidency that, so far, has tried to legislate without seeking votes from the other side of the aisle.
The next signal came over the summer, when Biden was aiming to enact his infrastructure package. Major infrastructure spending is a long-time bipartisan initiative that multiple administrations had tried, without success, to enact. Biden once again received cooperative overtures from pro-infrastructure Republicans. But those Republicans were interested in the traditional infrastructure package (i.e., roads and bridges), and not the more expensive and expansive “human infrastructure” proposal that would become known as Build Back Better. Nineteen Senate Republicans agreed to join Biden on the infrastructure package, but Biden then angered them by linking the two bills, saying he would not pass the first without the second. He did end up getting his traditional infrastructure package through Congress, but only after alienating the Republicans who had been willing to work with him, and months after he could have scored a preelection bipartisan victory before the 2021 off-year election. Build Back Better did not pass and, for the time being, appears to be dead.
It is on top of this history that Biden gave his offensive Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis speech, a comparison that even Democratic Senator Dick Durbin thought went too far. Biden press secretary Jen Psaki tried to dismiss critiques of the Bull Connor language by saying, “I know there has been a lot of claim of the offensive nature of the speech yesterday, which is hilarious on many levels, given how many people sat silently over the last four years for the former president.” Her response, however, misses the point. Biden was not elected to be a Democratic version of his predecessor. Biden quite consciously ran on the promise of a different, more unifying approach.
Biden is running out of chances to fulfill the unifying part of his promise. He could have gone bipartisan on the initial COVID package; he chose not to. He could have passed a stand-alone infrastructure bill over the summer without alienating the Republicans who wanted to work with him; he chose not to. He could have avoided the inflammatory Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis rhetoric; he chose not to. We are only one year into the Biden administration, and perhaps he can still change his tune, but the promise of a return to normalcy has thus far not been met.