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Does Biden Really Think Republicans Will Work With Him? And Could He Be Right?

President-elect Joe Biden, who will assume the presidency at 12 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, has been absolutely consistent about this.

There was the time last year, early in his presidential campaign, when Joe Biden said at an event in New Hampshire that, “with Donald Trump out of the White House — not a joke — you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”

Just last month, Biden, in a conference call with supporters of his campaign, said, “I may eat these words, but I predict to you: As Donald Trump’s shadow fades away, you’re going to see an awful lot change” among Republicans.

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And just last week, only days after President Trump’s supporters had invaded the U.S. Capitol in a violent attempt to stop the final approval of Biden’s victory by any means necessary, the former vice president gave a speech laying out his economic agenda in which he said, “Unity is not a pie-in-the-sky dream, it is a practical step to getting things done.”

So, is Biden crazy? Is he simply overly optimistic?

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Recent history says so. From 2009 through 2016, the last time the nation had a Democratic president, the Republican Party intensely opposed virtually every part of then-President Obama’s agenda, culminating in the GOP’s refusal to even hold a hearing for Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016. Biden, of course, had a front-row seat to this GOP opposition as the vice president.

Four years later, the Republican Party appears to have drifted even further away from any interest in being, or ability to be, a “loyal opposition” party. Most Republicans in Congress supported efforts to disqualify legitimate election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, continuing a two-month long campaign by Trump and many in the GOP to overturn Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. And Senate Republicans, while they were less likely to contest the election results, have broken with precedent and refused to hold hearings for Biden’s Cabinet nominees before he takes office.

So it’s worth exploring three different possibilities in terms of Biden’s rhetoric about working with Republicans:

  1. He genuinely believes Republicans will work with him and ends up being right;
  2. He genuinely believes Republicans will work with him but ends up being wrong;
  3. And finally, he doesn’t totally believe Republicans will work with him, is presenting an optimistic case to the public anyway and is planning for essentially one-party government.

Biden aides and other Democrats aren’t committing to a single interpretation of the president elect’s bipartisanship comments. They are suggesting both that Biden truly believes some Republicans will work with him but that he is also preparing to push forward on his agenda without them.

So this is a bit of an open question as he begins his presidency. Let’s look at all three possibilities:

Biden really believes Republicans will work with him, and he is right.

I don’t think that congressional Republicans will be more likely to work with Biden than they were with Obama simply because Biden is white. The deep antipathy towards Obama among GOP voters and GOP officials was connected in some ways to him being Black, but as we have seen in the last few weeks, there is plenty of resistance in the GOP base to a Biden presidency. (And partisan politics nowadays is deeply intertwined with race no matter the politician.) Nor do I think Biden’s long tenure in the Senate (1973-2009) matters much — only about a dozen members of the current GOP bloc in the Senate served with Biden.

But there are at least two reasons to think that Republicans will try to work with Biden — or at least, work with him more than they did Obama. First of all, on Cabinet nominations and judgeships, Democrats already have the votes they need, since those require only a simple majority in the Senate. So I think it’s likely that — since Republicans can’t block these picks anyway — there will be a group of Republicans who vote for some of Biden’s would-be federal judges and Cabinet members, particularly if they are not known for being very liberal. A Republican senator who wants to present himself as reasonable would have every incentive to vote for, for example, the relatively non-controversial Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who led the opposition to Garland’s Supreme Court nomination, has reportedly told Biden that he will vote for Garland to become Attorney General.

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This is not a particularly important element of bipartisanship — Republicans providing extra votes for people who would be confirmed anyway. But I would assume Biden will cite these kinds of votes as examples of him bringing unity to Washington if some Republicans do come on board for his Cabinet or judicial nominations.

Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic, with thousands of people dying from the virus daily, is a much bigger and more serious issue than anything that happened in the Obama years. So perhaps some Republicans put party lines aside to help Biden and the country deal with the pandemic. After all, there were several bipartisan COVID-19 relief bills passed last year with Trump as president but Democrats in control of the House.

“The context of the pandemic and the needs of their constituents may lead Republicans to be willing to work with Biden and the Democrats on vaccine and pandemic recovery legislation — even if they oppose the levels of spending proposed by Biden,” said Laurel Harbridge-Yong, a political science professor at Northwestern University who studies Congress.

Also, politics may be changing on the right in a way that pushes some Republicans toward working with Biden on COVID-19 in particular. Republicans used to talk a big game about reining in the federal budget deficit while never really doing anything about it. But in the Trump era, some prominent Republicans, including Trump himself and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, have basically dropped the pretense that they really care about keeping the deficit low. That pretense seems to already be returning with a Democrat poised to occupy the White House. But if a big part of Biden’s agenda in his first year is trying to provide Americans direct financial aid to help them deal with the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19, perhaps 10 or so Republicans sign onto some of those bills, allowing them to pass without Democrats using the reconciliation process. (More on reconciliation in a bit.)

“COVID relief is a great test for bipartisanship at this point. Unless you’re gonna do some sort of pure infrastructure bill, is there really a big bill you can imagine that’s more potentially bipartisan than this?” said Matt Glassman, a congressional expert at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

“I have no idea if the Republicans are going to bargain in good faith,” he added. “Like Hawley and friends should be for the $2,000 checks, but who knows if the partisan climate is such that he’s just going to 180 on that stuff completely and go into total opposition mode.”

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Indeed, I don’t think the case I just made is that strong because …

Biden may believe Republicans will work with him and be wrong.

This is the much safer assumption, of course: Republicans will oppose much of Biden’s agenda. After all, the parties disagree fundamentally on a lot of issues, such as raising the national minimum wage to $15 per hour, which Biden is proposing in his new economic stimulus bill but Republicans oppose. Secondly, even on issues where the parties in theory could reconcile their policy differences, it might be smarter electorally for Republicans to oppose whatever Biden proposes, try to drive up his disapproval ratings and use him as foil in the midterms. That’s basically the story of the last four midterm elections — 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018. The party that didn’t hold the presidency won a lot of House seats after spending the previous two years constantly attacking the incumbent president and his agenda.

“Republicans benefit politically from manufacturing gridlock,” said Adam Jentleson, who was a top adviser to then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid during the Obama presidency. “They only need to win one seat to take back the Senate in 2022, and all of their incentives point to making Democrats look bad so they can reclaim the majority. The narrowness of the Democrats’ majority increases Republicans’ incentive to obstruct,” said Jentleson, who is the author of a new book called “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate” that chronicles some of the ways that McConnell and other Republicans limited the policy goals of Obama and Biden.

Leah Greenberg, co-director of a progressive activist group called the Indivisible Project, pointed to another huge barrier to congressional Republicans working with Biden: They are worried about being defeated in GOP primaries. “For the first year of Biden’s term, Republican senators will be looking over their shoulders for primary challengers just as much as they’re worrying about the general election,” Greenberg said.

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Shouldn’t Biden already know that Republican cooperation is a long shot? I would not be so sure. The political instincts of Biden and his team have been rightly praised over the last two years as the former vice president won the Democratic primary in part by resisting the leftward lurch of the party and then pulled off the somewhat rare feat of defeating an incumbent president. But we also have plenty of reasons to doubt Biden’s political acumen: his first two terrible presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2008; his vote for the Iraq War; his dismal finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire during the 2020 primaries despite being the frontrunner and former vice president; and the fact that he stopped the day before November’s general election in Ohio, where he ended up losing by 8 percentage points.

Back in 2012, Biden (and Obama) were confidently suggesting that the oppositional “fever” among Republicans would break if Obama and Biden were elected for a second term. They were both totally wrong, of course. Democrats who are more progressive than Biden are deeply concerned that the new president will spend a lot of time fruitlessly trying to get congressional Republicans to sign onto his proposals, as opposed to pushing his agenda in ways that only require the support of Democratic lawmakers.

Biden’s unity talk is all for show.

I tend to think this third possibility is closest to the truth: Biden is being more optimistic about the prospects of bipartisanship in his public statements than he truly believes and is fully prepared to govern facing basically unified GOP opposition.

What makes me think this? Well, first of all, even if Biden was (and likely still is) somewhat overly confident about both his ability to cut deals and the GOP’s desire to work with him, he is also taking actions that would line up with a one-party governing strategy. He campaigned hard for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, whose wins in Georgia gave Democrats control of the Senate. Even before he takes office, Biden has rolled out a stimulus proposal that seems more aimed at trying to boost the economy, help people who are struggling economically and fund Democratic Party priorities than appeasing Republicans, who unsurprisingly balked at the $1.9 trillion price tag of the proposal. Congressional Democrats are already talking about passing this bill through the so-called reconciliation process, by which they would need only a simple majority in the Senate and thus no GOP votes.

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So why all the talk about unity and bipartisanship? For two reasons. First, it’s a fairly normal thing for a president to do. American politics has been deeply polarized by party for at least the last four presidencies (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump.) But Trump was the only one of those four presidents who regularly spoke of blue states and red states himself and generally seemed fairly uninterested in trying to rise above that polarization. In other words, of course Biden isn’t starting his term by announcing that basically half of the members of Congress will never support anything he does!

Secondly, polls suggest that voters, particularly independents, want Biden and other politicians to seek agreements across party lines. For example, in a Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this month, 74 percent of Americans said that Biden should “try as best he can to work with the congressional GOP leaders to accomplish things, even if it means disappointing some of his own voters,” compared to just 24 percent who said Biden should, “stand up to GOP leaders on issues important to his voters, even if it’s harder to address critical problems facing the country.” (It’s not surprising that a lot of Americans don’t want a president to be more partisan and therefore not address critical issues, so the phrasing of this question is not ideal.)

So it makes sense that Biden, as the electoral and political leader of the Democratic Party, is using rhetoric that sells with voters.

Here’s the thing: It’s not totally clear that Biden truly believing that he can work with Republicans versus faking that belief matters that much in terms of governing. Let’s say Biden is slightly overly confident about his ability to work with Republicans but also correctly assesses that there is some political value in talking about bipartisanship. Let’s also say that he is also conscious that Republicans might not go along with his agenda and therefore planning an alternative course. He might, say, roll out a big stimulus plan, publicly talk about getting some Republicans behind it and privately pursue their votes — but, at the same time be ready to move forward with a Democrats-only strategy for passing it. That is exactly what he is doing.

In other words, expect to see Biden continue to talk about the value of bipartisanship — even if he doesn’t manage to get much of it.

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Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.