Feb 3, 2021

Can Biden unify America?

Can Biden unify America?

His campaign pledge is already under fire.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions. You can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Thank you for all the crockpot recipes yesterday. It’s nice to know the slow cooker alliance is alive and well. Today, we’re taking a look at Joe Biden’s calls for unity, and how we think he’s doing so far. Plus, a reader from New Jersey puts the fate of his daughter’s career prospects into my hands (kidding… kind of).

A protest outside the White House. Photo: TED EYTAN/CREATIVE COMMONS

Reader feedback.

Rosie from Houston, Texas, replied to yesterday’s minimum wage issue and said “If everyone can agree that the living wage in Mississippi is not the same as the living wage in New York, then why don't we... just leave it up to the States to decide?! Crazy idea, I know! Seems a little simpler than trying to come up with some complicated way of addressing a bunch of different situations and nuances under a Federal bill. I know it’s a hard concept to understand, but I truly believe the federal government is not the answer to all of our problems!”

David from Boston, Massachusetts, said he found the issue “offensive,” arguing that the “What the left is saying” section was “really just reciting Republican or moderate talking points. You suggest that virtually no one believes that $15/hr ought to be the minimum wage even in areas where the cost of living is the lowest — that simply is not true; labor unions, many Democratic lawmakers, voters, and even centrist Joe Biden support that view. This section ought to have spent column space discussing that large corporations and capitalists have vacuumed up trillions of dollars in uncompensated labor value over the last 50 years, to the point that tens of millions of Americans can’t afford an unexpected $500 expense.”

A year ago…

Hey! Sorry I’ve been forgetting this section. It’s tough to get in a rhythm because three out of every seven days there is no Tangle edition to point to from exactly a year ago. I’ll try to be better.

A year ago today, we were discussing the beginning of the Iowa caucuses (where Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden were favorites) and our main story was the public spat between Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump.


Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected leader of Myanmar, remains in custody after a military coup overthrew the national leadership and installed an 11-member junta to run the country. Many readers have asked that I write about Myanmar, but the situation there is still very, very murky. Worse yet, it’s a foreign country that I have very little base knowledge of (I’m comfortable writing about a lot of countries outside the U.S., but Myanmar is not one of them). So I’m cautious about wading into the issue. Do I have any Burmese/Myanma readers? Any experts on the region who want to pen a guest section? Reach out to me by replying to this email.

Quick hits.

  1. House Democrats filed an impeachment brief making the case former President Trump was responsible for the Capitol riots, describing his actions as “a betrayal of historic proportions.” (The Washington Post, subscription)
  2. The Senate confirmed Pete Buttigieg as secretary of transportation and Alejandro Mayorkas as the head of Homeland Security. (CNN)
  3. House Republicans are meeting today as the divisions in the caucus spread over what to do with Reps. Liz Cheney and Marjorie Taylor Greene. (Fox News)
  4. President Biden called the GOP’s $618 billion coronavirus proposal “too small” and Democrats appear prepared to pass a $1.9 trillion bill via reconciliation, which would only require a simple majority. (Axios)
  5. Last night, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris paid their respects to the Capitol officer who was killed during the January 6th riots. “Brian Sicknick lay in honor Wednesday in the building he died defending.” (The Associated Press)
  6. BONUS: Lin Wood, the lawyer who helped spread conspiracy theories that the 2020 election was stolen by Democrats, is under investigation for voter fraud. (WSBTV)

What D.C. is talking about.

Unity. Throughout his campaign and in his inauguration speech, President Joe Biden put a premium on healing the country and ushering in a new era of unity. In his speech, Biden told Americans that “politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire” and insisted he would try to bring the country together.

Two weeks into his presidency, a lot of people are discussing that pledge.

So far, Biden has come out of the gate faster and with a more progressive agenda than a lot of people expected. That has led Senate Republicans like Marco Rubio to criticize the administration’s pledge. “A radical leftist agenda in a divided country will not help unify our country,” Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted. “It will only confirm 75 million Americans' biggest fears about the new administration.”

Others have joined the chorus, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. “Another 'unifying' move by the new Administration?” he tweeted after Biden overturned Trump’s ban on transgender troops in the military.

But this has also shed light on another issue: defining unity. When pressed about what unifying the country means to him, in light of these criticisms, Biden said he was hoping to eliminate the vitriol and ad hominem attacks while passing legislation the majority of Americans want (for instance: 71% of Americans support allowing transgender troops in the military, though Sen. Cornyn described it as a divisive move).

“If you pass a piece of legislation that breaks down on party lines, but it gets passed, it doesn't mean there wasn't unity, it just means it wasn't bipartisan,” Biden told reporters. “I prefer these things to be bipartisan, because I'm trying to generate some consensus.”

Still, Biden’s pledges to unify the country were central to his campaign. And while surely nobody expected it to happen in his first two weeks in office, there’s a considerable debate going on about how he’s doing so far, what he can do to improve, and if the effort is even worth it.

What the left is saying.

The left is split. Some have bought into Biden’s pledges for unity and hope he can whip up consensus on Democratic priorities, while others wonder why Biden should attempt to reach out to a party that has done so much to foment divisiveness.

In The New Republic, Osita Nwanevu pointed out that Mitt Romney and a Utah delegation of Republicans chided Biden for signing a niche executive order that reversed a Trump executive order which opened the door to oil and gas drilling on protected lands in Utah. In response to Biden’s order, which was signed on his first day in office, Romney and the Utah delegation released a statement saying it would “only deepen divisions in this country.”

Nwanevu replied: “The statement, issued literally the day of the inauguration, was both a preview of the years to come and an early sign of the dynamics that are already shaping more consequential policy fights,” he wrote. “If Mitt Romney, the GOP’s supposed man of reason, can, just weeks after a deadly riot instigated by his own party, exploit the anxieties provoked by that event to condemn the expansion of two national monuments practically no one in this country has heard of as ‘divisive,’ then no part of the Biden agenda, no matter how mundane, is safe from attack. And it’s already clear that the coming hits against the administration will continue to take advantage of the president’s own words.”

The Washington Post editorial board wrote that Biden was right to give unity a chance — but Republicans must follow on COVID-19 relief, rather than come to the table with an offer a third of the size of the plan Biden wants.

“It would be better for the country if the GOP senators and Mr. Biden both agreed to deviate from their initial proposals,” the board wrote. “The senators’ plan is too small, particularly given alarming unemployment figures and the risk that new coronavirus strains could force new lockdowns. It lacks aid for state and local governments, a necessity that Republicans have already delayed for too long, risking harsh state and local staffing cuts in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis. It also proposes only a three-month jobless benefits extension, which would likely force Congress to write yet another bill just as they finish passing this one.

“Mr. Biden’s plan is more ambitious,” it added. “But, in search of delivering on a bad Democratic campaign promise, it would also be wasteful. The Biden proposal contemplates $1,400 direct payments to most Americans — even those far too high on the income scale to need the help. Some families making as much as $300,000 a year might get some government aid… With congressional Republicans engaged in their own identity crisis, Mr. Biden should embrace every opportunity to work with GOP lawmakers willing to distinguish themselves from the elements in their party focused on obstruction, voter suppression and lies about the election.”

Elie Mystal channeled the anger on the left: “F— unity,” he wrote in The Nation.

“The calls for unity from House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, Senator Marco Rubio, and any number of Republicans who have enabled and emboldened Donald Trump for years are nothing more than a veiled threat: Accept the violence already committed, or risk additional violence against you,” he wrote. “It is possible that some of the people elected to serve in the US government may have aided and abetted a plot to force Congress—through threats and acts of intimidation, violence, and vengeance—to declare Trump the winner of the presidential election.

“You do not ‘unify’ with those people,” he added. “You do not wave to them across the aisle or smile at them in the elevator. You find them, whether they go back home to their districts or flee to Argentina, and you hold them accountable for their crimes. That is the only way to move forward safely.”

What the right is saying.

The right shares the mixed feelings. On the one hand, they are interested in a unified country because that means a more moderate government. On the other hand, many believe Biden’s pledges of unity are hollow.

In The New York Post, Rich Lowry wrote that “Joe Biden is off to the most left-wing start of any Democratic president in recent memory.”

“Just two weeks later, the dulcet tones of Biden’s inaugural address already seem an artifact of a bygone era,” Lowry wrote. “Republicans will hammer him for the rest of his presidency for failing to deliver on his unifying message, but the fact is that Biden is governing as he promised — further to the left of his own record, further to the left of his ex-boss, former President Barack Obama, and further to the left of any Democrat who made his career prior to the ascendency of the cultural left.

“The lesson is that the most important thing that any movement can do is influence the direction of a major political party,” he wrote. “If the center of gravity of a party moves, the entire establishment moves with it. So it is that Biden, who has never been woke or surrounded himself with radicals, is attempting to deliver victories to the left-wing of his party almost unimaginable eight or 12 years ago — and do it quickly. We can’t really say we weren’t warned, even if Biden did everything he could to obscure the message with his mood music of moderation and unity.”

In The Washington Post, Marc Thiessen said all eyes are on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

“If Biden refuses to work with these Republicans, and doesn’t use their proposal as the basis for a bipartisan compromise, then his inaugural address was a lie,” Thiessen wrote. “In that speech, Biden said that ‘with unity we can … overcome this deadly virus.’ Well, he has 10 Republicans offering to help him do just that. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has put forward a $618 billion plan that contains many of Biden’s priorities, including $160 billion for vaccines and testing, an extension of unemployment insurance and $1,000 stimulus checks targeted to lower-income Americans. This is on top of the $900 billion package Congress just passed in December — for a total of about $1.5 trillion in new covid relief since Biden’s election. That’s a lot of money. And the fact that Collins is bringing nine other Republicans with her to the table means she is offering Biden the chance to pass his first major legislation with a bipartisan, filibuster-proof majority. If Biden looks at that offer and says: Sorry, folks, but I’m going to jam my $1.9 trillion plan through using just Democratic votes, then bipartisanship is dead — and all his soothing rhetoric about ‘unity’ was nothing more than fiction.”

Gerard Baker channeled the anger of the right, asking his readers: “Can you feel the unity?”

“Have you renounced your white privilege? Your unconscious bias probably hasn’t been eradicated in the last week, so it will need attention,” he wrote. “In the service of national unity, you should by now have agreed to welcome a new influx of illegal aliens into your community… If you work in fossil fuels—maybe you’re employed on the Keystone XL pipeline—aren’t you grateful that your imminent joblessness is bringing the country together?

“As a commentator on a conservative platform, I’m ready to do my part for national harmony by being deplatformed by technology companies the next time I step out of line,” he said. “After four years of hateful, divisive leadership that stoked raging enmities and fuelled murderous bigotries, I hope you’re feeling the soothing balm of comity as it pours forth from executive orders, presidential declarations and the various ministries of truth that used to be news organizations.”

My take.


It’s tough to know where to begin — or even where to end. The most important step here, probably, is to define “unity” in the first place. And I’ve got to say, I find President Biden’s definition a lot more reasonable. “Unity” does not mean allowing everything former President Trump did to stand, nor does it mean rewarding the 81.2 million voters who made Biden president by not going after the agenda he promised to deliver on the campaign trail. I think unity means both pushing for changes that have widespread support while not making enemies of the people who disagree with you.

Look: last month, I did a review of Trump’s presidency. I analyzed it by looking at what he ran on (presumably, what voters elected him to do) and how well he fulfilled that agenda. For that exercise, I tried to remove myself from whether I thought the actual agenda was good or bad — because in judging his presidency, or his accomplishments, it’s important to acknowledge he was elected to do those things.

In the same vein, Biden didn’t run on installing a traditional Republican agenda. He didn’t run on a centrist agenda. He promised up and down he wasn’t a radical or a socialist (and he isn’t), but he also said he was going to be a bold progressive who met the demands of the people who put him into office. And he said, over and over, that he wanted to turn the temperature down. So far, I think he has.

He’s missed opportunities, sure. He could have placed a Republican in his Cabinet as Obama did. He could have not fired some Trump holdovers who had time left in their posts. But he’s meeting with Republicans to negotiate his COVID-19 bill, he has a Cabinet that is chock full of moderates and “best-case scenario” picks from the right’s perspective (few of whom will face any real opposition), and he’s overseeing a Congress full of people who told the public he didn’t actually win the election that he won.

Let’s also not forget who Biden is replacing. Trump shared videos of supporters saying “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” He shared tweets accusing Joe Biden of being a pedophile and told his rally goers at every campaign event that “Democrats want to destroy our country.” He called Democrats “evil” and “corrupt” and referred to members of the FBI as “top scum.” Then, after months of refusing to concede he lost the election, he made ridiculous claims that the election was stolen, then refused to attend Joe Biden’s inauguration. All less than two weeks after the Capitol building riots. This isn’t Civil War history; it’s not centuries-old American lore that I’m trying to blame on Trump or Republicans. I’m talking about stuff that happened just a few weeks ago. Some sitting Republicans are still unwilling to acknowledge Biden even won the election fairly.

So, again… I get it. I understand the many Republicans, especially those who voted for Trump and didn’t support much of his behavior, who are hopeful Biden will step toward the center. I get that many on the right just spent four years being called racists or rubes or worse for supporting Trump. I get that a twice-impeached, investigated-by-the-FBI president is easy to see as a victim of unprecedented obstruction and the deep state and the other horrors of the establishment. And I believe, for many of you, there is sincerity in your hope for a country less divided.

But I also think you have to look at the perspective from the left and realize that — compared to what we had — Biden is already making genuine attempts at unity. Even if he’s not showing signs of legislative compromise (yet), he’s also not insulting the opposition or framing his counterparts as fundamentally evil. So far, he’s shown pretty remarkable constraint given what many of his new Republican colleagues have said about him. Unity isn’t a one-way street and isn’t going to happen overnight, and it probably isn’t going to be about ceding one side’s agenda to the other’s. I hope, for the sake of the country, it means meeting in the middle (or at least the center-left) on some big policy issues.

It’s also going to be about humanizing each other, hearing each other, understanding that a difference of opinion in politics is almost always a product of life experience and one’s environment — not a personal defect or inherent evil. I’m hopeful the Biden presidency can usher in more of that tone, and I think a couple of weeks is far too soon to declare the dream dead.

Blindspot report.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that tracks the political bias in news reporting, I feature parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their media echo chambers.

The right missed a story about a victims’ settlement fund for women who were abused by Harvey Weinstein.

The left missed a story about The New York Times facing backlash for labeling President Biden the “most religiously observant president” in 50 years.

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.

Your questions, answered.

Q: My daughter is 16, and a sophomore in high school. The Trump years have been good in the sense that she became much more aware of politics than she would have been had Hillary won in 2016. Now she’s showing a legitimate interest in politics and public service. If you were me, would you encourage your child to continue to explore the political arena as a career?

— Brad, Cranford, NJ

Tangle: I’d tell her to be careful what she posts on social media!

In all seriousness: yes, I would.

Readers often ask me about my own political ambitions, or if I have any, which always makes me laugh. I’ve considered it at times but I wouldn’t want to enter politics, mainly for three reasons: 1) I think I’d have to go back to school, 2) I think I can do more “good” for the country from the position I’m in now — and through building Tangle, and 3) I wouldn’t want to expose my family to the public criticism that comes with a political career.

That being said, with those concerns in order, if your daughter is interested in politics I would absolutely nurture that interest. I would encourage any young person who has a passion for change or an interest in helping shape the future of the country to get into politics. The idea of a “career politician” is often derided, but I think the more people who set out to be politicians — legislators, leaders, community organizers — the better. And to be a qualified member of Congress usually means understanding how Congress works.

For instance, according to the Congressional Research Service, over one-third of the House and over half of the Senate have law degrees. Some senators and a couple of dozen House members are M.D.s and about 20 percent of Congress has a Master’s degree. Most study social sciences, history or political science as undergrads.

People have made the argument that Congress being “credentialed out the wazoo” has actually damaged the country and made it more disconnected from average Americans (who are not nearly as credentialed). This is an interesting argument, and there’s some meat to it that certainly plucks at my populist heartstrings. But we’ve also seen a rise in politicians who literally have no experience performing the core function of Congress: legislating. That’s not good, and the fewer of those people we have in office, the better.

Also: maybe tell her to avoid Congress at all costs? I know this sounds silly coming from someone who writes a newsletter about national politics — especially given how consequential national politics often is — but… if I were to get into politics, I’d go local. I’d run for city council or mayor or state representative, and I think I’d have opportunities to do more work in my community that had an impact there. Nearly every national politician I’ve ever interviewed speaks fondly of their years in local politics, like a retired athlete talking about their prime. So maybe that’s something to tell her, too.

Better yet: have her start by introducing change at her high school, which I’m sure is riddled with hypocrisy and defects that are more apparent to the students attending it than to the administrators overseeing it.

All in all, yes. I’d encourage it — with the understanding that the things she does and says publicly now will be held against her in 10 years, and with the understanding that “getting into politics” doesn’t have to mean being a household name or appearing on CNN. Frankly, it’s probably more fulfilling and less stressful to pursue a local political career that hinges on changing the community she likely cares about most, her own.

A story that matters.

Yesterday, we covered the debate over a $15 minimum wage. Key to that debate was a 2019 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that laid out the impacts of hiking the minimum wage. Today, Politico is reporting that the CBO is preparing to release another report on raising the minimum wage that will bolster the argument of Sen. Bernie Sanders — making a “persuasive fiscal case” for including a minimum wage hike in the pandemic aid package. The CBO is a well-respected federal institution, and if a favorable report is released to the public, it could increase momentum to raise the federal minimum wage. The change would impact millions of workers in nearly every U.S. state. (Politico)


  • 10.8%. The share of U.S. workers who are union members, according to new Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
  • 2.5 years. The prison sentence for Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was arrested after returning to Russia.
  • 95%. The percentage of House representatives in Congress who have a college degree.
  • 100%. The percentage of senators in Congress who have a college degree.
  • 33%. The percentage of Americans who have a college degree.
  • $61,719,583. The fine ($61.7 million) Amazon was ordered to pay its Amazon Flex drivers after stealing a third of their tips prior to 2019.
  • $125,600,000,000. Amazon’s fourth quarter revenue ($125.6 billion) in 2019, an all-time high.

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Have a nice day.

COVID-19 cases in U.S. nursing homes have dropped precipitously since vaccine distribution began, according to Business Insider. In the week ending December 20th, the U.S. had 32,500 new nursing home cases. In the week ending January 17th, the number was 17,584 — a 45% drop in four weeks. The data aren’t just great news because nursing homes have been a primary source for COVID-19 deaths, but it’s also a promising sign of the vaccines’ efficacy outside of a controlled trial. (Business Insider)

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