At a recent town hall in Wisconsin, President Joe Biden charted a sharp change in direction for America’s political culture, telling his audience, “For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump. The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people.”
Put another way, for the past four years we have endured a figure in the White House who not only insisted on being the center of attention but also insisted on having the nation’s energies and resources focused on taking care of him. He abused his office in self-serving ways for his personal enrichment and political benefit; and those who worked for him, as well as Congressional Republicans, walked on eggshells around him, always expected to soothe his fragile ego and assuage his hurt feelings when he routinely threw childish temper tantrums.
Trump’s presidency was all about Trump, at the expense of the American people, whose interests as a whole were not even on Trump’s radar.
He never made the typical obligatory pivot after his 2016 election to declare that he would represent and work for all Americans, whether they voted him or not.
And it was clear he didn’t intend to represent all Americans. Rather, presidential power was his tool to punish his political enemies, defined as anyone who didn’t vote for him or agree with him uniformly.
His tax policies were written to punish blue states. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the nation, Trump’s failure to respond was rooted in his belief that the virus would primarily impact blue states, as he scrapped testing plans while the virus swept through states such as New Jersey and New York.
And Trump didn’t even really represent or serve the interests of his most ardent supporters. Just ask the many Capitol rioters upon whom Trump has turned his back as they face criminal charges and prison sentences.
So, to put the focus on the American people in the national political culture, well, that’s a big change, an incredibly meaningful shift in our attention and re-direction of our energies.
Deploying the nation’s resources, energies, and attention to the welfare and interests of the American people as a whole is, I believe, what Biden means when he emphasizes the importance of unity.
It’s important we get clear on what Biden means by unity.
I hear many Americans assert that they have no interest in unifying with White Supremacists, right-wing extremists, or even garden-variety Republicans who often seem complicit with racist thinking and who tend to favor policies that re-distribute wealth to the top and that serve the richest few over the many who work to actually produce the nation’s wealth.
We hear Republicans claim the Biden’s “left-wing agenda” is dis-unifying. When Biden removed the ban on transgender people from serving in the military, Republican Senator John Cornyn tweeted, “Another ‘unifying’ move by the new Administration?”—as if unity meant compromising people’s human and civil rights to acknowledge or even bridge an ideological divide. (71% of adult Americans supported Biden’s policy.)
Unity for Biden doesn’t mean political or ideological unity; it doesn’t mean reaching political compromise or agreement.
Unity for Biden is actually about serving the American people—all of them, regardless of political stripe– and modeling an ethos of mutual care.
It doesn’t mean compromising with those who believe the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax; it means safeguarding the health and well-being of all Americans, whether they believe the virus is real or not.
It doesn’t mean compromising with those Americans, Republican or otherwise, who don’t believe Americans are in need or who are suddenly worried about the nation’s deficit and debt. It means passing legislation so Americans in dire situations can have their basic needs met, so small businesses can survive, so the economy doesn’t completely collapse.
Unity is about mutual care. And if the American people don’t practice it, Biden is trying to ensure the federal government does, something we haven’t seen even remotely the past four years.
While Biden was in Wisconsin talking about re-focusing the government’s energies on the people, Texans suffering from a breakdown in their energy systems because of a freeze were experiencing a betrayal, an abandonment, by their Republican political leaders.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz, of course, notoriously left the country for a luxury hotel in warmer climes because his house was too cold, while millions of Texans had been going days without heat, electricity, or water.
It wasn’t his care or concern. Small government forever! Let’s keep the government out of our lives!
Former Trump Secretary of Energy and Texas Governor Rick Perry gave voice to this dismissal of mutual care and of government itself quite blatantly, saying, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.”
Maybe he should take a poll of freezing Texans.
The Texas fiasco has been the failure of state government bent on serving the wealthy and not the people in their entirety. It is a result of rejecting federal government and the services it offers to help the people.
El Paso, for example, did not suffer the way the rest of the Texas did because they rely on an electrical grid that crosses state lines and is connected to fourteen other states; it is subject to federal regulations. Moreover, when the adverse weather struck El Paso, the city could rely on the other states for energy.
And El Paso learned its lesson after a 2011 storm knocked out its grid. They devoted the resources to winterize to serve the people. The rest of Texas, which intentionally kept its grids within state borders to avoid regulation, did not. Avoiding regulations, they did not invest in winterizing, and they were also able to make energy scarce, so companies could charge more and profit off the people.
Texas, outside of El Paso, in seeking dis-unity, separation from the federal government, exhibited an ethos that was the opposite of mutual care. The people have suffered greatly.
It’s not hard to see that working cooperatively as a nation, which doesn’t mean agreeing politically but rather acknowledging people’s needs, can serve us all better.
In a small sentence, Biden made a huge point. Let’s serve people, not presidents or politics.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.
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