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In a divided Washington, Biden has some paths to unity, Northeastern experts say

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20, 2021, as their children Ashley and Hunter watch. AP Photo by Andrew Harnik, Pool

President Joe Biden’s inaugural pledge to heal the country’s divisions and close the yawning gap between red and blue states is what the nation needs to hear, Northeastern faculty experts say, but he will likely face political headwinds early.

Biden’s actions and words can at least help stem further partisan rifts, they add.

Left, Daniel Urman, who teaches constitutional law, law and public policy, and the modern U.S. Supreme Court at Northeastern. Right, Costas Panagopoulos chairman of Northeastern’s Department of Political Science and an expert on voting behavior and political psychology. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

With a political honeymoon that faculty predict will be short, Biden can still score a few quick points by appointing a Republican to a senior role in his nascent administration, says Dan Urman, who teaches constitutional law, law and public policy, and the modern U.S. Supreme Court at Northeastern.

“Bill Clinton, reflecting on his presidency, said that he regretted not doing so in his initial cabinet,” he adds. Clinton later tapped a Republican U.S. Senator from Maine, Bill Cohen, to serve as defense secretary in his second term.

Biden has nominated fellow Democrats to his cabinet and other senior positions, but could create a White House role for a Republican.

As an olive branch to the 74 million voters who backed his predecessor, Donald Trump, Biden could also visit states that didn’t support him to show that they are being heard, Urman says.

“He is president of all Americans,” he adds. “They deserve Biden’s eyes, ears, and heart.”

A call for unity

Biden, moments after taking the presidential oath, called on Americans to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.”

But making inroads with the opposition could be a challenge. In a survey conducted in December by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers, 39 percent of Republicans maintained that Donald Trump had actually won the 2020 election.

And, in a break with tradition, Trump didn’t attend Biden’s swearing in, departing Washington earlier in the day for his private home in Florida. Trump became the first president to boycott his successor’s ceremony in more than 150 years.

“This makes it a challenging backdrop against which to pursue unity,” points out Costas Panagopoulos, chairman of Northeastern’s Department of Political Science and an expert on voting behavior and political psychology.

Biden opened his remarks with a nod to the three former presidents in attendance—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Jimmy Carter, the oldest living president at 96, did not attend due to pandemic-related health restrictions. He and his wife were at the Obama and Trump inaugurations. Biden said he spoke with Carter Tuesday evening.

Left, Wendy Parmet, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law at Northeastern. Northeastern File photo. Center, Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science. Right, Julie Garey. assistant teaching professor of political science. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Another political science professor, Nick Beauchamp, noted that while the new president’s remarks had a heavy emphasis on coming together, Biden also stressed the importance of following the truth and rejecting lies.

But a lack of shared facts will remain a barrier for some of Trump’s supporters, who have rejected mainstream media in favor of partisan news outlets that shared falsehoods about the election, Beauchamp says.

“How do you do unity if a significant portion of the country is fundamentally misinformed in a way that cannot be joined, only rejected?” Beauchamp says. “How do you unify with people who support the attack on the Capitol?”

“I’m sure Biden wants to unify with those people, but he needs to figure out how to achieve that while rejecting their beliefs,” he adds.

And in Congress, a reach-across-the-aisle approach has not worked for many presidents before, Beauchamp notes. Rather, he says, the hard work of progress has usually come in the form of winning congressional majorities to forward policies despite opposition.

“If ‘work’ means actually bringing concrete changes, the language of unity is unlikely to achieve more now than it ever has,” says Beauchamp.

First days in office

Biden won’t waste any time using the powers of the presidency to follow through on several campaign promises, without the need for Congressional approval. The president planned to enact a dozen executive actions on Inauguration Day alone, according to media reports.

They include rejoining the Paris climate accords; reversing a travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries; extending a pause on federal student loan payments; halting evictions and foreclosures; and requiring face masks on federal property as well as on interstate planes, trains and buses.

While most of the measures are a reversal of Trump’s policies and don’t require Congressional action, they are unlikely to ignite opposition from Trump’s base, Beauchamp says.

“The hope is that the popularity of these acts will bring more together than it repels, and that is likely to be true,” he predicts.

Biden is also expected to unveil a long-awaited immigration proposal that would provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. That measure would require Congressional approval, as would Biden’s recent proposal for $2 trillion in spending on COVID-19 vaccinations and an economic stimulus.

Both face uphill battles in a Congress narrowly controlled by Biden’s fellow Democrats.

Another immigration issue Biden might address is a Trump administration rule affecting lawfully present people who seek to become legal permanent residents, says Wendy Parmet, university distinguished professor of law and director of Northeastern’s Center for Health Policy and Law.

If the rule, known as the public charge, stays in place, she says, it could serve as a barrier to immigrants who hope to obtain legal permanent residence status on that path to citizenship

“The rule makes it very hard for people with low incomes, lack of health insurance, or significant health problems, to obtain a green card,” Parmet says. “If those on the path are required to satisfy the current rule, many will be unable to do so.”

She says the Biden administration’s plans to combat COVID-19—even as it warns that deaths in the United States could hit 500,000 by next month—signals that the pandemic will be a major priority and will produce a coordinated and aggressive federal response.

“That couldn’t come fast enough,” says Parmet.

Biden’s inaugural speech leaned heavily on domestic issues, faculty observed, but included a brief message to the world: “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”

Julie Garey, an assistant teaching professor of political science who specializes in international relations and U.S. foreign policy, says international engagement is high on Biden’s agenda for his first days in office. His actions include rejoining the World Health Organization and reinstating stricter environmental policies, she says.

It’s also likely Biden will move to reassure allies about America’s commitments to the United Nations and NATO, Garey adds.

Biden’s comments that the United States will lead “not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example” reflect a belief that other countries who seek beneficial relationships with the U.S. will be more likely to embrace similar policies—which in turn benefits America. The concept, Garey points out, is sometimes referred to as “soft power.”

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