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Each time a president delivers a State of the Union speech, it’s always interesting to watch how different political echo chambers react. The same speech is often cast as a great accomplishment or an embarrassing misfire depending on the TV station, publication or politician reacting to it, almost as if people were watching different speeches.
Turn on Fox News or listen to a conservative pundit, and you might hear that Tuesday night’s speech was a rambling list of government handouts and misinformation. Listen to MSNBC or a liberal talking head, and you might hear that President Joe Biden skillfully delivered a bold vision for the country.
You might hear about Biden fumbling over his words several times, or the shameful way some Republican members of Congress heckled and shouted from their seats. Or how Biden took undeserved credit for deficit reduction, or masterfully got the entire chamber to commit to protecting Social Security and Medicare.
Our attention, however, was drawn to a different part of the speech. In what is likely a reflection of our own biases, we were struck instead by Biden’s notes of bipartisan collaboration. We hope it is an indication that some agreement and action will still be possible in a divided government.
Near the beginning of his lengthy remarks, Biden referenced several bipartisan successes in the previous Congress.
“Yes, we disagreed plenty. And yes, there were times when Democrats had to go it alone.
But time and again, Democrats and Republicans came together,” Biden said. “Came together to defend a stronger and safer Europe. Came together to pass a once-in-a-generation infrastructure law, building bridges to connect our nation and people. Came together to pass one of the most significant laws ever, helping veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.”
In his first two years in office, Biden has not always taken the more bipartisan path we would have hoped. The early decision to not more fully engage Republicans in negotiations leading up to the American Rescue Plan Act is one example. But he and consensus-minded lawmakers from both parties have proven repeatedly that working together and compromise can be the best — if not only — way to deliver results on certain issues in a closely divided Congress.
“In fact, I signed over 300 bipartisan laws since becoming president. From reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, to the Electoral Count Reform Act, to the Respect for Marriage Act that protects the right to marry the person you love,” Biden added. “To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress.”
If Democrats in the House and Senate had solely pursued their own preferred version of election reform, it is likely nothing would have been accomplished to update and better safeguard the antiquated Electoral Count Act. The Respect for Marriage Act does not go as far as many Democrats would like to in terms of a guaranteeing marriage equality nationwide, but it does shield same-sex and interracial marriages should the courts roll back current rights. The infrastructure funding in the bipartisan deal wasn’t as much or as broadly applied as many Democrats hoped for, but it has already proven to be better than no funding at all.
You may notice that members of the Maine congressional delegation were significantly involved in many of these bipartisan victories. Sen. Susan Collins was a frequent, often leading, Republican voice in these productive efforts.
As Biden referenced, negotiation and compromise also made a long-elusive agreement on significant gun reform possible last Congress. That same approach is needed on police reform.
The calculus of this Congress is different with Republicans now in control of the House, surely. But hopefully well-negotiated victories like the ones Biden outlined Tuesday night will still be possible.
It was encouraging for Biden, at least in parts of his speech, to embrace dealmaking over division. That is when he and this country are at their best.