During his inaugural address, Joe Biden returned to the central theme of his campaign, the message that earned him millions more votes than any other presidential candidate in history: unity. In his speech, Biden invoked the word no fewer than eight separate times. “With unity,” he said, “we can do great things. Important things.”
Just as notable, there was one phrase Biden didn’t utter even once: bipartisanship. It’s easy to conflate the two, and Republicans have done so in bad faith, seeking to weaponize Biden’s own mantra against him. But there’s a very good reason why Biden has emphasized “unity” rather than “bipartisanship”—it’s because the two words mean very different things.
So what exactly does unity mean? Biden and his team have defined it very simply: It’s the act of coming together to do what the American people want. In this way, it lays out a future guided not by whatever the largest number of politicians are able to agree on, but instead by the desires of the people those politicians were elected to represent. It reroots our democracy in the very soil that gives it life in the first place.
It’s no surprise that Republicans resent this. Biden’s priorities are very popular, while to the extent Republicans even have any sort of affirmative agenda, their proposals are anything but. This is why they don’t want to see Biden succeed, lest a president who passes popular initiatives grow more popular still.
To prevent such an outcome, Republicans are pretending that unity is indeed an interchangeable synonym for bipartisanship and using it as a bludgeon to cow Democrats. By demanding that Biden only pass legislation acceptable to them, only the most watered-down measures could ever become law. More likely, nothing ever would. If Democrats were so weak-willed as to be fooled by this bullying, it would leave the party with no accomplishments to show to voters in two or four years’ time—precisely what Republicans dream of.
But today’s Democrats, Joe Biden included, are far tougher and savvier than their easily intimidated forebears. They know precisely what game Republicans want to play and refuse to participate. As White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki noted, if Republicans want bills to pass with bipartisan support, then they can vote in favor of what Democrats are proposing. Republicans have agency, after all. Democrats are not the only party with the power to make bipartisanship happen.
Of course, Republicans won’t do any such thing. They’d rather falsely complain that Biden isn’t living up to his campaign promises. Such claims have gotten some traction in the traditional press and probably will continue to do so. But incomparably more important for Democrats is that they succeed in bringing about the change voters elected them to achieve. Those are the only campaign promises that matter, and if Democrats can live up to those, then they’ll also stay true to the true meaning of unity.