WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden seeks to fulfill his urgent plea for unity, he will confront a dissonance between the two parties' definitions of the word and is likely to be forced to choose between fighting for a bold agenda and forging bipartisan agreements.
Republican leaders have pitched a vision of unity in which Biden refrains from actions that antagonize their base of voters, who, polls say, falsely doubt the legitimacy of his election, give former President Donald Trump high approval ratings and want their leaders to resist Biden's agenda.
The tension was apparent Wednesday as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., welcomed Biden in the Capitol, saying, "Our task as leaders is to bind this nation's wounds." Two weeks ago, McCarthy voted with most House Republicans to block the counting of state-certified electoral votes for Biden after a violent mob incited by Trump ransacked the Capitol seeking to overturn the result.
Biden has pitched a progressive agenda that includes trillions of dollars in new investments and an overhaul of the country's health care and immigration systems. And with Republicans resistant to most of his platform, he has narrow Democratic majorities to work with and obstacles to overcome, such as filibuster power by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Dan Pfeiffer, who dealt with a similar dilemma as a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said Biden's obligation will be to "reach out to Republicans in Washington in good faith" but not to sacrifice progress for the sake of unity.
"Ultimately, if Mitch McConnell decides to be an obstructionist, that's on him, not Joe Biden," Pfeiffer said. "There will be a tendency among many press and pundits to condense Biden's promise to heal the soul of the nation into nothing more than appeasing congressional Republicans. Team Biden will need to push back against that dynamic and set expectations accordingly."
Biden takes office with high approval ratings for his post-election conduct and substantial political capital to steer his party. The direction he picks will carry high stakes for the lives of millions of Americans and for Democrats' prospects in his first midterm elections, when the party in power historically takes a beating.
Some Democrats believe the wiser path is moderation.
"The key is make sure we govern from more of a reasonable, more moderate place and show that we can work with Democrats and Republicans to get things done," Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., said in a recent interview. "If we demonstrate that, we'll be rewarded for it. If we spend the next two years fighting with each other and letting the far left of our party dictate our agenda, it'll be a very difficult couple years ahead."
Biden's inauguration on a chilly day came at a time of daunting challenges, most notably a raging pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 people in the U.S. and crippled the economy. He took the oath on the West Front of a Capitol that was overrun two weeks ago by a pro-Trump mob.
"For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury, no progress, only exhausting outrage, no nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge. And unity is the path forward," Biden said. "Hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion."
It's far from clear that Biden's pleas for unity will soften an opposition party answerable to a base of voters who, polls say, want their leaders to fight him.
A poll by the Pew Research Center taken this month captures the asymmetry. Democrats said by a 25-point margin that Biden should work with Republicans to accomplish things, even if it means disappointing some of his voters. But Republicans said the opposite: By a 21-point margin, they said GOP leaders should "stand up to Biden" on big issues even if that makes it harder to tackle critical problems.
"Republicans are saying, 'We can't do anything with you if you're radioactive with our base, so please don't say anything that makes you radioactive to our base,'" said Republican consultant Michael Steel, a former House leadership aide.
Some Republicans are calling on Biden and Senate Democrats, in the name of unity, to dismiss the House-approved article of impeachment charging Trump with inciting insurrection.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a letter this week to incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that holding an impeachment trial would be "an act of political vengeance," and he warned that it "will incite further division."
But Schumer made it clear Tuesday that the trial will occur.
"All of us want to put this awful chapter in our nation's history behind us," he said. "But healing and unity will only come if there is truth and accountability, not sweeping such a severe charge and awful actions under the rug."