When John F Kennedy gave the commencement address at the American University in June of 1963, he spoke to a world bitterly divided between east and west, a world still recovering from the tensions of the Cuban missile crisis. He knew that America had won a battle, at least in propaganda terms, but he also knew that total victory was impossible.
In many ways American today stands at a similar crossroads. American politics is bitterly divided and Joe Biden’s ascent to the Presidency represents a victory for liberals. But the Conservative forces which helped elect Donald Trump just four years ago have not disappeared.
At times like these, a simple choice must be made. Collaboration and coexistence, or division and discord. John F Kennedy chose the former. He challenged Americans to reexamine their attitude towards the Soviet Union, not to be blind to their differences, but to direct attention towards the means by which those differences could be resolved. He began a new era of peaceful coexistence that would last into the late 1970s. Nuclear weapons were limited, some differences resolved, and the world was made a safer place.
Now, I am not comparing Joe Biden to John F Kennedy, or American conservatives to the Soviet Union, or America in 2021 to the world of 1963. I am simply using this example to illustrate the choice the Biden administration faces. He can seek to put America back on the path towards national unity, by restoring a more bipartisan government, ignoring the more extreme voices in the democratic party, and above all, by reaching out to conservatives. Joe Biden in many ways is well equipped to do this, he is a likeable moderate who has a history of working with republicans throughout his career.
But right now he seems to be opting for a different path. While he stressed the need for unity in his inaugural address, he also argued that America was divided between, on one side, those who stood for equality, and the other, racists. While he may not have meant it, it was understandably interpreted by many conservatives as though he was accusing them of racism. His Presidential Commission is actively looking at proposals such as adding further justices to the supreme court and setting term limits. This suggests a desire not to work with conservative forces within America, but to ignore them.
Rather than engaging in bipartisanship, the Biden administration has sought to use its meagre majorities in both houses of Congress to pass legislation supported only by the democrats. His $1.9tn stimulus package did not win the support of a single republican in either the house or the senate.
I am not arguing that Joe Biden should abandon all his campaign promises, or that the Republican party in congress is lining up to work with him. But if he truly wishes to unify the country, if he truly wishes to build a new era free from the divisions of the past, as he claimed in his inauguration speech, then he must do more to reach out.
One of the most unpleasant aspects of modern politics, across the western world, is the suggestions that one’s political choices are reflective of moral character. Joe Biden must urgently seek to address this, by affirming clearly that he does not consider his political opponents, or their voters, to be racist, sexist, stupid, or bigoted in any way. He must make it clear to all sides that political differences between individuals are of little consequence.
John F Kennedy understood the value of coexistence and compromise. We should all hope that Joe Biden does too.