Meanwhile, here in the world of good-faith debate, let’s suggest another standard for judging this question: Is Biden’s policy agenda shaping up as a unifying one?
In one important sense, it is. Embedded in some of Biden’s first big moves are policies that constitute major outreach to the parts of the country that elected Donald Trump president in 2016 and overwhelmingly supported his reelection.
This does not mean those policies are guaranteed to succeed in delivering for those areas. But it does suggest another way to judge both the “unity” question and Biden’s policies. Producing for those areas should show that in some sense, he’s genuinely trying to overcome some of our deep divisions and is acting with an eye toward restoring national purpose.
Case in point: Biden’s new national strategy for combating covid-19, perhaps his single most important agenda item, contains a major component for rural America. One of its key goals is to overcome inequities across not just racial and ethnic lines but also across “rural/urban” lines.
To do this, the strategy envisions a stepped-up effort to get vaccines into communities that are hard to reach, including rural ones. That means partnering the federal government with states and localities to pump more resources into rural health clinics. It also means mobile vaccination units that can reach rural areas.
And it entails recognizing the particular risks that rural Americans face from covid-19. As Biden’s plan notes, they have a higher concentration of certain factors — smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, lack of health insurance — that make them more vulnerable.
Bridging the urban-rural divide
Epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves says Biden’s plan is premised on a recognition of deep disparities in both health outcomes and public health infrastructure that already exist across urban-rural lines. Gonsalves describes these disparities as “pretty acute."
“The president is building on what we know already about the rural-urban divide,” Gonsalves told me. “If you’re going to vaccinate, test and provide support for people to isolate and social distance, you’re gonna have to address these health disparities.”
The pandemic “came down hard on rural communities that often have very little infrastructure,” Gonsalves continued. “We’re going to have to beef up that infrastructure.”
Success in this endeavor, Gonsalves says, would entail getting serious resources to already existing rural health clinics, getting more medical personnel into those areas, and improving supply chains to get medical equipment (such as tests, personal protective gear and vaccines) into them, among other things.
Doing these things could have a longer-lasting revitalizing effect in those areas, Gonsalves notes. “This is about paving the way for coming out better on the other side of the pandemic,” he told me.
Biden has also signed an executive order that calls for federal regulators to issue stronger workplace protection guidelines. Gonsalves says this will impact many meatpacking plants, where the epidemic spread among workers, and “many of them are in rural counties.”
On still another front, Biden has pledged to expand use of the Defense Production Act to corral the private sector into producing and distributing medical supplies. This would entail using what’s known as industrial policy to overcome regional disparities in equipment distribution.
That’s something generally supported by the new breed of conservative populists, who are trying to break from GOP plutocratic and anti-government ideology and come up with ways to employ government to revitalize stagnating non-metropolitan America.
Indeed, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) endorsed this Biden promise, noting that it could help begin to reverse the “hollowing out of America’s manufacturing.” So if Biden can succeed at this, it would constitute a trans-ideological success, and as such, should be seen as “unifying.”
“Rebuilding U.S. supply-chains and supporting American manufacturers could become an area of common cause between far-sighted Republicans and the Biden administration,” Samuel Hammond, a policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, told me, adding that this could “start healing the deeper economic divides in this country.”
A sharp break with Trumpism
As Jonathan Cohn reports, it’s becoming clear that Biden’s whole covid-19 agenda is geared in part around combating inequities of all kinds, and geography is a key one. It’s important to stress how sharp a break this is from one of his predecessor’s most wretched exercises in divisiveness.
Trump used the coronavirus crisis to stoke civil and regional conflict. He presided over disparities in distribution of badly needed equipment. He encouraged rebellion against blue-state governors’ public health measures. And he mused aloud about walling off parts of diseased blue America to protect virtuous red America from the pandemic.
In some ways, Biden simply cannot be “unifying” while also fulfilling his agenda. After all, his coalition supports many of the things he campaigned on, while Trump’s coalition presumably does not. So doing things like expanding legal immigration and rejoining international agreements will of necessity produce more discord and argument.
But when it comes to the pandemic, Biden is treating it as a problem afflicting all Americans — precisely the opposite of what Trump did. If he can succeed at that, surely that should count as an actual effort to bring the country together and repair a major wound that Trump inflicted.