“To restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words,” he said in his speech on Jan. 20. “It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity.”
He later clarified that this unity could take the form of passing legislation that had majority support from the public, an argument he used when promoting the pandemic relief bill that passed this spring. His obvious hope, though, was that passing popular legislation would muffle the fury of the opposition and restore a roll-up-your-sleeves era of bipartisanship.
Reader, that has not happened.
In part, that’s because there is a robust media ecosystem dedicated to leveraging that partisanship for attention and money. Just because Biden beat President Donald Trump in 2020 did not mean that he beat the media and political structures that nurtured and supported him. It has not been the case, for example, that right-wing media has taken a generous approach to Biden’s presidency. Since the network declared Biden the winner in November, Fox News’s pundits have not worked to critically analyze his policy proposals, as that would have taken time from talking about critical race theory.
On Monday, though, Fox News did have some news about Biden’s administration. A new poll from the network’s pollsters found that most Americans viewed the nation as having gotten less united since Biden took office, rather than more. That includes nearly 9-in-10 Republicans.
The poll results were highlighted on Fox News’s website (“Voters think the country is less united under Biden”) and in both of its morning shows on Monday. On “Fox & Friends First,” the hosts welcomed guest Carol Swain, who offered her assessment of the results after Fox showed a clip of MSNBC’s Chuck Todd criticizing Biden.
“You have people even on other networks wondering where this is going to go,” co-host Jillian Mele said. “What do you say?”
“Yes, we are more divided,” Swain said. “Blacks against Whites. The vaccinated against the unvaccinated. As well as rich against poor. They — I hate to say the Democratic Party because it’s not all Democrats but progressives, they use conflict theory and division as a way to advance a political agenda and I think most Americans are seeing this.” She added that “conditions have worsened under Biden” and said that Biden had “demonized Trump supporters.”
That, of course, is a pretty good encapsulation of how Fox News has covered the Biden administration from the outset.
It’s useful to note that Fox News posed a similar question in February 2020, asking Americans to review Trump’s tenure as president. Had Trump mostly succeeded or failed at unifying the country? Then, even fewer Americans said that Trump had been successful in that goal — one that he, too, had suggested was a desired outcome of his presidency. (Of course, Trump’s vision of unity was mostly demanding that everyone join in supporting him.) In February 2020, Republicans were much less likely to say that Trump had mostly succeeded in unifying the country than Democrats are to say Biden has at this point.
It’s certainly true that there was also an ecosystem of criticism of Trump over the course of his presidency, one centered explicitly on resistance to his agenda. And Fox News’s website ran a similar article about the findings then, under the headline “Voters say Trump succeeded on economy, but failed to unify US.” It does not appear, however, that the finding made it on air.
Again, though, the idea that a president can unify the country in this moment seems ambitious to the point of fantasy. The nature of presidential approval over the past decade or so has been that partisans feel very strongly about the president and independents tend to be skeptical. Fox New’s poll has Biden’s approval at 50 percent, higher than other recent polls and higher than Fox ever measured Trump. But that’s lower than Biden had been polling in Fox’s surveys, tracking with declines in other polls over the last two months.
We can use YouGov’s weekly polling for the Economist to show the slide. Below, you can see that there’s a wide gap in approval by Democrats and Republicans. You can also see that approval overall and specifically on the coronavirus pandemic began to drop after June 21, when case numbers started to explode with the arrival of the delta variant. Republican approval of Biden’s handling of the economy began before that.
This pattern was what Obama saw from 2010 on. It’s what Trump saw over his entire presidency. It’s what Biden sees now. Unity is a pipe dream in a country where views of the president are so sharply partisan, largely because that divide reflects broader political divides than views of the president.
In other words, asking whether the country is more unified is like asking if it is heading in the right direction; there will generally be some people who understand that question as a partisan trigger and help sour the results. It’s just more ironic to generate that result when asking about unity.
And so we get Fox News’s victory lap.
Swain was appearing as a guest on "Fox and Friends First."