Joe Biden Needs to Quit Talking ‘Unity’ and Lead Instead

Unifying America again will take a lot more intentional leadership than Biden is showing.

President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural "unity" address during the 59th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021.

By Tom Gilson Published on February 12, 2021

He had just moved from Milwaukee to take a job in southern California, and he was telling me he was still committed to his friends back in Wisconsin. His statement intrigued me I wondered what that “commitment” meant to him, so I asked. He answered, “Well, it means I’m committed to them.” Apparently I’d asked the wrong way.

I tried clarifying the question. “But what does ‘committed’ mean in practice? Are you planning to talk with them on the phone every week? To fly back and see them once a year? Do you keep them gentle on your mind? What are you committed to do with your friends?”

He returned a puzzled look, and said, “When I say I’m committed to them, what I mean is, I’m committed to them.”

Does Unity Mean Being Kind to One Another?

Words need helpers; they die on their own. “Committed” means nothing without further content poured in. The same goes for “unity.” Politicians and celebrities keep telling us we need more “unity.” I agree. Being unified is good, just as being committed to friends is good. But what does it mean? What does unity do in practice?

Maybe it starts with being kind to one another. It’s a beginning, anyway, one we can all surely agree on. For a short while, until someone asks us, “Would you do the kind thing, please, and drive her to the abortion clinic?”

Or until someone does the kind thing and plows the snow in Virginia Heffernan’s driveway. She could have written a thank-you note; instead she delivered a very public tongue-lashing, comparing them to Nazis and to Hezbollah. So much for kindness bringing us all together.

Does It Mean “No More Donald Trump Dividing Us”?

Joe Biden campaigned on unity and decency, and for heaven’s sake, no more Trumpian divide in this country! So now at last Trump is gone, and thank God, we can finally forget about him. Put his racism behind us. His immigration policy. His extreme anti-science ways, and his corruption. Worst of all, his inciting insurrection! (We’ll just let the Senate deal with that one, and then it’ll be over.)

Yes, Trump is gone, and we can all be one big happy family again! But wait — what’s that you say? Some people still like Trump? No problem. We can all still move right on past him and be unified again. All of us! Come on! Why can’t we all agree on that? Why can’t we at least be kind to one another?

 If Trump was wrong to dream of greatness without unity, Biden is equally wrong to hope for unity without greatness.

Democrats’ version of unity means agreeing with Democrats. That’s a truism in their case, though I think it would be in Republicans’, too, except they don’t seem to toss around empty gestures toward “unity” as freely as Democrats do. Neither party has put forth a realistic way to recover our country’s rapidly receding connectedness.

Can We Find It In the Truth of Our Country’s Story?

I’d like to say we could find it where Ronald Reagan found it, in the true story of our founding, truth which must include both the good and the bad of it, but especially its unique goodness; for in spite of our very real failures, no other nation ever created conditions to allow for freedom the way ours did.

I’d like to say that’s our route to unity, but I can’t. It’s not realistic, not when so few Americans have anything good to say about Ronald Reagan, and so many have nothing good to say about our country’s story. There’s way too little agreement even on the truth of our story.

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Truth. There’s another one of those words. Couldn’t we at least unify around a principle of being committed to truth? For a fleeting moment while writing this I thought that might be possible, but no, I have to give that up, too, though. It’s not just the time-honored principle of political prevarication that makes it hard. It’s that many today would say the word “truth” is just as empty as “committed” or “unity.” Today’s left has largely bought into an academic theory that says truth is never the point, in fact, truth claims are merely linguistic power plays. Language itself has little purpose but power-positioning, they say.

Naive Foolishness, Manipulative Posturing

Unity is hard. Politicians on the left speak of it blithely, as if it’s a simple thing, a bare political minimum; as if any leader ought to be able to achieve at least that little bit for our nation, and Trump’s failure to do so just shows how wretchedly incompetent he was.

This is either naive foolishness or manipulative posturing, however. More likely it’s both. Best I can tell, Joe Biden’s approach to healing focuses on some kind of hoped-for return to decency and kindness (naive foolishness at its best), along with doing things his way instead of Donald Trump’s (manipulative posturing at its worst). It will fail. Surely he knows that, doesn’t he? It’s a pretense. It cheapens the word.

Quit Talking and Lead Instead

Our divisions run deep, far deeper than anyone can easily repair, certainly much deeper than Joe Biden has acknowledged. We will not re-unite — there is literally no hope for it, I’m afraid — unless and until some master statesman leads us back to agreement not just on surface niceness but on deep common principles.

If Trump was wrong to dream of greatness without unity, Biden is equally wrong to hope for unity without greatness. It’s going to take a lot more intentional leadership than he’s showing. More capable, too. Much as I’m in favor of unity, I’d rather he’d quit talking about it altogether, as long as he’s pretending to pursue it the way he is. I’d much rather he’d actually lead us toward unity instead.

Does he have what it takes? Does anybody? He’s our president, so whether he’s up to it or not, it’s his responsibility to try. And I’d much rather he’d try and fail, than keep on pretending he’s trying.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the recently released Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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