Political Animal

A Great Speech

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. committed himself today to ending the country’s divisions. He chose to make that goal the commanding theme of his inaugural address: “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.”

Biden’s commitment to ending this “uncivil war,” to uniting the country, is surely headed to the history books. He gave that two-word phrase to the headline writers but also to those who will record this day for posterity.

Most important, he gave it to the pundits. Bringing the country together is now the scoreboard on which his first weeks in office will be judged.

So, can he really do it? Can he bring together a people split roughly down the middle between right and left? Can he end the spirit of conflict that has driven our national conversation and now divides both houses of Congress?

This is what is so striking about today’s inaugural address, how sharply Biden has defined the terms of how he should be judged starting Thursday morning.

Have you ever heard a new president compare his commitment to a single goal – in this case, national unity – to the degree Abraham Lincoln tied his legacy to the Emancipation Proclamation?

This is literally what Joe Biden did. First, he quoted Lincoln’s words of enduring fidelity to his decision to free the slaves in the Confederate states: “If my name ever goes down into history, it’ll be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”

Biden then matched Lincoln’s words with his own: “My whole soul is in it today. On this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause.”

This is a heroic statement. Think of how it separates Biden in tone, language, and purpose from so many politicians of the day. Most of them, right and left both, think and speak in the metaphor of war. They promise their sides to “fight” for their causes and “never stop fighting.”

They often do it with a closed fist.

Biden today offered himself more as a referee than a pugilist. Associating himself with St. Augustine, Lincoln, and Pope Francis, he promised to serve the people who voted against him with the same fidelity as he shows those who brought him to the presidency.

Let’s assume he means it. If so, Joe Biden is promising to do something Donald Trump never thought of doing–defining his role as this country’s head of state, the leader who speaks to and for all the American people.

What does it say about our new, 46th president that he would make such a grand commitment?

My hunch is he really believes in the cause. Also, he wanted to give a speech with enough clarity and punch to match the one he heard as an 18-year-old.

Without borrowing a single word, there was a cadence in Biden’s speech today that echoed John F. Kennedy’s address 60 years ago.

 JFK: “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom,” John F. Kennedy began his address.”

JRB: “Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause, the cause of democracy.”

Two factors made Biden’s speech a great one for the history books. One, it was like Kennedy’s, singular and monumental in purpose. Two, it was a profile in courage. This country has needed for too long a true national leader as president, someone willing to carry the burden of national unity.

Now we have one.

The Attacks on Biden’s Civil Rights Division Nominee Have Already Started

On January 6, the fateful day that insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, President-elect Joe Biden announced his nominees to lead the Department of Justice. That is perhaps why the news of those nominees hasn’t gotten the attention they usually garner. 

But that was also the day we learned that Democrats won the two Georgia run-off elections, giving them a bare majority in the Senate. Perhaps the timing was simply a coincidence, but Biden’s nominee to be the next attorney general, Merrick Garland, will finally get the hearings—and probable confirmation—he was denied when former President Barack Obama nominated him for the Supreme Court. While Garland might not have been the first choice for that position by many liberals, there is a sense that justice will be served.

Nowhere in the federal government will the task of rebuilding after Trump’s presidency be more urgent than at the Department of Justice. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions worked tirelessly to decimate everything accomplished by the Obama administration, while William Barr politicized the department by using it to defend Trump and his associates. 

Garland has a massive task ahead of him. But Biden also announced the three leaders who will join him in those efforts—all women. 

Lisa Monaco has been nominated to be Deputy Attorney General, the position previously held by Rod Rosenstein. After being a career prosecutor at DOJ, Monaco served as Assistant Attorney General for National Security and as White House Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor in the Obama administration. Of particular note is that she created the first nationwide network of national security cyber prosecutors.

Vanita Gupta has been nominated to be Associate Attorney General. From 2014-2017, she served as acting director of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. I profiled Gupta during that time. She currently serves as President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Kristen Clarke has been nominated to be the director of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. As a prosecutor in that division, she handled hate crimes, human trafficking, police misconduct, voting rights, and redistricting cases. Clarke currently serves as president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

These three choices tell us a lot about Biden’s priorities for the Department of Justice. While all three women have demonstrated competence and experience, two of them have dedicated their entire careers to fighting for civil rights. 

Fox News personality Tucker Carlson didn’t waste any time going after Clarke. That will come as no surprise to the Biden team or Clarke because attacking the person Democrats nominate to run the Civil Rights Division—which former Attorney General Eric Holder called “the crown jewel of the Justice Department”—has become a time-honored tradition on the right. President Bill Clinton’s nominee, Lani Guinier, was attacked for writings that were deemed to be too radical, and Obama’s nominee, Debo Adegbile, was smeared for being part of a team that filed an appeal to the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer.

So why have Republicans been so intent on attacking Democratic nominees to run the Civil Rights Division at DOJ? It was created in 1957, under Dwight Eisenhower, and assigned the task of enforcing federal statutes prohibiting discrimination based on race, disability, religion, and national origin. It has become the battleground for issues such as voting rights, prosecution of police brutality, and defense of affirmative action. Here is how Clarke identified the task before her.

Under Republican administrations since Reagan, that work has been undermined. Ari Berman documented what happened in the 1980s.

The Reagan administration had already embarked on a radical makeover of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, which enforced the VRA. The assistant attorney general for civil rights, William Bradford Reynolds, believed that “government-imposed discrimination” had created “a kind of racial spoils system in America” favoring historically disadvantaged minorities over whites, an argument that no head of the Civil Rights Division had ever made before. During Reynolds’ tenure ending busing became more important than desegregating schools, dismantling quotas became more important than integrating the workforce or academia and preventing proportional representation became more important than achieving a multiracial government.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, the Civil Rights Division not only faced charges of corruption, but the focus also changed from promoting voting rights to voter suppression via allegations of fraud. Here is what Joseph Rich, former head of the Voting Rights Section, wrote about that:

It has notably shirked its legal responsibility to protect voting rights. From 2001 to 2006, no voting discrimination cases were brought on behalf of African American or Native American voters. U.S. attorneys were told instead to give priority to voter fraud cases, which, when coupled with the strong support for voter ID laws, indicated an intent to depress voter turnout in minority and poor communities.

Of course, lies about voter fraud have been a staple of the Trump administration. But another story that got lost amidst all of the focus on the Georgia Senate run-off elections and the insurrection at the Capitol is that Trump’s DOJ is seeking to undermine the basis for prosecuting cases of discrimination. 

The Justice Department has submitted for White House approval a change to how it enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating based on race, color or national origin. The regulation covers housing programs, employers, schools, hospitals, and other organizations and programs.

Under the change, the department would continue to narrowly enforce the law’s protections in cases where it could prove intentional discrimination, but no longer in instances where a policy or practice at issue had a “disparate impact” on minority or other groups.

Eliminating disparate impact as a standard would mean that defendants must prove that they have been victims of an intent to discriminate, something that would make cases of systemic racism impossible to prove.

Carlson had to go back to Clarke’s days as a Harvard student in the mid-1990s to find material to attack her. For example, as president of the Black Students Association, she had invited an antisemitic speaker to an event on racism. Clarke has admitted that was a mistake and apologized. Several groups—including the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and the American Jewish Congress—have stepped up to defend her against Carlson’s attacks. Here is part of a Twitter thread from Bend the Arc: Jewish Action:

The second attack Carlson waged against Clarke has to do with a letter she wrote to the Harvard Crimson in 1994 touting “the genetic differences between Blacks and whites” and explaining that “melanin endows Blacks with greater mental, physical and spiritual abilities.” At the time, views touted by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in the book The Bell Curve were being used to question the intellectual ability of Black students. Clarke explained that she was attempting “to express an equally absurd point of view — fighting one ridiculous absurd racist theory with another ridiculous absurd theory.” That might not have been a wise strategy, but of course, Carlson didn’t want his viewers to know the truth about the context of her remarks.

Republicans don’t support the enforcement of civil rights laws. That is why Clarke has become the latest target of a smear campaign that is only likely to grow as she faces confirmation. But make no mistake, Biden has nominated a team that will do all that is necessary to restore the ideal of equal justice under the law.

The Only Path to Real Unity

In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden declared that the moment “requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy — unity.” Elusive is right, even in the best of times. Most discussion about whether Biden can pull the nation together focuses on tactical questions like whether he can get this Republican Senator or that to co-sponsor a bill.

But to achieve unity, he needs policies that advance this purpose — and that points to one idea: national service. Biden must become the National Service President. Specifically, that means a massive expansion of AmeriCorps and other service programs that put Americans in full-time problem-solving public service jobs for a defined tour of duty.   

AmeriCorps has had a strange political history. Some Republicans in Congress (and more recently the Trump White House) have tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the domestic service program almost every year since its creation in 1994. Lately, the budget attacks have become ritualistic—like their hearts aren’t quite in killing the program now that it has one million alumni and strong support from Republican officeholders outside of Washington.

But, in truth, national service advocates never quite got what they wanted from Bill Clinton, who created AmeriCorps, and Barack Obama, who strongly supported it. They were big fans of AmeriCorps which enables about 75,000 Americans each year to work in community service organizations. Yet neither the Clinton nor the Obama administrations ever used national service as a major weapon in their policy arsenal, a cross-cutting strategy that can be used to solve a variety of problems. Quick: what was AmeriCorps’ role in providing more affordable care under Obamacare? You can’t say because no major Obama speech about the Affordable Care Act proposed or described a major role for AmeriCorps, even though strong local AmeriCorps programs promoted public health. He also didn’t deploy AmeriCorps to help employ young people amidst a massive crisis of youth unemployment.

This needs to change. National service needs to stop being a nice, minor-but-worthy program closeted away in the appendix of the budget. It must become central to how we solve problems — because it is the only approach that can, to use the flowery aspirational language of inaugurals, heal both bodies and souls. Strangely, Biden might be the one to do it. I say strangely because he did not campaign on expanding AmeriCorps. While he talks movingly about military service, including the sacrifices made by his late son, Beau, the 78-year-old hardly ever talks about civilian service. 

But the crises that Biden outlined practically demand a massive national service effort. First, as a practical matter, a dramatically expanded AmeriCorps would be invaluable to a nation recovering from COVID-19. Imagine a crew of AmeriCorps corps members managing hundreds of volunteers at sports stadiums that are mega-vaccination centers or staffing the mobile vans that will surely be needed to bring services to hesitant or low-income communities. (Many AmeriCorps members already help community-based public health programs). AmeriCorps could run an intensive summer program designed to get school kids back on track with their learning. (Many AmeriCorps programs already focus on helping young people improve reading and other skills).

AmeriCorps can also provide jobs and financial help to young adults who have been devastated by the economic crisis (the youth unemployment rate is 12.5 percent). Its members earn stipends and about $6,000 in scholarship aid for each year of service they do.

Most important, national service is one of the few strategies that could unify Americans (as opposed to warring tribes in Congress) and help achieve this especially elusive Biden goal: “Let’s begin to listen to one another again. Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another.”

Well-constructed, civilian national service programs can replicate what military service has often done: bringing people of different backgrounds together around an important mission. Those in civilian service programs are not having rap sessions; they’re putting on gloves, grabbing shovels, and working to help a town that’s been hit by flooding.

In truth, not all AmeriCorps programs bridge divides. Some do worthy work but draw relatively homogeneous batches of blue state idealists. Biden should make bridge-building an explicit goal – national service to help heal the nation, Trump and Biden voters working side by side. Both would benefit from becoming comrades in arms. Indeed, to really put a Biden twist on the strategy, he could emphasize service programs in which military veterans, soldiers, and civilians serve side by side

Beyond the compelling need, there are reasons to think the Biden administration could go big. Whether he intended to or not, Biden has staffed his administration with dozens of national service boosters.

Bruce Reed, the deputy chief of staff, has been a prominent national service advocate since the 1980s when he was one of the architects of Bill Clinton’s campaign proposal. 

Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, has supported mandatory national service. “The reason I think service is so important,” she said last year, “is not only is it creating economic opportunity in training and skills for those who may not otherwise have them, but most importantly, it’s teaching us to understand and to know each other as Americans across different geographic, racial, socioeconomic lines, as part of one nation and one community.”

Pete Buttigieg, the would-be secretary of transportation, proposed an ambitious national service plan during the campaign, increasing the number of AmeriCorps positions from 75,000 to 250,000.

Avril Haines, the new Director of National Intelligence, served on the Congressionally-created National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, which declared, “With significant growth in the number and kinds of service opportunities, a service year will become a new rite of passage to adulthood.’’

Perhaps most important, Joe Biden’s closest friend in the U.S. Senate is Chris Coons of Delaware, the number one Congressional champion of national service. In fact, last year Coons proposed a new bill that would increase the size of AmeriCorps to 300,000 and has attracted significant Republican support in the chamber, including from Lindsey Graham, John Cornyn, Marco Rubio, Roger Wicker, and Susan Collins (Oh, and one of the nine primary Democratic co-sponsors was Kamala Harris).

But there is already one warning sign that the Biden administration might make the same mistake as Obama – viewing AmeriCorps as a lovely program but not a way to achieve significant policy priorities. Biden’s recently released COVID plan proposes $1.9 trillion worth of activity but does not mention AmeriCorps (which costs a mere $420 million).

That’s crazy. AmeriCorps should be an essential part of the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 recovery plan. And almost every department of the government should ask how national service might help achieve their goals. Javier Becerra, the prospective Secretary of Health and Human Services, should ask how we can support nurses or doctors who choose to work in nursing care in low-income communities. Secretary of State Antony Blinken should ask how can a revitalized Peace Corps help America repair its image by helping developing nations succeed. Denis McDonough, nominated to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs, should consider how vets can be better served and, more importantly, continue their own service

There should be enough national service positions so that every American who wants to serve can. And the administration should then use these public servants to help solve America’s most urgent problems. No previous President has done that. In addition to dedicating substantially more money for AmeriCorps and other service programs, the administration should appoint a senior White House advisor on national service – to make sure national service is represented in all policy discussions — and someone of serious stature to run AmeriCorps.

The new administration will be tempted to view national service as a worthwhile but second-tier initiative that can be delayed. That’s backward. National service is one of the most effective ways to tackle these crises. Biden would help himself politically by delivering not only on his concrete promises — more shots, more jobs. But realistically, he is unlikely to get Republican and Democratic members of Congress to hold hands on very much. But through national service, he might make progress on the hardest problem of all: making Americans demonize each other less. “If we do this,” Biden said, “then when our days are through, our children and our children’s children will say of us, they gave their best, they did their duty, they healed a broken land.”

Advice to Team Biden: Delete Your Twitter Accounts

This past week has been like no other in American politics. Despite the violence, a historic impeachment, the militarization of the nation’s capital to prepare for a presidential inauguration, there is an eerie calm. It’s because Donald Trump is off Twitter. Of course, these events generated terabytes of hot takes, memes, retweets, and arguments. But the temperature has cooled. There’s no bully at the bully pulpit. No longer can Trump stoke 88 million followers, drive a news cycle, or redirect attention away from a scandal. According to social media monitoring service Zignal Labs, online misinformation about election fraud is down 73 percent. And it feels, dare I say, refreshing. Whether Trump should be “deplatformed” from Twitter and other sites raises serious questions about free speech and the few billionaires who control the biggest social media platforms. Put these matters aside. Now that the @realDonaldTrump experience is over, it’s time to recognize that the President of the United States — or any government official — should not have his or her finger on the Tweet button. It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for democracy. If there is a lesson for the incoming Biden team, it’s that when it comes to 280-character missives, just say no.

At its best, Twitter is like the best after-work bar you can imagine — without the booze. In one place, you have a curated group of people interested in chatting about exactly what you find interesting. It becomes familiar, and over time, you get to “know” people you may rarely see or have never met. In my slice of the Twitterverse, I know who cares about my favorite football team (CNN’s Jake Tapper and Congressman Brendan Boyle, to name two ) and who shares my interest in urban development (venture capital investor Kim-Mai Cutler). Like your local bar, Twitter is a place where everyone knows your name — but it’s open all the time.

For a President, though, it’s not about hanging out virtually with online friends and acquaintances; Twitter is a way to send messages directly to the American people without the filter of the media.

In most cases, this is a good thing, but in the hands of someone like Trump, with no compunction about lying or egging on violence, Twitter doesn’t inform. It’s a way to misinform, incite, and inflame. Add in the ability of fervid supporters to automate retweets (the way information gets shared on Twitter), then any message sent by the President can spread among supporters almost instantaneously. Indeed, a Cornell University study of COVID-19 misinformation during the pandemic’s first months found that Trump was “likely the largest driver” of this “infodemic.” And thanks to the campaign by Trump to propagate the false idea that he won, 66 percent of Republicans in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll say that there is solid evidence of widespread voter fraud. That’s in contrast to the  66 percent of all those polled who say there is no evidence of fraud.

Hopefully, there are few public officials with the megalomaniacal tendencies and compromised ethics of Trump. But even for them, Twitter is designed in a way to reward communication that does not strengthen civil society. Not only is it hard to convey a complex point in 280 characters, the platform rewards scoring points through sarcasm and mockery, confrontation, and controversy. The more partisan you are, the more you are liked and retweeted.  Now more than ever, these are traits we do not need from our leaders.

Perhaps more damaging is that the more time an official spends on Twitter, the more she is exposed to a distorted view of what her constituents actually want because the Twitterverse is anything but representative of the nation.

Democrats on the platform, for instance, are younger, whiter, more educated, more male, and more liberal than the rest of the party. Unsurprisingly, according to a study of Democrats online from last year by Third Way, Twitter Democrats also were more concerned with social issues such as abolishing ICE (64 percent support versus 29 percent of all Democratic primary voters) than with kitchen-table issues such as reducing the cost of health care (24 percent support to 43 percent) — and Twitter Democrats are 24 percentage points more likely to call themselves Democratic Socialists. Another study of the Democratic electorate, by the nonpartisan Hidden Tribes project, had similar findings: only 11 percent of online Democrats are African American compared to 24 percent of Democrats in the real world, and 53 percent of Democrats on social media said they have become more liberal over their lifetimes; only 30 percent of offline Democrats said the same.

Thankfully, Joe Biden ignores Twitter. Even though his staff is arguing with the company to have the followers of @POTUS transfer to Biden just as they did from Obama to Trump and everyone from the Chief of Staff to the incoming Second Gentleman have accounts, Biden does not actually tweet. When his staff does on his behalf, it’s usually mercifully non-controversial– urging people to wear a mask or praising his latest nominees.

Indeed, the Biden campaign’s central strategy from before the primaries to Election Day was to ignore Twitter. As one Biden campaign aide explained to CBS News’ Ed O’Keefe on election night about how they won: “It’s very simple. We turned off Twitter. We stayed away from it. We knew that the country was in a different headspace than social media would suggest.”

The Biden Administration — every Cabinet member and senior official — should follow the President-elect’s lead here and turn off Twitter. Take it off your phone. Block it on your laptop. Rely on your communications’ staff to tell you when there’s breaking news. That delay may actually lead to a better response. Put into perspective what a Twitter firestorm about your latest initiative actually means in the real world —almost always, nothing. Ignore it. So, too, the incoming administration should follow Biden’s lead and make Twitter boring again.