Jen Psaki explains new normal in D.C.—Biden is president, and he’s a Democrat

Jen Psaki explains new normal in D.C.—Biden is president, and he’s a Democrat

In her second press briefing as White House press secretary, Jen Psaki was forced to explain a few basics about the new posture of the man now sitting in the Oval Office. Those basics included the fact that Joe Biden is a president who is demonstrating actual leadership in the White House, and he’s delivering on the campaign promises he made as a Democratic candidate.

It started with the fact that several members of the White House press corps are newly obsessed with a very narrow definition of “unity” that apparently requires President Biden to pull back from the agenda he ran on. Biden’s definition of unity clearly consists of Democratic and Republican lawmakers working together to solve the country’s daunting problems, not surrendering his agenda.

But Michael Shear of The New York Times, for instance, wondered why Biden wasn’t extending more olive branches (which he accidentally referred to as a “fig leaf”) to Republicans in the same way Barack Obama did at the outset of his administration. Shear mentioned that Biden didn’t have a GOP Cabinet member (like Obama’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates), that Biden’s first directives were “largely designed at erasing as much of the Trump legacy as you can with executive orders” (yeah, he ran on that), that Biden’s immigration bill prioritized a pathway to citizenship over tons of border security (yeah, he’s a Democrat), and that Biden’s COVID-19 relief proposal was “already drawing all sorts of criticism” (he ran on that too).

Before we get to Psaki’s answer, let’s take one moment to reflect on how many bipartisan wins Obama got in his first two years based on having reached out to Republicans: basically, zip. That’s what he got. Obama’s biggest achievement—the Affordable Care Act—passed through the Senate on a party-line vote and also attracted zero Republican votes in the House. So you can be sure that both Biden and Psaki, who worked in Obama’s press shop at the time, remember how Obama’s early overtures to Republicans panned out. Republicans returned the favor by very nearly blocking every single legislative priority Obama pushed forward.

Now back to Psaki, who noted that Shear’s question included a lot but said she would give it a go: “Is unemployment insurance an issue that only Democrats in the country want?” she asked. “Do only Democrats want their kids to go back to schools? Do only Democrats want vaccines to be distributed across the country? We feel that package—[Biden] feels that package—is designed for bipartisan support.” In other words, if GOP lawmakers are intent on abandoning their constituents in the middle of a pandemic, then there’s not much an olive branch can do about that.

Psaki went on to note that Biden had already logged some early bipartisan support in terms of moving some of his Cabinet nominees, including confirmation of Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence, the first female leader of the intelligence community.

But more broadly, Psaki said Republicans weren’t looking for something “symbolic,” but rather they’re “looking for engagement, they’re looking to have a conversation, they’re looking to have a dialogue. And that’s exactly what he’s going to do.”

Later, Psaki was asked whether the White House is drafting a coronavirus relief bill. She responded that Biden was more focused on outlining his priorities for such a bill. But after four long years of zero executive leadership from Trump, Psaki took a moment to refresh everyone on the normal process for pushing forward big priorities from the White House. 

“This is how the process should actually work. Right?” she offered. “The president outlines—here’s my vision, here’s what I think should be in the package. Let’s have discussions. Let’s have engagements with both parties and let’s see what comes out of the sausage-making on the other side.”

For all the civics lessons Americans endured during the Trump years, none of them included anything about presidential leadership. 

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