Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a senior CNN political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
It was a small footnote to the reporting leading up the change of power in Washington that suggested a larger meaning: President-elect Biden had invited the four top congressional leaders, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, to join him at a church service before Wednesday’s Inauguration.
Bipartisan prayer services are customary before Inaugurations, but these are no ordinary times, and this is no ordinary Inauguration, as President Donald Trump’s absence will reflect. Still, I found Biden’s reported outreach to McConnell noteworthy and revealing.
It’s not that McConnell, whose relentless opposition to President Barack Obama’s agenda infuriated Democrats, is going to suddenly submit to Biden’s. Though the two are friends and former Senate colleagues, McConnell’s focus has always been on power. For the Kentuckian, whose tenure as majority leader will end Wednesday, the priority will be to elect more Republicans and regain that perch in next year’s midterms. He’s not sentimental. Friendship has its place. Cooperation will have its limits.
But the meaning of the moment shouldn’t be dismissed.
After making unity the mantra of his campaign and transition, Biden thoroughly understands the symbolic value of his invitation to McConnell and the other leaders. In a post-Trump era, it marks a small but valuable rite of civility that should not be lost on a country riven by division. More than that, it reflects Biden’s understanding that while bipartisanship in a deeply divided country will be hard to come by, relationships are important.
Biden’s past friendships with Republican colleagues and refusal to give up on them were held up by some in the Democratic primaries last year as hopeless nostalgia, naiveté or worse. But the promise to try to work across the aisle is seen as a strength by a majority of Americans who are hungering for more civility and cooperation after Trump’s scorched earth presidency.
With 36 years in the Senate, Biden as vice president was a useful emissary to Capitol Hill for Obama, a relative newcomer who had fewer deep friendships there.
I recall listening to McConnell’s opening comments to Obama during the President’s first private meeting at the White House with the Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. “A lot of us don’t think you should be here, but you won and we’re prepared to work with you,” he told the President, a Black man two decades his junior, who had spent relatively few years in the Senate.
It’s unclear whether any amount of wooing would have changed the history of that relationship or the hardening partisan divides in Washington. Resistance became the stratagem of choice for McConnell. So it often fell to Biden, at key moments, to negotiate for the administration. Biden is proudly, unapologetically a politician who enjoys the company of other politicians. And as a veteran of six terms in the Senate, he’s had plenty of practice haggling with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to achieve progress.
None of this necessarily portends a new season of cooperation in Washington.
Biden will take his oath inside of a militarized green zone surrounding a besieged Capitol, where 147 Republicans, including eight senators, were so fearful of their Trump-torqued base that they voted to overturn the certified election results of two states. There will inevitably be clashes over genuine differences and the relentless pounding by forces of division and disinformation, intent on halting progress.
But with 400,000 dead in a still raging pandemic and 10 million or more out of work, maybe, just maybe, Biden’s approach will produce surprising results.
That is something for which we should all hope and pray as Biden and McConnell share devotions before the demanding work of rebuilding our country begins.