In his speech to both houses of Congress in late April, President Joe Biden made it clear he wants to serve as the aggregator-in-chief.
He called for Americans — including Republicans — to join with him in implementing a long list of national and international improvements. On the list were popular programs such as equal pay for women, pre-school for three and four-year-old children, two years free at community college, expanded help paying for childcare, and defending free trade from Chinese incursions in the Pacific Ocean region.
Consider the theory of aggregation and disaggregation. This theory describes the traditional roles played by American institutions such as the president, the Congress, the political parties, and the news media.
The presidency has typically been described as aggregating — that is bringing people and organizations together to find common ground and make effective policy decisions. Joining the presidency in aggregating support have been the political parties, which strive to bring party members together and unify them to win elections.
One of the things that made the Trump presidency different and unsettling to many voters was that it was disaggregating in nature when we usually expect aggregating. Trump’s many personal attacks and harsh policy preferences drove wedges between various groups in American society rather than bringing them together.
Trump even lodged such attacks against members of his own Republican Party, such as George W. Bush and U.S. senators Mitt Romney, John McCain, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker. This made Trump a disaggregator within his own political party as well as the nation.
Under this aggregation-disaggregation theory, the U.S. Congress is seen as disaggregating, yet this is understandable. Senators and House of Representatives members are elected from various parts of the country, and it is political reality that opinions differ from one section of the nation to another. Under normal conditions, we call on the president to use his aggregating powers to get legislation passed in a normally disaggregating Congress.
Aggregation-disaggregation theory also labels the news media as disaggregating. Many working politicians regard the news media as fight promoters. Their “breaking news” ethos is often about highlighting conflicts and partisan divides. Negative developments and political “fistfights” get disproportionate attention.
Yet disaggregation is mostly desirable in the case of the news media. Its job is to see that a wide range of conflicting ideas and opinions are presented to the American public for consideration.
The theory is easy to sum up: President and the political parties — aggregating. Congress and the news media — disaggregating.
Keep in mind that many Americans did not fault Donald Trump for his disaggregating ways as president and political party leader. He was popular with the right and nativist wing of the Republican Party and came fairly close to being reelected. If he had paid a little more attention to aggregating support in the nation and his political party, Trump might still be in the White House.
President Joe Biden has had a generally aggregating first 100 days in office with peaceful and uniting attempts such as his recent speech. Yet he faces a dilemma as his presidency proceeds. He is under pressure from the left side of the Democratic Party to take advantage of being a new president and press forward singlehandedly with a big spending program of social reforms. Medicare-for-all, forgiving college loan debts, and a more sweeping Green New Deal come to mind.
Such a leftward lurch will be seen by many as disaggregating.
It is in Biden’s and the country’s interest to have his administration do as much aggregating as it can. He has enjoyed uncommonly strong support from Democrats and reasonable support from independent voters.
There are at least some Republicans who will support Biden on infrastructure, voting rights, police reform, immigration reform, and even some aspects of a tax increase. But most Republicans will not want to see Biden succeed. Biden and his supporters will have to champion bipartisanship by staying close to the center rather than moving too far to the left. That will be President Biden’s biggest challenge and balancing act in the months to come.
We join with others who have enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere of presidential politics these past three months or so. President Biden has gone out of his way to keep his and other administration voices low and to minimize fractious and divisive statements. For those who spend their time keeping a close watch on American politics, it has been boring and a bit restorative.
Biden’s talk to Congress was refreshingly low key. Expectations for him as a public speaker are not great. Yet he seemed to find his inner voice, as well as a better speech writer.
Former President Donald Trump was noisy. He was an activist celebrity who dominated the daily news, mainly with his frequent attacks on his many opponents on social media. Trump challenged widely accepted national policies, such as strong unqualified support for NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), world collaboration on climate change, and globalized international trade. It added up to a disturbing and repetitive America-first narrative.
Biden has accepted Trump’s Afghanistan decision and has adopted some of his fearmongering about China. Biden also has supported some of Trump’s “made in America” themes. Yet Biden has mostly reinstated the nation’s internationalist visions.
Biden has been comparatively understated since the beginning of his campaign for the presidency. He is trying hard and at least partly succeeding at portraying himself as a moderate.
Once Biden had the Democratic nomination locked up, he offered himself as an experienced, plain speaking, and reliable alternative to Donald Trump, and not much more. But Biden’s aggregating ways got him elected president, and they may serve him well in the coming months.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy write regularly about Colorado and American politics.