President-elect Joe Biden wants you to know that reports of the death of America’s political center are greatly exaggerated.
In fact, in a conversation with a few columnists on Wednesday, Mr. Biden delivered a resounding declaration that the political center is alive and well, that he resides there, that he’s always been there, and that he’s going to govern from there. “I believe that [in] the country, in both parties, the center of gravity has moved to the center and center-left,” he said.
Moreover, Mr. Biden insisted that there are enough Republican lawmakers prepared to meet him in the middle that he can get things done in an evenly divided Congress where he won’t have the kinds of Democratic majorities some of his predecessors enjoyed.
“Part of it is that Republicans are beginning to realize that there is a center that has to be responded to,” he said. “And the Democrats are beginning once again to pay attention to our base, which has been my base my whole career: working-class folks, Black and white, people who are busting their neck, and all they’re looking for is just a shot. And I think there is a center there.”
Those Biden sentiments seem simple enough, but they are, in fact, freighted with meaning for both parties.
For Republicans and conservatives, Mr. Biden is saying, in effect, that they are wrong when they claim he has been, or soon will be, captured by the most liberal elements of his Democratic Party. Moreover, Mr. Biden is saying that, although President Trump made deep inroads over the course of two presidential elections with traditional Democratic strongholds of white, working-class voters, he has no intention of ceding that turf to the GOP.
And to the progressive wing of his own party, Mr. Biden is saying, essentially: Don’t forget that I won our party’s nomination, and then won the popular vote by seven million votes, by running as a candidate of the center, not as one of the left.
It is far from clear that the story of 2020 is seen that way within the Democrats’ progressive wing. There, many think that their activism, as much as Mr. Biden’s centrism, won the election. They are making little secret of their belief that they now should be rewarded with personnel and policies.
Mr. Biden recognizes that there are many Democrats—indeed, he acknowledges, even some of his own appointees—who think the kind of meeting in the middle with Republicans he is proposing simply isn’t possible these days. They see a partisan battle starting next year as inevitable and, in some ways, desirable—and worry that Mr. Biden isn’t adequately prepared to wage that fight.
He bristles at that suggestion. “I haven’t changed how I approach politics since I got involved,” he said. “And part of it is just establishing with your opponent is that if they want to fight, I’m ready to fight. I’m ready to fight. But one of the things that happens is, when you get into one of those kind of blood matches that occur, nothing gets done.”
Indeed, Mr. Biden argues that, unlike some of his critics, he actually knows how to do a deal. He takes “some sense of solace,” he said, from the number of “senior Republican senators” who have called him since the election to discuss areas in which there can be cooperation.
His advantage in pulling Republicans his way certainly won’t lie in large Democratic majorities—indeed, the chances remain good that Republicans will control the Senate after two runoff elections in Georgia in January—but rather in personal relationships he has built over time, as a senator and vice president. “My leverage is, every senior Republican knows I’ve never once, ever, misled them,” he said. “Whatever I say, I’ll do, I’ll do. I never publicly embarrassed them.”
In addition, he says that the country has moved left on some policies, including health care and, above all, climate change, opening space for him to pursue more progressive policies. “Today, I’m going to be able to get stuff done in the environment none of you are going to believe,” he said, citing in particular changing views within the business community. “I could not have gotten it done six years ago.”
Conservative Republicans will remain unenthused at that prospect, and at Mr. Biden’s plan, reiterated in Wednesday’s conversation, to start out his administration with an executive order rejoining the Paris climate accords.
There might be more room for bipartisan agreement on the gravity of a newly discovered problem: a broad hack of government computers, apparently at Russian hands. It’s still uncertain, Mr. Biden said, whether that attack was aimed at simple espionage or at disrupting technology networks.
More broadly, Mr. Biden is planting a flag in the center. It’s been pretty lonely there lately; we’ll soon see how many rally around him there.
Corrections & Amplifications
Joe Biden’s plan was reiterated in Wednesday’s conversation. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it was Monday’s conversation. (Corrected on Dec. 23)
Write to Gerald F. Seib at email@example.com
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Appeared in the December 24, 2020, print edition as ‘Biden Says Political Center Is Alive and Well.’