Opinion: Biden harms his campaign by rejecting bipartisan strategy

by Peter Shinkle

St. Louis Post-Dispatch — May 26, 2024

President Joe Biden has rejected a strategy used by most presidents since World War II – reaching across the aisle to make bipartisan appointments to his cabinet. As a result, he is missing a crucial opportunity to build a bridge to Republicans and win their votes in November’s election.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt pioneered the bipartisan strategy and won re-election in 1940, ten presidents have made bipartisan cabinet appointments. Democratic presidents, in particular, closely followed the precedent set by FDR, who placed two prominent Republicans in cabinet posts in charge of the military. Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama all named Republicans as secretary of defense. But Republicans – including two-term presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — also appointed Democrats to various cabinet posts.

Three presidents since 1940, however, rejected FDR’s model: Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Donald Trump. All three were one-term presidents. Biden is on track to wind up with this group.

Biden’s rejection of FDR’s bipartisan model is striking because he identifies himself both as an ardent admirer of FDR and a proponent of bipartisanship.

Biden said last year, “when I ran for President, I was told the days of bipartisanship were over and that Democrats and Republicans could no longer work together. But I refused to believe that, because America can never give into that way of thinking.” So far, though, his bipartisanship has been focused on signing bills passed by both parties in Congress – not building a bipartisan coalition through cabinet appointments.

Biden faces a tough election challenge from former Trump, as many Democrats have turned away from Biden either out of concerns about his age or his performance on the economy and the war in Gaza. At the same time, Trump and other Republican isolationists have condemned Biden for sending military aid to Ukraine and instead called for seeking peace with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.

Many Republicans could be willing to vote for Biden. Nikki Haley, the GOP presidential candidate who repeatedly called Trump unfit for office, continued to draw sizable share of the votes in the Republican primaries even after she withdrew from the presidential race.

Other prominent Republican opponents include Liz Cheney, a former GOP leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, who has urged her fellow Republicans to reject Trump for provoking the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and leading an effort to reverse the 2020 presidential election won by Biden. Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, has condemned the president for pushing Pence to overturn the election.

The troubled American political landscape today echoes the one FDR faced in 1940.

As the Republican National Convention approached in June 1940, the aging and frail FDR was facing a tough re-election challenge. Members of his own party were opposing his candidacy, and Republicans were attacking him bitterly for trying to defend European democracies from Adolf Hitler’s fascist war machine.

It was then that FDR launched the novel political strategy that brought America together politically and set the stage for his own re-election. On June 20, 1940, four days before the Republican convention was to kick off, FDR appointed the two prominent Republicans who supported his war policies to his cabinet.

The two Republicans, secretary of war Henry Stimson and secretary of navy Frank Knox, swiftly set to work winning Republican support for Congressional passage of legislation to expand the American military and aid the allies. Polling showed that a majority of Americans — in both political parties — supported the bipartisan appointments. By their example, Stimson and Knox encouraged other Republicans to back FDR, and the president won re-election in November 1940.

What FDR understood was that winning significant Republican support required him to demonstrate his commitment to respecting, listening to and working with reasonable Republicans. At moments of political polarization — particularly amid a global crisis threatening freedom and democracy — such bipartisan appointments have immense symbolic power.

Biden should take a cue from FDR and launch his bipartisan strategy before this year’s GOP convention begins in Milwaukee on July 15.

In today’s hyper-polarized climate, if prominent Republicans take posts in Biden’s cabinet, they will set an example showing that the challenges before America are so great that Republicans must once again cross the partisan divide and support the Democratic president. It would be both a wake-up call to Republicans and a powerful display of unity in defense of American democracy.