Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
President Joe Biden made a forceful appeal for bipartisanship in his State of the Union address before a divided Congress on Tuesday, urging a Democratic Senate and GOP House to find common ground where possible. It is a message well worth heeding.
"To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can't work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well," Biden said. "The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict gets us nowhere."
Some of the bipartisan accomplishments he rightly touted included a massive and long overdue infrastructure bill, gun legislation that also invested in mental health, and the CHIPS and Science Act designed to spur U.S. manufacturing, particularly in semiconductors, improve supply chains and serve as a counter to China.
The U.S. bounce-back from a pandemic that shuttered vast sections of the economy has been remarkable, with 12 million jobs created since Biden took office, the lowest unemployment rate in more than 50 years, and healthy economic growth. A feared recession so far has failed to materialize. Certainly, though, the recovery has come at a cost. Inflation, though slowing, remains uncomfortably high.
Biden wrapped his appeal in a heartfelt message aimed squarely at middle- and working-class Americans. He touted a renewal of U.S. manufacturing and held out factory openings, small-businesses startups, and projects to modernize American infrastructure as areas of common ground.
"Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they're invisible. Maybe that's you, watching at home," Biden said. "You remember the jobs that went away, and you wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away. I get it." It was territory staked out by his predecessor, who also talked at length about "forgotten Americans" but took little concrete action to help them.
In some areas, it's clear Biden's approach differs from Republicans, and common ground will be hard to find. The tax system, he said, is unfair to ordinary Americans and distinctly tilted toward the wealthy. He called once again for a billionaire tax that, while it would reduce the deficit, seems highly unlikely to pass Speaker Kevin McCarthy's House, where extremist Republicans have formed a vocal and highly influential wing.
That was evident during Tuesday's address when Biden set off a fracas by noting that some Republicans had proposed sunsetting Social Security and Medicare. That led to howls of faux-outrage and a display of shouting unworthy of the setting. Biden deftly met the cacophony with a light but firm touch, noting dryly that, apparently, Republicans intended to stand by both programs.
It should be noted that some Republicans have, in fact, long called for dramatic cuts to both programs. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., a former governor and former head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in 2022 rolled out a 12-point agenda that would sunset all federal programs every five years, including Social Security and Medicare. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was caught on video stating at a campaign stop in 2010, "It will be my objective to phase out Social Security, to pull it up from the roots and get rid of it." Two years later, he introduced a budget resolution to make sharp cuts. Biden was correct to call them out.
Another strong point of contention was the debt ceiling. The U.S. has already exceeded its borrowing capacity, necessitating that the ceiling be raised, as Republicans eagerly did throughout the Trump presidency, even though one came as they also passed a tax cut aimed mainly at the wealthy that was projected to — and did — add $1 trillion to the federal deficit.
Biden has asked for Republican plans to reduce the deficit going forward. That is entirely reasonable and rightly puts the onus on Republicans, who, if they won't cut Social Security and Medicare and who have already pledged no cuts to defense and who don't want new taxes, have left themselves precious room to propose significant budget cuts. So far, the most important action taken in that regard has been the Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year on party-line votes and expected to reduce the deficit by $238 billion. Republicans have proposed reversing that.
On immigration, where a comprehensive plan has eluded Congress for decades, Biden beseeched lawmakers to "make it a bipartisan issue once again," noting that despite actions taken to arrest thousands of human smugglers and intercept tens of thousands of pounds of fentanyl, "American border problems won't be fixed until Congress acts." Even if Congress once again rejects a comprehensive approach, Biden offered a secondary goal: "At least pass my plan to provide the equipment and officers to secure the border, and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers," and others.
Police reform elicited a rare moment of unanimity as the House and Senate rose to give a standing ovation to the parents of Tyre Nichols, the young man beaten to death by Memphis police. Police reform is yet another area that can yield ample common ground. That reforms in policing are needed is undeniable. So is the need for policing and other investments that keep people and neighborhoods safe.
We don't expect all partisan fighting to stop. Clashes of opinion, sometimes vigorous, are essential to a vibrant democracy. But when it spills into prolonged gridlock, when the fighting becomes more important than the solution, it's gone too far and hurts this country more than it helps.