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How Biden can unite America to push forward policy goals

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Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Akiko Fujita along with Jeffrey Engel, Founding Director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, discuss the historical significance of Inauguration Day.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: In his inaugural speech, today President Biden talked a lot about healing what he called the, quote, "broken land." And he asked deeply divided Americans to look past their differences, saying, without unity, there is no peace.

JOE BIDEN: On this hallowed ground where, just a few days ago, violence sought to shake the Capitol's very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power, as we have for more than two centuries, as we look ahead in our uniquely American way, restless, bold, optimistic, and set our sights on a nation we know we can be and we must be.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Joining us now is Jeffrey Engel. He's founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Jeffrey, good to see you. When you look back, as you do, from your perspective looking at presidential history, what other time in our country's history can you liken present day America?

JEFFREY ENGEL: You know, I liken it to a time that's not going to be a pleasant comparison. I think that we are very close to 1933 territory when Franklin Roosevelt took over for Herbert Hoover at the height, or the low point, if you will, of the Great Depression. You know, in a sense, there's really only been three other times in American history where we've had to question whether the Republic itself would survive, where people were questioning democracy-- during the time of the founding of the country, of course, during the Civil War, and then again during the Great Depression.

And I fear that we are coming up on such a moment where we have not only a pandemic, an economic crisis, a political crisis, to be sure, with so much violence and distrust in the Capitol, but most importantly, I think we have people who are questioning the viability of American democracy. And Franklin Roosevelt knew that that was his main charge to keep the country going after he was president. And I think, frankly, Joe Biden has the same appreciation.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, Jeffrey, you know, it's interesting. It feels like there may be a slight window here, though, for that opportunity to at least build on this call for unity. We've often seen presidents in their first 100 days get a bit of a honeymoon period. Do you think that that holds this time around as well, just given the divisions, given the violence that we saw a few weeks ago? How does Joe Biden build on this message that he put forth today?

JEFFREY ENGEL: You know, I actually think he needs to play the long game and not think about the 100 days per se. Because the truth is, we are at a divided moment in our country. Nobody would dispute that. But we're divided in a moment of great pain because of the pandemic, because of the economic crisis. The truth is, both of those things are likely to get better over the next year because of vaccines. And then once we get the vaccines going, then the economy will pick up again.

And people who feel themselves more content and happier in their own lives, more secure in their own lives, tend to like the government better and tend to like the president better. So I think as long as things are going well for Biden, he should not rock the boat because things are probably going to get better of their own accord. Now, to be clear, there's a lot to be done to make that happen. I think within the first 100 days, we need a massive stimulus package and other programs.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Jeffrey-- I don't know if Jeffrey froze up there, if you can still hear us. Jeffrey, if you can, I'm wondering where Biden might find that unity. Will it be the way he handles the virus? I'm not so sure it's going to be in getting that $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed. Might it be on something like infrastructure spending? What's going to be the thing that he's going to be able to successfully bring this country together with?

JEFFREY ENGEL: I think the thing is actually maybe not all of the $1.9 billion, but I think it's got to be COVID. I think there's no doubt that that is something which he can say, much like other presidents have, that this is essentially a state of war. You know, the Nazis in 1941 and '44 didn't care if you were Republican or Democrat when they were shooting at you.

And this virus doesn't care if you're a Republican or Democrat. So I think Joe Biden can find the thing that unifies us all, which is our common humanity. Not just as rhetoric, but quite literally in this case as a way to bring Americans together and focus on going forward in a cooperative direction.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, I mean, you do wonder what-- if a pandemic can't sort of unite the country, what actually will? The other message we've heard from the president consistently is talking about lifting those communities that have suffered the most, especially during the pandemic, Black and Brown communities. He talked about that a lot when he laid out that $1.9 trillion package. What are some lessons do you think that he can draw on from history to try to get that message across? We've already seen those lawmakers who are very adamantly opposed to increasing the federal minimum wage, for example.

JEFFREY ENGEL: You know, I think one of the lessons is that he's going to have to maybe go back to Lyndon Johnson and become really much more of a horse trader. Even though Johnson had more of a majority within the Congress, he still knew that he had to give and take, especially on the areas of civil rights, within his own Democratic Party, where, of course, mostly Southerners at that time in the party were Democrats and we're not enthused by civil rights.

So he managed to give them more agriculture spending. He managed to give them more police funding, which they wanted. Now, some people argue that's the sort of origins of the carceral state that we're dealing with now. But the broader lesson, I think, is that for Joe Biden to bring new groups into the conversation, he's going to have to make sure the groups that are already in the conversation already have power, that they don't feel disestablished, that they feel that they are getting something out of those programs as well.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: All right, we're going to leave it there. Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, thanks for being with us today.

JEFFREY ENGEL: It's good to talk to you.