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Analysis-Can Biden’s compromise strategy fix a divided US?

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By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The deal to end the United States’ debt limit standoff was classic Joe Biden politics: eke out a narrow compromise from an ugly beginning and declare victory.

Biden’s pact with Republican Kevin McCarthy suspends the $31.4 trillion U.S. debt ceiling, avoiding an economic crisis, in exchange for setting spending caps in the coming two fiscal years.

Both sides got something out of the deal, and Biden said it fits with a declared goal throughout his political career: striking bipartisan deals to fix problems and take the venom out of the country’s ideological divide.

“I know bipartisanship is hard, and unity is hard,” Biden said during his first-ever Oval Office address on Friday. “No matter how tough our politics gets, we need to see each other not as adversaries, but as fellow Americans.”

But it remains to be seen whether this deal can help the longer-term effort of healing what Biden refers to as the “soul of the nation.”

“That’s easier said than done,” said Bishop Silvester Beaman, a family friend who gave the benediction at Biden’s inauguration and credits him with “trying to strike a chord that we need to put our partisanship aside so that we can better govern the country.”

In his first two years as president, Biden used Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate to push through massive stimulus packages despite the protests of Republicans.

But he also crafted compromise deals on veterans’ healthcare, semiconductor chips, gun safety legislation, and now the debt ceiling.

Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell said after the debt deal was struck that “divided government means negotiated deals – it means nobody gets everything they want.”

Some of those compromise deals have upset elements of Biden’s Democratic Party, who wanted him to do more to tackle a wide range of issues that he campaigned on, ranging from addressing police brutality, to protecting voting rights, to the battle over women’s right to abortion.

“A lot of Americans are very disaffected by mainstream politics and by the compromises that the Democrats have made,” said Premilla Nadasen, a professor of history at Columbia University’s Barnard College.

Biden’s own popularity has withered over the course of his term, and is now standing at around 40%.

COMPROMISE

But some analysts give him credit for trying to bring the country back towards the political middle and isolate radicals who embraced former President Donald Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 election and were involved in the assault on Congress on Jan 6, 2021.

“How best to contain the anti-democratic conspiratorial right in America – that is the project that you’re seeing Biden work on,” said Matthew Dallek, a political historian and professor at George Washington University.

Biden has at times applied the across-the-aisle strategy outside Capitol Hill, too.

Mitch Landrieu and other top Biden advisers recently negotiated an electric vehicle charger agreement with Elon Musk, the Tesla Inc billionaire owner who has called Biden a “damp (sock) puppet” and has expressed support for Ron DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

“This is what’s amazing about working for this president: irrespective of what other noise is going on, outside of whatever it is that you’re talking about, he’s focused on solving the problem,” Landrieu said.

McCarthy, who negotiated the debt ceiling deal with Biden, was critical of the president during the crisis, saying he had “wasted time and refused to negotiate for months,” although he later had warmer words for Biden’s deal-makers.

“I do want to thank the president’s team that he put together,” McCarthy said, calling them professional and smart, despite “very strong beliefs that are different than ours.”

The brief peace in Washington after the deal may be short-lived, as both sides gear up for the 2024 presidential election.

Trump and DeSantis, the leading Republican candidates, seem focused for now on attacking each other but they are expected target Biden with fierce rhetoric.

And former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has already begun, saying a vote for Biden is a vote for President Kamala Harris, suggesting she believes Biden could die or be forced from office before completing a second term, putting his vice president in power.

“If this (debt ceiling) bill bought a reprieve from extreme partisan warfare, it’s temporary,” said Matt Bennett, at the center-left think tank Third Way.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting and editing by Heather Timmons. Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lincoln Feast)

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