Steven V. Roberts: Giving trust a try

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 2, 2021

“I  do trust the president,” Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, said on CNN. “Do I take him at his word and do I think he’s a man of honor? Absolutely.”

Yes, Romney is a pariah in GOP ranks, reviled by Donald Trump’s toadies for his candid criticism of the former president. But stop and think for a moment. When was the last time a prominent lawmaker from one party expressed trust in a president from the opposing party?

Trust, after all, is a precious commodity in politics — the essential oil that lubricates the machinery of democracy. So, it is a good sign that Romney is using the word and actually meaning it. Biden himself employed similar language just days earlier, when he joined five Democrats and five Republicans (including Romney) in announcing a bipartisan deal to spend $1.2 trillion over eight years to upgrade the nation’s aging infrastructure.

“They’ve given me their word. Where I come from, that’s good enough for me,” Biden said, referring to his Republican partners. “The people I was with today are people that I trust.”

Cynics will call Biden and Romney naive, or even foolish, for being so trusting. After all, the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, openly admitted that “One-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.” And Trump denounced supporters of the compromise as “RINOS” — Republicans In Name Only.

The left wing of the Democratic Party is hardly more supportive, viewing the GOP as morally flawed enemies who will never negotiate sincerely. Biden acknowledged — and rebuked — this sentiment after reaching the infrastructure deal, saying: “I know there are some in my party who discouraged me from seeking agreement with our Republican colleagues — who said that we should go bigger and go alone. To them, I say this: I’ve already shown in my young presidency I’m prepared to move the country forward. … We can find common ground.”

Common ground. Now there’s a concept. And the best place to start looking for it is infrastructure spending. After all, Republicans also drive on bumpy roads, drink from rusty pipes and desire better broadband connections in rural areas.

Moreover, as a Georgetown University study showed, almost 90% of the construction jobs created by the legislation would go to workers without a college degree, and those workers form a growing segment of the Republican base. Trump actually edged out Biden among voters with only a high school diploma, while Biden won college grads by 12 points.

There are also intangible benefits to a bipartisan deal. After the ravages of the Trump years, and America’s plunging reputation around the globe, “The message it sends to the American people, and also to our friends and adversaries around the world, is so important,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat. “In a post-Jan. 6 world, it shows that people who come from different political views can still come together on national priorities.”

Trust breeds trust. Adversaries who work together on one deal are more likely to cooperate again — perhaps on more complex and controversial issues, like immigration or police reform.

The last few days, however, have starkly demonstrated just how fragile trust can be. Right after announcing the bipartisan deal, Biden threatened to veto the measure if it did not pass “in tandem” with a far larger and more divisive proposal advanced by liberals to spend trillions on “human infrastructure” goals such as subsidized child care and cost-free community colleges.

Republicans cried foul. The Wall Street Journal accused Biden of a “double cross” and “holding a bipartisan deal hostage to the left’s demands.” The White House frantically issued a statement withdrawing Biden’s veto threat, and Romney, for one, seemed appeased. “The waters have been calmed,” he said on CNN.

But liberals were far from happy. Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted that the two bills really were linked, and Sen. Bernie Sanders said he’d even vote against the bipartisan compromise.

So how does Biden proceed? His instinct and his experience tell him that pursuing common ground and opposing the purists on both sides is still the right course.

“It’s like anybody who has prepared for two years, five years, or 10 years, or 15 years to be a concert violinist or to be major-league second baseman,” said Ted Kaufman, a close Biden confidant, to The Washington Post. “It’s essentially that he’s been preparing his whole life.”

The president might well fail. The odds are stacked pretty heavily against him. But he has to give a trust a try.


Steven Roberts teaches  politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email him at