President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on the promise that he would repair “the soul of the nation.” But now he faces the challenge of making that pledge a reality.
It won’t be easy. The nation’s divisions have been deepening for decades, a process that accelerated during the four years of the Trump presidency. Those dynamics have been turbocharged in recent weeks as the outgoing president has argued, against evidence, that the 2020 election was fraudulent.
Biden has spent much of his career insisting he can work across the aisle. He often cites a maxim from his Senate days that you should not cast aspersions on the motives of your opponents. He won the Democratic nomination earlier this year in part because he is a more centrist and consensus-driven figure than leading lights of the left such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Whether those assets will be a match for the polarizing forces that have riven American society for so long is a harder question to answer.
“The fundamental premise is unifying a divided nation,” said Moe Vela, who worked as Biden’s director of administration during the Obama presidency. “Now, does that mean he has a magic wand or that overnight their 74 million people and our 80 million people are going to join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’? No, that is not going to happen.”
Vela argued, however, that Biden could at least bring the temperature down. He could do so partly through his rhetoric and affable demeanor, Vela suggested, but also by finding common ground with Republicans on some policy matters — the most obvious possibility being a stimulus bill in response to the coronavirus.
“He is going to reach out and say, ‘For the love of our country and the love of our children, how can you be against a recovery stimulus package for the pandemic?’” Vela predicted.
That idea is consistent with Biden’s tone. On Wednesday, in a pre-Thanksgiving address, Biden insisted that “it’s been in the most difficult of circumstances that the soul of our nation has been forged.”
Speaking of the pandemic — but also perhaps more broadly about American culture — Biden added: “It has divided us, angered us and set us against one another. … But we need to remember we’re at a war with a virus, not with each other. … Let’s remember, we are all in this together.”
The problem is, the common cords that once held Americans together are showing serious signs of unravelling.
In the most recent Economist-YouGov poll, conducted Nov. 21-24, almost 1 in 4 Republican voters asserted that the coronavirus was either “definitely” or “probably” a hoax. Almost 13 million people across the nation have contracted COVID-19, and more than 260,000 have died.
The same poll showed 80 percent of Republican voters asserting that Biden had not legitimately won the presidential election and 73 percent saying that President Trump should not concede. Among independents, 55 percent accepted that Biden had won legitimately, but 45 percent said he had not.
Within Biden’s world, there are no rose-tinted glasses about the depths of the nation’s divisions. Instant healing is not being promised. But the president-elect’s allies believe that he offers reassurance and stability.
Biden’s age, ethnicity and centrist political persona could help at least bring some moderate voters along with him. During the campaign, Trump’s efforts to paint Biden as some kind of hostage to radical socialists fell flat.
Racism has been the running sore in America throughout the nation’s history, and it seems implausible that Biden can somehow make the kind of transcendent breakthrough that has eluded almost everyone else.
But, as a 78-year-old white man, he may provoke less of a counter-reaction from conservative-leaning whites than did President Obama, the nation’s first Black president.
In his recently released memoir, Obama notes how his poll ratings among white people fell precipitously early in his White House tenure, simply because he said police had acted “stupidly” in arresting a Black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, at his own home.
At a minimum, no one expects Biden to engage in the kind of rhetoric Trump used, which included telling the four nonwhite congresswomen of “the squad” to “go back” where they came from and threatening that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” amid protests over racial injustice in policing.
Biden, of course, will also have the first Black vice president, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who will also be the first woman to hold that role.
If part of Biden’s presidency will be about trying to ease polarization, he faces steep odds. The issue is not just Trump and his legacy. In a number of areas, the political incentives favor the extremes. Hard-line views are often how politicians guard against a primary challenge, get on cable news or boost their social media followings, and raise funds.
“The forces he is up against are much bigger than President Trump and are tectonic in nature. There are a set of forces that push us apart rather than bring us together,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.
But Reeher also noted — as do people close to Biden — that this fact does not necessarily doom the United States to continue on the deeply polarizing path of the Trump years.
“I do think having a period of time for the country to experience the absence of the daily melodrama of the Trump presidency will help,” Reeher said. “And once we get a chance to experience that for several months, we may be underestimating how different it will feel. Is it going to restore the soul of the country? No. But I think it will help.”