In his inaugural address on Wednesday, Joe Biden exposed Americans to the harsh truths the country faces as he sees it – among them, a nation ravaged by a pandemic, calls for racial justice and the rise of ‘l political ‘extremism’. A key solution to dealing with these huge problems comes down to one word: “Unity”.
“To overcome these challenges – to restore the soul and to secure America’s future – requires more than words,” Biden said. “You need what is most elusive in a democracy: unity. Unit.”
He used the word eight times in the 21-minute speech, which also featured the word “together” seven times.
His remarks are likely welcomed by the 81 million Americans who voted for him and perhaps by the 57% of voters who had a dissatisfied or angry opinion of the federal government on election day, polls show.
But for many of the 74 million who voted for Donald Trump, this call for unity may ring hollow.
“We need to rekindle the spirit of bipartisanship in this country,” Biden said during an October speech in Gettysburg, Pa. He might be on to something.
A Pew Research poll in 2019 showed that 58% of Democrats said it was more important for a Democratic president to “find common ground with Republicans on policies” and a surprising 45% of Republicans said the same thing about Trump.
As he takes office, Biden has the opportunity to speak not only to these Democrats, but that significant percentage of Republicans willing to find common ground.
A Pew poll released last week shows 64% of voters expressed positive opinions about Biden’s conduct since the election and majorities approve of the way he has explained political ideas as well as his Cabinet choices.
Meanwhile, the same poll found Trump left office with a 29% approval rating, the lowest in his presidency.
Republicans, for their part, find themselves without a leader and faced with a serious intestinal battle over the leadership of their party: Trumpism against a return to a more traditional conservative posture. With just 57% of Republicans saying they think Trump should continue to be a major political figure, according to Pew, this indicates that a significant number of his 74 million voters are ready to hear from others, be it d ‘other Republican leaders or maybe donate. Biden a chance.
That being said, the underlying political polarization in the United States is deep and long-standing – and growing dramatically.
Biden would benefit from thinking about how the country got to this point.
In the mid-1990s, House Republicans, led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, brought to the fore the kind of political warfare that is pervasive today. He and his fellow Republicans aggressively portrayed Democrats and Democratic President Bill Clinton as enemies, leading to Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. Democrats picked up where Republicans left off during George W. Bush’s presidency of 2001-2009, then Republicans stepped up partisan warfare during the Obama years.
In 2016, Democrats and Republicans’ very unfavorable views on the opposing party had tripled since 1994, according to Pew, with more than half of very unfavorable views in 2016.
Trump tapped into that split and instead of preaching unity, he exploited divisions while appealing to those Americans – independents, older voters, white women, white working class voters – who had been inclined to support occasionally Democrats but had felt Obama and others Democrats were not talking to them.
As Biden preaches “unity,” it reminds me of a story Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar told me in 2017 about why Hillary Clinton lost several Democratic strongholds in the Midwest and nearly lost Klobuchar State. of Minnesota to benefit Trump in 2016. She said Clinton’s “Stronger Together” slogan, While Preaching Unity, fell flat in the face of disgruntled Democratic voters in Washington, DC.
“To the jobless steelworkers in Minnesota, it was ‘everyone together except me,’” Klobuchar said.
This is the crux of Biden’s challenge: How does he talk to these disgruntled Americans – many of whom became disgruntled during the Obama-Biden administration? What does he say in the coming months to those who have become suspicious or even angry with Democrats on economic, social, political or even racial issues? Also, what steps will he take as president to allay these concerns before he begins his attempt to court their support?
“I know that talking about unity may seem like a crazy fantasy to some these days,” Biden admitted before offering some suggestions on how to start bringing Americans together.
“We can see each other, not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the screaming and lower the temperature, ”he said.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden had already started this process.
“He contacted not only Democratic members of Congress, but Republicans as well. Not just Democratic governors, but Republicans as well. Not just Democratic mayors, but Republicans as well, ”she said.
“And that, of course, needs to be backed up with action,” added Psaki, which is the biggest challenge Biden faces in his quest for unity.
But if Biden fails to convince angry, pessimistic, and skeptical Americans that his policies are not deeply partisan and do not speak in a way that arouses political disillusionment, then his quest for unity could end up being a “Insane fantasy” after all.