The presidential campaign rolls into its final two months. We are beset by a seemingly interminable pandemic and the rising threat of violence around the Black Lives Matter protests. President Trump seems determined to ignore the former and exacerbate the latter. Joe Biden has rightly criticized him for both.
While Democrats are right to be nervous (in light of 2016), and should be doing their utmost to win this election, Biden still looks likely to not only win the national popular vote (probably by more than Hillary Clinton’s margin), but also to win most of the swing states (including Pennsylvania). The House majority is very likely to hold, and a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate is more likely than not.
When he’s inaugurated in January, his first task will be to order the Secret Service to escort the defiant former president Trump from the White House.
Then he will face two urgent tasks that are in tension:
- First, after a presidential term (indeed, a decade or more) of constant polarization and demonization, he will need to begin healing the wounds. That will require conciliating those who supported Trump.
- Second, after an incredibly destructive Trump term on multiple fronts, he will need to roll back hundreds of reactionary executive orders and set the legislative machinery on track to begin to address the many needs, from health care to climate change, that Trump tried to sabotage. That will inevitably entail antagonizing, even frightening, many Trump supporters.
Biden needs to find ways of appealing to American patriotism and reestablishing a sense of optimism about moving the country forward.
If he focuses solely on the first task, he might succeed, but only at the cost of failing to address the huge problems left on the Resolute Desk by the departing Trump. He will fail to move the country forward.
If he emphasizes the second task, he will likely succeed in many areas, but he will still face a deeply polarized society in which the opposition will be dedicated to once more undo everything he has done, just as Trump did to Obama.
The dilemma is how to do both. The two greatest presidents of the twentieth century provide us with a model. Franklin Roosevelt was able to peel off enough Republican supporters to set the foundation for the New Deal consensus that government has the responsibility to keep the country prosperous and to look out for the well-being of all citizens. Ronald Reagan peeled off enough Democratic supporters to undercut the New Deal consensus and establish in its stead a Reagan consensus that government is not the solution to our problems, it IS the problem.
Trump is the last, deeply flawed heir of the Reagan consensus.
It will be for Biden to forge a new consensus.
He should first accept that he will never gain the confidence of the hard core of Trump’s supporters, but he may be able to pull in significant numbers of Trump voters. His approach should be twofold. On one hand, he needs to show the he understands and wants to address the many chronic economic and social problems of the core Trump areas: the Rust Belt and the agricultural heartland. Putting substantial resources into a multifaceted program to help these regions would be essential.
On the other hand, he should understand the deep emotional foundation for supporting Trump. Biden needs to find ways of appealing to American patriotism and reestablishing a sense of optimism about moving the country forward. This would contrast with the darkly pessimistic and backward-looking tone of Trump.
Both of these approaches to Trump supporters should lay the foundation for his positive initiatives across a broad front to set the country on a new course. For more detail on this, see my recent piece on Biden’s First Hundred Days.
Call it America Renewed.