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Can Biden unite a deeply divided America?

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President-elect Joe Biden ran on a pledge to unite the country, and this election showed again just how divided America is.

US President-elect Joe Biden. Picture: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

OPINION: Dan Balz

PRESIDENT-elect Joe Biden spent three decades in pursuit of the presidency, but it is doubtful he ever imagined the challenges he will inherit when he takes the oath of office. What awaits him will require tapping into everything he has learned from more than four decades in public office and more.

The issue agenda alone is crushing, from the coronavirus pandemic to a weakened and unequal economy, to the threats posed by climate change, to cries for an overdue reckoning on race and justice. Those are just the top layer of the president-elect’s inbox and together they could consume most of his initial term in office.

Beyond that, the conditions under which he will assume the presidency will add significantly to the demands on his leadership capabilities. Biden ran on a pledge to unite the country, and this election showed again just how divided America is. He campaigned to restore a sense of calm and normalcy to the White House after four years of President Donald Trump’s divisiveness. He ran promising to overcome almost exactly what he will now inherit – both deep division among the people and toxicity in the body politic.

If he fails in this overriding objective, his presidency could end up in disappointment and stasis. If he makes good on this pledge, his presidency could be remembered as both a restorative and a transformative one. He has talked about himself as a transitional figure who would bring forward a new generation, but in the present moment his ambitions must be much more than that.

Sceptics, including some of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, saw his talk of unity and bipartisanship as the naive musings of a politician from a bygone era. For Biden, they were a genuine expression of who he is and how he wants to lead as president. But the acrimonious campaign and what the election results in state after state have underscored is that he will begin his presidency as the leader of two Americas at odds with one another in fundamental ways.

It was the hope of Biden and many Democrats that the election would result in the broadest possible repudiation of the incumbent, a thumping that would show that Trump and Trumpism were an aberration, a four-year detour until the country came to its senses. That wasn’t the way it turned out. Trump did not go down without a struggle, and Biden’s victory was achieved with thin margins in a series of states.

In his projected victory, Biden was able to rebuild key parts of the Democrats’ northern blue wall that Trump had demolished in 2016. Biden carried Wisconsin, Michigan and the ultimate prize, Pennsylvania, which put him over the top. More to his credit, he is leading in two states in the Sun Belt, Arizona and Georgia. Victories in those two races, even the most narrow, would represent an evolution of the electoral map that has significant implications for the future.

Biden might have been the only Democrat among the two dozen or so men and women who sought the nomination who was capable of doing what he did, which was to hold the key states in the northern tier, with substantial populations of White workers without college degrees, and potentially expand into the South and Southwest, where demographic changes are altering politics.

That possibility was one reason he became the consensus choice in a party desperate to deny Trump a second term, even if many who supported him were only mildly enthusiastic about his candidacy. None of that takes away from his success. He did what Democrats wanted most, which was to end the Trump presidency.

Now however, Biden faces a series of obstacles that threaten his ability to unite the country and therefore govern successfully. Those start with the disposition of the man he defeated. The president has greeted the prospect of defeat with obstinance and disbelief, whipping up his loyalists with a fusillade of lies to believe the election was stolen. The legal battles will continue, and Trump’s rhetoric aims to make Biden an illegitimate president in the eyes of Trump Nation, even before the president-elect is sworn in.

Trump’s tweets and public comments this week offer a hint of what could be coming. Unless he undergoes a dramatic character change, for which there is no evidence, the 45th president is not likely to follow the path of other presidents, who have graciously conceded defeat and then yielded the stage to the successor.

Trump craves the limelight and for nearly five years has had the brightest lights in the world focused on him. Biden may try to ignore his defeated rival, treating him as background noise, but Trump will still speak for a goodly portion of the electorate that supported him for re-election – an army 70 million strong.

Heading into Election Day, Biden and many Democrats believed the odds were good that victory in the presidential race would help boost the party to a majority in the Senate and that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would begin the next Congress with an expanded majority in the lower chamber.

Instead, Democrats shockingly lost seats in the House and their hopes for control of the Senate, after a series of disappointing losses, now rest on the shaky prospect of having to win a pair of January run-off elections in Georgia. Biden’s expectations of a Democratic-controlled Congress available to speed through his legislative priorities now appear at significant risk, which would require a recalibration of his governing strategy.

Absent victories in both Georgia run-off elections, Biden will be dealing with a Senate led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Biden has often pointed to his long relationship with McConnell as evidence that he could find common ground with Republicans, at least often enough to get important things done.

It’s true that as President Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was sometimes sent to Capitol Hill to cut deals with McConnell, when it was required, and sometimes he was successful. But the larger reality is that McConnell was an implacable adversary who once said that his highest priority was to prevent Obama from winning a second term.

The posture McConnell adopts toward Biden will go some ways in determining whether the president-elect can begin to make good on his pledge to repair a broken government and show a way out of the rancorous politics of the day. But even if McConnell extends a friendlier hand to Biden than he did to Obama, its impact will be limited. McConnell is the leader of Republicans and many others in his party – fellow senators and rank-and-file activists, will demand resistance and opposition to virtually every initiative Biden puts forward.

Then there is the Democratic Party. Those on the left and in the centre called a truce during the campaign in deference to the cause of defeating Trump. But even before the election was over, those in the liberal wing were already warning of policy clashes to come over health care, climate change and issues of racial justice, for starters.

This week’s results in the House produced a backlash against the left, as angry moderates complained in a conference call that the liberal wing’s agenda had allowed Republicans to paint House members in swing districts as foot soldiers in a party of socialists who favour defunding the police. Biden and Pelosi may find themselves having to referee an internecine battle at a moment when the president-elect will need as much unity and harmony within the party as possible.

What Biden brings to his new office is a public persona and temperament that could fit the times. Empathy and compassion are part of his makeup as much as they are absent in the current president. Many who do not share Biden’s ideas or ideology nonetheless have described him as a man of faith and decency, devoted to family and country.

Those qualities were seen on the campaign trail both in the best of times and also when his candidacy looked to be on the ropes. He deflected or ignored criticism that he lacked the ability to inspire or the energy to mobilise. If his campaign skills were not those of an Obama, he was instead steady as it goes, and in that way, another contrast to the current occupant of the White House.

He bet his future on the idea that Democrats would see in him the attributes required to defeat Trump and that as the party’s nominee, a broader electorate, craving relief from the chaos and divisiveness of the Trump presidency, would seek the same in the next president during the general election.

That bet paid off handsomely this week, with Biden finally able to step into the Oval Office in January as Mr President, 48 years after becoming a senator. His legacy now will include ending the Trump presidency and helping to elevate Senator Kamala D Harris as the first Black and Asian woman to the vice presidency. But that is only where it begins. Having achieved the prize that has consumed him for much of his adult life, what could be the most challenging part of his long, public career is still ahead of him.

* Dan Balz is chief correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s deputy national editor, political editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.