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Biden's task: How to govern a polarized electorate

Supporters of President Donald Trump protest near the

Supporters of President Donald Trump protest near the state capitol on Nov. 7 in Atlanta. Credit: AP/John Bazemore

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden is poised to enter the White House having amassed at least 5 million more votes than President Donald Trump, but political analysts and those close to Biden’s orbit say that the weight of the more than 72 million Americans who voted for Trump also will help shape the Democrat’s first term in office.

Just as Trump faced chants of "not my President" when he was sworn into office, Biden now faces Trump supporters who refuse to acknowledge the former vice president’s victory with 290 electoral votes and 77 million votes and counting.

Trump’s refusal to concede as he pursues a handful of lawsuits and recounts in battleground states will ultimately not change the outcome of the election, but will help Trump create a narrative of suspicion over Biden’s victory and may deepen divisions among an increasingly polarized electorate, said Jennifer McCoy, a political-science professor at Georgia State University who has written extensively about political polarization in the U.S. and abroad.

"We are as divided as ever, perhaps more so given how close the elections were contrary to the polling expectations," said McCoy.

McCoy said Trump’s monthslong questioning about mail-in voting and the integrity of the elections system could lead to the "dangerous impact" of causing "a significant portion of the electorate to doubt the electoral process itself and the legitimacy of the Biden presidency."

"Elections are the primary means to decide as a country what direction we want to go, and if some portion do not believe they can serve as a legitimate means to compete over ideas and win office, then our democracy will be severely weakened," McCoy said of the challenge facing Biden.

Biden, in his victory speech last Saturday, made unity a major theme, calling himself a leader who "seeks not to divide, but to unify."

"It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to each other again, to make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy," he said. "We are not enemies. We are Americans."

Moe Vela, a Washington D.C.-based attorney who worked as a senior adviser to both Biden and former Vice President Al Gore, said Biden and his advisers are not "naive" about the challenges of governing in a polarized climate, and don’t expect that the millions who voted for Trump "will join hands with our 80 million voters and sing ‘Kumbaya.'"

Biden’s team believes the path forward is ‘to find common ground on the issues and challenges that face us as a country," Vela said. Those issues include orchestrating a federal pandemic response amid the latest surge in COVID-19 cases, focusing on the country’s economic recovery and working toward a new infrastructure deal that has long had bipartisan support.

"He needs to stay the course, and continue this message of unity and healing," Vela said. "It's a very genuine and heartfelt message. He means it. I know him. He’s got to continue to demonstrate in his words, and eventually in his policies, that he really is committed to finding common ground, that he realizes that this democracy and this country is at her finest when we are united."

Vela added: "This is not going to happen overnight. There's no magic, miraculous wand that he can wave that in 12 or 20 or 40 months from now, all of this division will be gone. That is not the case. But what you do is, you chip away at it. You demonstrate your desire for unity by hearing people, by bringing them to the table."

John Jay LaValle, the former Suffolk GOP Chairman who serves on the Trump 2020 national finance team, said that "whatever Biden does coming out of the gate is going to determine how he’s perceived into the future" by Republicans.

LaValle, who counts himself among the Trump supporters who believes the president should not concede until the campaign exhausts all legal avenues, said Biden should "embrace" some of the "America First" message that propelled Trump into office four years ago. Biden, he said, will be "successful" if he "governs from a more centrist position."

"There is no question in my mind that the Republicans in Congress will be willing to work with Joe Biden," LaValle said. "That being said, Republicans are not going to abandon our principles and ideals and the direction that we believe this country should be going in … there’s certain places we’re not going to go. We’re not going toward a Green New Deal."

The election has underscored internal divisions within each party that could help Biden "forge a center governing coalition, much like Bill Clinton did," said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

The GOP has largely become "the party of Trump" but there still remains a more centrist "Never Trump" wing of the party, and Democrats have also experienced internal strife between the moderate camp and left of center progressive wing, Engel said.

"He is, at this point, a president of the center at a time when both parties are fighting with their extremes over their identity," Engel said of Biden. "That suggests that there's a lot of room in the middle of the curve for a coalition."

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