When John Lynch was governor of New Hampshire, his approval ratings were often stratospheric — hitting 73 percent in one 2008 poll. Lynch, a Democrat, joked at the time that his wife tried to make sure his head didn’t get too big by observing: “73 is a C. What’s so great about that?”
President-elect Joe Biden would love to earn that kind of C.
There is an obsession in our deeply polarized country with how we might come together. Many of the popular remedies are of a touchy-feely sort: Listen to each other better, spend time with people we disagree with, read those whose views differ from our own.
All are virtuous activities, but our polarization is about more than sentiments. And as a practical matter, a president operating in a climate of exceptional partisan mistrust — especially one confronting a Republican Party that resisted even acknowledging that he won the election — can never achieve what Lynch did.
Nonetheless, Biden does have a chance to persuade some of the persuadable and lower the political temperature at least a few degrees.
First, though, he should forget about making everybody happy. Any president who stands for something will incur the disapproval of at least a third of the people. This group will include old-fashioned partisans who, in Biden’s case, will never like a Democratic president, and a subset of Trump extremists who will forever regard his presidency as illegitimate.
That crowd will make a lot of noise. Biden and his aides will need to persuade the country — and especially the media — that the chanters and online ranters do not represent “the voice of the people.” They are a minority that will never be reconciled to his presidency.
We remember Ronald Reagan’s popularity, but he reached his peak approval level of 68 percent in Gallup’s surveys only twice. He spent a lot of his time in office in the 40s and 50s. Barack Obama operated within an even narrower range.
Still, this means that, at least in theory, Biden has potential to grow from the 51.3 percent of the vote he won to something around 60 percent, perhaps even a bit higher. Who can he realistically reach out to, and how?
Since his gains this year over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote were larger among college graduates and suburbanites than among those without college degrees, he needs to continue his outreach to the less privileged — White but also Latino.
He can do this without breaking faith with the Black voters who gave him decisive majorities. They form a big part of the working class, and would also respond positively to an emphasis on creating well-paying jobs, lifting incomes and, more broadly, themes built around equal dignity.
In her book “The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes,” British writer (and Labour Party political adviser) Claire Ainsley highlights the themes of family, fairness, hard work and decency. They are keys to reducing polarization.
At least some of the voters who stuck with Trump did so because they liked his attacks on globalization, were more worried about the economy than the pandemic and felt ignored by conventional politicians. Biden needs to push the parts of his program (its “buy American” components, for example) that speak directly to these frustrations.
The fights he chooses to pick with Republicans should be on behalf of proposals (a higher minimum wage, affordable health insurance, more family-friendly workplaces, political reform to reduce big money’s role in politics) that make clear who is on the side of the forgotten.
This also means that Biden’s laudable emphasis on fighting climate change must constantly come back to the job-creating potential of investments in green technologies — which is what Biden did when he announced his climate team on Saturday. The surest way to block progress is to allow opponents of climate action to cast it as a war by “elitist” environmentalists on workers employed in existing energy sectors.
The larger lesson is that culture wars are at the heart of our polarization. If they become ferocious, they will block Biden’s efforts to broaden his reach. As a religious person, Biden — simply by virtue of who he is — can reduce levels of mistrust bred by the growing secular/religious divide, and he needs to handle church/state questions with care. He has a moral obligation to be uncompromising on issues of racial justice, but advocates of change need to find arguments (and, yes, slogans) that appeal across existing lines of division.
And nothing unites like success (one reason Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” slogan was so effective), so ending the pandemic and restoring the economy should be the Democrats’ lodestar.
There is, unfortunately, no vaccine that can bring a sudden end to polarization. But with care, attention and shrewdness, Biden has a chance to give himself room to govern by making us hate each other a little bit less.