As we anticipate a new presidential Administration, all of us are looking forward to the future and thinking about the possibilities ahead. Among the many topics that must be addressed, one of the most pressing is to acknowledge and tackle the growing racial divide in this country.
If we are to heal as a nation, we must overcome a deep mistrust that exists in this country between races. Donald Trump may not have been the cause of this mistrust, but his 2016 election reinvigorated it. Four years ago, a “President Trump” was a hypothetical. At the time, we could only project our worst fears on what his Administration could do, based on what he said on the campaign trail. But in the almost four years since his inauguration, he has taken every opportunity to pour gasoline on almost every fire he could find.
For this reason, the 2020 election was different. This time, Trump had an actual record to run on. He had three-plus years of hurtful policies, dangerous rhetoric, and the disastrous handling of a pandemic that has killed more people in the United States than any other country—a pandemic that also disproportionately kills Black and brown people. At the same time, the nation has experienced a racial reckoning around the seemingly constant killing of Black Americans by police across the country. The racial unrest was an opportunity for Trump to show true leadership and help atone for his awful handling of Charlottesville. Instead, he chose to inflame tensions. And slightly less than half of the country voted for him anyway. It is with this backdrop that President-elect Biden must try to heal and govern this country.
So, what steps can he take to bring this country together? And if you cannot legislate people’s hearts, what really can you do? I would argue that getting people to see the humanity and commonality in people they do not know and who are not like them is crucial. Here are a few things for President-elect Biden to think about:
Focus on his rhetoric and on leading the entire country. As simple as these two things sound, they can go a long way to countering the current climate we are in. I am not so naïve as to believe that this is enough—after all, racism and divisiveness evidently did not go away with the election of President Obama—but it matters that we are switching from a President who uses his pulpit to bully to a President who uses his pulpit to heal. We will get nowhere without taking this crucial first step. Having a President who will not actively try to divide the country along race (or gender, or geography, etc.) will be a marked change from the last three-plus years.
President-elect Biden’s speech after the race was called was like a balm to my soul. He struck all the right notes about unity and coming together. He also managed to specifically acknowledge the support of Black Americans who helped put him over the top.
I also think that having a President who actually enjoys the act of leading and governing is important. Sure, Trump enjoyed the trappings of the White House and the power that came along with it, but I do not believe that he ever truly enjoyed governing. In Joe Biden, we will have a President who obviously relishes and values this task, as evidenced by his long career and the thoroughness with which he ran the Recovery Act in 2009 as vice president.
Restore faith in government. Countless studies have shown that the American people generally do not trust the federal government to work for them. This has ramifications beyond any single politician’s reelection chances. Often sitting just below the surface of these sentiments is the notion that the government doesn’t work for the people as a whole, but instead for “others”—for those who don’t deserve it or who aren’t “like me.”
This is where the coronavirus presents an opportunity to the next Administration. President-elect Biden has made it clear throughout his campaign that one of his biggest priorities is to get COVID-19 under control and the economy back on track. Given the current Administration’s calamitous approach on this issue, the next Administration must not just have a plan, but it must consistently tell the American people what the plan is, how it affects them, and explain the science and data behind it. While the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted communities of color, it has disrupted every single person’s life in this country. Getting a handle on it will be a chance to demonstrate, once again, the good that government can do for all Americans.
Talk about race and racism. One election is not going to erase 400-plus years of slavery, oppression, Jim Crow, and systemic racism. But President-elect Biden has an opportunity that President Obama did not. Despite the hopes projected on Obama to somehow bring an end to racism in America, this was quite clearly an unfair ask. The burden to solve racism cannot solely fall on the victims of it—even if one of those individuals was the President of the United States. It is also going to take well-meaning white people to, as John Lewis said, “get into good trouble.” It is going to take white people deciding that the structures and vestiges of white supremacy are worth dismantling. President Biden will have more leeway to address these tough conversations than President Obama ever could (if you do not believe me, might I remind you of the beer summit).
There are also countless policy conversations to be had. Figuring out how to change the structures that systematically oppressed people of color—from the school to prison pipeline, from housing to the ever-growing wealth gap—is not easy. There are countless groups and advocates that have been working on these issues for decades. This is a testament to their importance but also to the entrenched interests that resist progress. Nevertheless, it is a mark of how far we’ve come that the term “systemic racism” is being talked about broadly. It means something to the victims of systemic racism that the President-elect not only recognizes its impact but actively seeks to redress it.
Show empathy. We have all become numb to things Trump has said and done, but it is important to remember that it was not—and is not—normal for a President to behave that way. It is not normal for a President to show absolutely no remorse for the many thousands who have died from the coronavirus, for example. Having a President who not only empathizes with pain, but can actually relate to it, will be a breath of fresh air. Having a President who does not immediately see the worst in people who do not agree with him, but instead engages with those differing opinions, looks to understand them, and acts with care and principle will be a return to more normal times. The Trump presidency has shown this is obviously not something to take for granted. If we want our fellow Americans to regard each other not with suspicion and derision, but with empathy and understanding, it helps to have someone in charge who demonstrates that behavior.
I have no doubt that the actions the Biden-Harris Administration take and the policies they push for will better the lives of the American people. But I did not focus on policy in this article for a reason. For many, the Trump presidency has made us question everything we thought we knew about this country and our fellow Americans. For some of us, it has also reinforced our fears or lived experiences. It is going to take a while to move beyond that, and simply pretending that we did not go through it, or that we are not as divided as we are, is not going to fix it. It will take the type of compassion, empathy, and leadership we have seen out of Joe Biden in the past, and that we so desperately need now and in the future.