Editorial: Joe Biden's battle for the soul of America has begun

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The Times Editorial Board
·4 min read
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President Joe Biden adjusts his face mask as he signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Biden prepares to sign his first executive orders in the Oval Office on Wednesday. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

In his inaugural address last week, President Biden rattled off six crises that the United States faces simultaneously: a deadly pandemic, a threat to our democracy, economic inequity, systemic racism, climate change and a diminished role for the U.S. in the world.

As if that weren't enough, all of these problems are exacerbated by the polarization that is warping not just our politics, but also our society and our national identity.

Some Republicans and right-leaning media outlets signaled just after the inauguration that they were going to take offense at much of what Biden does — for example, witness the complaints that Biden was being divisive by calling out systemic racism in his speech or signing executive orders reversing a number of President Trump's most contentious initiatives. If that's being divisive, there can be no healing.

The new president will need to speak to the public often about our challenges, what he's trying to do about them, and why. But beyond that, he'll need to find a way to show millions of disaffected, even hostile constituents that he hears and understands them, even when he disagrees with them. Many of those Americans are suspicious of such core Democratic Party tenets as affirmative action, cultural diversity, reproductive rights and gun control, complicating Biden's task.

A good place to start would be to recognize and respond to the deep need in the American people for a sense of connection, of purpose, of meaning in their lives. Trump was as successful as he was because he spoke to those needs and provided Americans an opportunity to express their rage against a society that they believed disdained them for their faith, tastes, race or class and judged them on how much they had or made or who or what they knew.

Biden can't restore a sense of worth without expanding economic opportunity and social justice — but that alone won’t address Americans’ crisis of confidence, the yearning for a sense of one's value to society and of our nation's place in the world. There's no simple policy fix for that. Only through actions and words can Biden, over time, help Americans win back confidence in each other.

Ending the pandemic wouldn't magically heal our social rifts, but it would open the door to progress on multiple fronts. COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on all of us, economically, physically and psychically. Biden has smartly sought to step up federal leadership on the virus, improve vaccine distribution, increase the supply of protective gear and provide long-overdue guidance on how to reopen schools safely. On Friday he ordered even more help, calling on federal agencies to start work on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour for federal contractors and to increase food aid.

Tangible steps that offer support in the near term are a good way to show Americans that Washington hasn't forgotten them. But the biggest moves will require action by Congress, and that's where Biden is likely to need votes from at least some Republicans. As an opening salvo on the pandemic, he's asked Congress for another huge infusion of dollars to battle the disease and provide financial relief. The bill includes plenty of good ideas, but Biden will have to work to bring on Republicans in the Senate, who could scuttle the measure and whose concerns about the federal deficit are activated when a Democrat is in the White House.

Admittedly, the new president doesn't need our advice on how to deal with a body he served in for 36 years. Still, we hope he quickly seeks to move high-impact legislation that speaks to the desires of both parties. A major investment in improving U.S. infrastructure, which would create millions of jobs and improve productivity while addressing environmental justice concerns, is one such bill. An overhaul of the morass of worker training and retraining programs, which could help the growing number of Americans whose jobs are being lost to automation, is another.

Finally, Trump's relentless and baseless claims about the last election left millions of Americans doubting the integrity of our democracy. Congressional Democrats have teed up an important proposal to make it easier for people to cast ballots, but Biden needs to find common ground with Republicans on ways to increase both voter turnout and voters' belief in the results. It's not enough to tell Trump supporters that they were misled; on this issue especially, Biden needs to show them that their concerns matter to him.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.