The Struggle Between Light and Dark

Can Biden's optimism win out and shift the country's direction?

The maskless US President and Vice President in the Rose Garden on May 13, 2021. (Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Joe Biden is betting on optimism and his positive belief in Americans. He’s sticking with this even as the Republicans are pursuing a grimly cynical course to further divide voters and diminish democracy.

The stakes couldn’t be higher in this battle between light and dark and the opposing gravitational forces. The coming years will reveal whether a positive attitude and bold agenda have the power to persuade Republicans exploited by destructive leaders employing demagoguery to feed their hostilities and fears.

Biden’s rosy words can sound anachronistic, even disconnected from reality based on the toxic selfishness and cruelty of the Trump years and the fact that over 73 million Americans were willing to continue that downward spiral for another four years. Here’s what he said on a sunny day in the Rose Garden last Thursday:

“The simple truth is this: The American people have never, ever, ever, ever let their country down.  Never…There’s nothing we are unable to do when we put our minds, our hearts, and our souls into it, and we do it together.”

Those words were delivered after the CDC announcement that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most situations. He also laid out the facts: Over 250 million shots in 114 days. The number of COVID cases down in 49 of 50 states.  Deaths down 80 percent and at their lowest levels since April of 2020.

Biden had more to say, painting a picture that not only can seem disorienting after the darkest days of the pandemic, but also hard to fully absorb after the continuing trauma of the insurrection and the ongoing efforts to deny voting rights and the truth of that deadly attack.

“We will rebuild our economy, reclaim our lives, and get back to normal.  We’ll laugh again.  We’ll know joy again.  And we’ll smile again—you know, and now see one another’s smile, look at the smiles on other people’s faces.  Better days are ahead, I promise you.”

Polling suggests Biden’s case is connecting. After the first 100 days of the Biden presidency, an ABC News/Ipsos poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans think the country is going in the right direction. That level of optimism hasn’t been seen since 2006.

That matches an AP-NORC poll that 63 percent of Americans approve of how Biden is handling his job as president overall. In that same survey conducted between April 29 and May 3, 71 percent approve of his handling of the pandemic, including 47 percent of Republicans. This follows 70 percent of Americans who supported the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and nearly two-thirds who favor his infrastructure plan.

Yet before we presume Biden’s positivity and agenda is genuinely changing minds and shifting the dynamic, note the Republicans’ response on other policies. That same AP-NORC survey found that Republicans widely disapprove of his performance on gun policy (80 percent), immigration (87 percent) and the economy (79 percent).

And while such polling offers a glimpse of the country’s attitudes, it only scratches the surface of the deeper forces that continue to roil the body politic.

In a sane world, democratically elected members of the House and Senate—from both parties—would support voting rights, express their sustained horror over a heinous attack on the Capitol, work to tamp down political violence, reject white supremacy, and thank their lucky stars they can move beyond the former White House occupant. After all, this is the man who never won the approval of even half the country, aggressively sowed conflict and hate, attacked their own colleagues and incited a violent insurrection.

But we are witnessing the Republicans’ doubling down on a Trump-fueled strategy of lying about voter fraud and the election outcome, passing legislation across the country to limit the rights and access of voters, kowtowing to the former guy who’s facing myriad criminal prosecutions, and purging its own who dare to question the wisdom or truth of this.

As Virginia Heffernan smartly notes in the Los Angeles Times, comparing this behavior to gamblers who suffer “brain-hijacking” after serious losses, causing them to compound their problems by compulsively upping the ante:

“In short, the hivemind of House Republicans has been seized by the delusion that if it keeps placing more and even bigger bets on one-term, twice-impeached Donald Trump—the most disgraced and disliked president in American history—this time the party will get its power back.”

Joe Biden is betting they are wrong. He is betting that an optimistic tone and a constructive agenda that moves the country beyond the virus and adds millions of jobs will convince not only Democrats and independents, but also a growing number of Republicans still capable of believing in their better angels.

Is he right? I suspect it will take the flood of criminal prosecutions and convictions of insurrectionists, a growing number of prosecutions of corrupt Republicans like Matt Gaetz, and particularly the prosecution of one Donald J. Trump on various charges, including bank, tax and election fraud. (The jury is still out on how aggressively Merrick Garland will employ the tools of his department to seek justice against the leading insurrection inciter.)

It’s not that all this will shift their narrative, convincing them that they were wrong about him all along, but it will at least ensure that he never holds public office again and expand the numbers of voters exhausted by the endless drama. In the struggle between light and dark, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of fatigue to motivate people to change the channel.

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