WASHINGTON - Ecstatic supporters and determined protesters are preparing for Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Trump will take the oath of office at noon Friday and has promised to move quickly to enact his executive and legislative agenda to bring change to Washington. But Trump will also face a daunting political divide in the United States that was in place well before his election victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton last November.
That divide is reflected in recent poll numbers. A survey by Marist College found 53 percent of those polled nationally believe Trump will do more to divide the country than to unite it. Forty-three percent said he is more likely to unite the nation, while 4 percent were unsure.
University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato noted in his recent political newsletter that voters remain about as divided over Trump as they were during the November election. While Trump won more votes in the Electoral College, he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million.
“Essentially, he is about at the 46 percent level he garnered on Election Day while other recent presidents-elect have soared in the run-up to their swearing-in,” Sabato wrote.
Watch: Trump Faces Daunting Political Divide as He Takes Office
Perhaps mindful of the divide he faces, Trump has set himself apart from previous incoming presidents by holding a series of rallies around the country in the weeks following his election to thank his supporters and maintain enthusiasm for his upcoming ascension to power.
“We will heal our divisions and unify our very, very divided country,” Trump said to supporters last month in Mobile, Alabama. “When Americans are unified, there is nothing we cannot do. No task is too great, no dream too large.”
But opposition to the incoming president remains vibrant and was on display during the recent Electoral College voting in several states including Florida.
“Vote sanity and stability. No Trump,” chanted one woman as electors met to cast their ballots in the state capital of Tallahassee.
Trump supporters have urged his opponents to give the new president a chance. One is Republican Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas.
“I think President Obama was divisive. I’m hopeful President-elect Trump in office will continue to reach out with Congress and with different groups across the country, listen and see if we can’t pull together as a country. That is my hope,” Brady told VOA correspondent Greg Flakus.
Congressional Democrats say they might be open to working with Trump on areas of common interest, such as a major infrastructure project to repair the nation’s roads and bridges, an endeavor that could produce thousands of jobs. Many Republicans are more hesitant, worried that the enormous cost of a large-scale infrastructure plan could balloon the budget deficit.
The new Senate Democratic leader, Charles Schumer of New York, also cautioned the president-elect.
“We’ll fight him tooth and nail when he appeals to the baser instincts that diminish America and its greatness,” Schumer said.
Some Democrats appear eager to take on Trump where they can, including former presidential contender Bernie Sanders.
“When we stand together, Donald Trump and nobody, nobody is going to stop us! Let’s go forward together! Thank you all!” Sanders told Democrats at a post-election rally outside the U.S. Capitol.
Why Unity Matters
How Trump chooses to deal with the challenge of unifying the country is important, according to Brookings Institution analyst John Hudak.
“It is incumbent upon him to start building bridges to the nearly 70 million Americans who voted for someone else. That is a real challenge, and it’s not a challenge every president faces, and it will be an important challenge to see how the new president goes about that, if he goes about it at all, in the early months of his administration.”
There are some expectations that Trump will try to tackle the political divide in his inaugural address. New presidents have historically used the occasion to reach out to those who opposed them in the election just past.
“I don’t think we expect Donald Trump will change as a person, as most people don’t,” said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “But I think as he assumes the office and taking that speech, that might be an opportunity for him to reach out.”
Polling data suggests Trump has work to do. In mid-December, Gallup found that 48 percent of Americans approve of how Trump is handling his presidential transition. This compares to 75 percent for Barack Obama in 2009, 65 percent for George W. Bush in 2001 and 67 percent for Bill Clinton in 1993.
“(Trump) has not reached out to reunify a badly divided country in any sustained way,” said Larry Sabato. As a result, he has the lowest ratings of any modern president-elect during the transition period.”
A recent Marist College poll found Trump retains strong support among Republicans. The survey found that 85 percent of Republicans believe Trump is bringing positive change, compared to just 12 percent of Democrats. Eighty-eight percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s performance during transition while 73 percent of Democrats do not.
“Trump’s transition to the presidency is lacking a political honeymoon,” said Marist polling director Lee Miringoff.“The president-elect has been reaching out to his base but has not broadened his support.”
Healing the Divide
Time Magazine named Trump Person of the Year for 2016 after his election victory. A line on the magazine cover also described him as President of the Divided States of America.’
Trump took issue with that in his interview with Time: “When you say divided states of America, I didn’t divide them. They’re divided now. I mean there is a lot of division. And we’re going to put it back together, and we’re going to have a country that’s very well healed.”
The public will likely welcome any Trump outreach on unity, beginning with his inaugural address.
“But I’m very hopeful,” said David Eagles, director for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service. “When you look at history in these periods of time, the American public has generally given a halo effect, if you will, on an incoming president to get their job done.”
But any effort to ease the political bitterness from the election could be complicated right from the start by Trump’s promise to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s signature achievement, his health care law.