The central theme of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has been that he is uniquely capable of uniting our politically polarized country around some semblance of common values. But in recent months, he’s leaned heavily on one specific variation of that message, telling voters: “I’ll be a president for all Americans. Not just the ones who vote for me.” He’s repeated the line, or versions of it, on social media, during town halls, and in his addresses. He included a riff on it in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, during which he said it was a president’s job “to represent all of us, not just our base or our party.” In his speech last week commemorating the anniversary of Gettysburg, he said: “I am running as a proud Democrat. But I will govern as an American president.”
Biden settled on togetherness as his core message early on for the obvious reason that many Americans were exhausted with living in a perpetual culture war fueled by a president only capable of catering to his own hardcore supporters, and it played to the former veep’s strengths as a comforting moderate. When he talks about being a president for everyone, Biden often means it in the gauzy sense that he’ll spend the next four years soothing the nation’s weary, Twitter-addled soul. “What we need in America is leadership that seeks to deescalate tensions, to open lines of communication, to bring us together, to heal, to hope,” he said at Gettysburg. “As president, that is precisely what I will do.”
But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that when Biden says he will be a “president for all Americans,” he is in effect also making a very specific public policy promise. Namely, voters won’t have to worry about being punished just because their state didn’t happen to vote for him.
That is of course not the case with Donald Trump, whose presidency has been defined in large part by his habit of politicizing things like disaster and pandemic responses—the kind of emergencies that previous presidents had used as opportunities to make conspicuous displays of bipartisanship (see: Barack Obama and Chris Christie on the tarmac after Hurricane Sandy). Trump has feuded with California’s leaders for years over wildfire aid, for instance, threatening to cut off funding relief funds repeatedly as he’s squabbled with local leaders about whether global warming or forest management issues are at fault (contra the president, almost every sane person on Earth thinks it’s both). On Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Administration briefly rejected the state’s most recent bid for help, before reversing itself. After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, meanwhile, Trump ended up in a bitter fight with officials there who dared to criticize his response (reminder: almost 3,000 people died due to the storm), and as a result spent years blocking more aid to the island.
In contrast, when deep-red Alabama was struck by tornadoes last year, Trump promised “A-plus treatment” for the state, like he was talking to a VIP who’d just rolled into one of his hotels.
Trump’s catastrophically inept response to the coronavirus has also been shaped by his disdain for places run by Democrats. Vanity Fair has reported that the administration decided against enacting a wide-scale national testing plan in part because it saw the pandemic largely as a blue-state problem. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” one source told the magazine. (Vanity Fair’s reporting suggests that the administration’s early refusal to help states get protective equipment was shaped by similar considerations.) As late as last month, Trump was saying much the same. “If you take the blue states out,” he said, talking about America’s COVID death count, “we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at. We’re really at a very low level.”
There have been other efforts to stick it to blue states as well, from Trump’s attacks on “sanctuary cities” to his threats to defund “anarchist jurisdictions” that weren’t sufficiently on board with his law-and-order schtick. Repealing the deduction for state and local taxes has also widely been seen as an attack on coastal, heavily Democratic states, though one that was backed by the entire Republican Party, and arguably had some policy justifications, given that it mostly affected upper-income households.
Not all of Trump’s attacks on blue America have led to concrete policy consequences (again, California eventually got its aid this time). But his impulse to govern like an old-line machine politician, dolling out favors to friends and screwing his enemies, has helped plunge the country into ever-deeper levels of acrimony and made it impossible for some Americans to take for granted that the federal government will be there when they need it most. By promising to govern for all Americans, Biden isn’t just promising to tone down the divisive rhetoric. He’s promising to take death and disaster just as seriously, whether it happens in New York or Alabama.