UNITED STATES – President-elect Joe Biden appears to have received a modest bounce in the polls following the temporary takeover of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Fifty-nine per cent (59%) of voters nationwide now approve of the way that Biden has handled his role since Election Day. That’s up from the 52% to 55% ratings he received in earlier polling.
At the same time, however, the president will move into the Oval Office at a time when 30% of voters still believe that President Donald Trump was the legitimate winner of Election 2020. That’s very similar to the situation Trump entered four years ago when roughly a third of the nation’s voters believed that Hillary Clinton was the legitimate winner of Election 2016. It seems likely that the voters who doubt the legitimacy of the election results will prove to be as much of a headache for the new president as they were for the outgoing chief executive.
But, this phenomenon represents a very significant problem for our nation. The one-third of voters who don’t believe Trump won in 2016 is a different segment of the population from the one-third who don’t believe Biden won in 2020. As a result, roughly two-thirds of voters believe one of the past two elections was decided illegitimately.
This is perhaps unsurprising given the high levels of distrust that have continued for decades. It has been nearly half a century since most Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. Still, it is hard to overstate the magnitude of this problem for a nation built on the belief that governments derive their only just authority from the consent of the governed. If those who are governed do not trust the election process, there is no way for the government to retain any legitimate power.
That may help explain why six-out-of-ten voters believe it is more important for a Biden administration to focus on restoring trust and confidence in our system of politics, elections and government rather than advancing specific policy goals. Just 26% take the opposite view. A majority of every measured demographic group places a higher priority on restoring trust rather than policy goals.
The need to restore trust will overlap just about every issue the new president encounters.
Consider, for example, the pandemic.
Most voters (52%) believe that the worst is still to come. But most will likely be skeptical of any proposals made by the Biden administration. Why? Because the behaviour of government officials over the past year has given people reason to be skeptical. There have been far too many stories about public officials imposing one set of rules on their constituents while refusing to follow the same rules themselves. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, it’s chilling that some elected politicians even think it’s OK to issue stay-at-home orders from the airport or exotic vacation locations.
Not surprisingly, therefore, voters aren’t all that keen on letting governors and mayors decide which businesses should be allowed to reopen. A plurality of voters (45%) places more trust in letting individual Americans decide for themselves which businesses are safe enough to visit.
Sadly, it’s not just elected politicians who have forfeited the trust of voters. Just 34% of voters believe public health officials consistently reported the true facts about the coronavirus. Forty-eight per cent (48%) believe such officials have misrepresented the data to build public support for policies they prefer.
Restoring trust in elections and government officials must begin with a recognition that it requires much more than a PR campaign to change the attitudes of voters. It requires changing the behavior and policies of our government so that they are worthy of trust. That is the primary challenge President-elect Biden will face when he enters office later this week.