Political News

Joe Biden returns to Wisconsin, testing a new President's promise to unify and govern

Posted February 16, 2021 7:00 a.m. EST

— Caroline Quinlan didn't vote for Joe Biden, but she's praying for his success and hoping he can deliver on his pledge to unite a deeply divided country.

"He's the President, so let him do his job," said Quinlan, 58, a Realtor in this northern suburb of Milwaukee. "And then we can decide in four years if we want him or somebody else."

As the President travels to Wisconsin on Tuesday for a CNN town hall, where he will hear from voters face-to-face for the first time since taking office, Quinlan is among those who will be watching. She supported President Donald Trump but is eager to move beyond the acrimony of the last four years to see what the new administration can achieve.

"I want to get past all this other stuff, get past the Trump stuff and just move on to what Biden's going to do," Quinlan said, reflecting on the tumultuous three-month roller coaster since the election. "He's one of the last politicians, I think, who can cross the aisle and meet with people. I think that's a big plus."

Biden carried Wisconsin by less than a percentage point, once again making the state one of the closest battlegrounds. Here in Cedarburg, he won by only 19 votes out of more than 8,100 cast, the first time in a quarter-century that a Democratic presidential candidate carried the town.

Milwaukee and its traditionally conservative suburbs, where Biden made significant gains last fall, offers a critical test for the degree to which a new President may still be able to win over detractors and keep supporters -- above all, while trying to govern -- in the aftermath of a brutally turbulent period in American political history.

Quinlan, who said she supported Trump because of his vision for the economy, said she was hopeful Biden would be able to concentrate on tackling two critical issues before moving to the rest of his agenda.

"To get the virus under control and get the economy back on track, so people can go back to work, back to the office and back to school," Quinlan said, when asked for her top priorities for Biden. "If he can do that, he'll get things back to where they were before the pandemic. If he does that, I'll be very happy."

With most signs of the election now long gone in Cedarburg, either removed from front lawns or covered in the deep snow, a new season has dawned and many people hope it will offer a fresh start from the Trump era.

"The rhetoric seems to have calmed down," said Natasha Loos, a lifelong resident of Cedarburg who voted for Biden. "We can be neighborly, have a discussion about policy and where we think the trajectory of the country should go, but have it be civil, as opposed to more at each other's throats -- or not even liking each other because somebody has a point of view that is different than yours."

Loos and her husband, Zachary, own the Cedarburg Toy Company in the town's historic district. She said they became unwitting combatants in the vitriolic mask debate, as customers came into their small storefront with their faces uncovered.

Even though the issue remains contentious in Wisconsin, with Republican legislators repealing the state mask mandate earlier this month only to have the Democratic governor issue a new order, Loos said she believed Biden's leadership and his request for Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days of his term have cooled tensions.

"As a business owner, I come to work every day wanting to share joy and happiness," Loos said. "It was very disheartening to have to be confrontational with somebody to say, 'I'm sorry this is the rule here in our store,' and not know what reaction I was going to get back."

"The civility has already started to come back," she added with a smile.

Four weeks after the Biden administration took office, the challenges it faces come into sharper view at a nearby vaccination center at the Waukesha County Expo Center. The facility, normally home to the county fair and other events, was set up with a goal of vaccinating 1,000 people a day, but it sat empty on Monday.

Paul Farrow, the Waukesha County executive, said only 900 doses were received this week, instead of the 7,000 that had been requested. It was one of many sites across the country where demand outpaced supply for the vaccine as the state and federal government are still struggling to battle the pandemic, no matter who is president.

"We're a month into President Biden's term and we're not seeing a lot of change," said Farrow, a Republican who voted for Trump. "We know that there's kind of a grace period right after you get elected, that people are waiting to see if the rhetoric that you had on the campaign trail is going to move forward."

Farrow said the administration has been more communicative with local governments, trying to give three weeks' notice on the vaccine supply. He also said he has been heartened by Biden's calls for unity and hopes he is successful, so that the country will be.

"For me, it's compromise," Farrow said. "And by that, I mean it's working together to come up with a solution."

Yet such compromises could come with complications for Biden.

Angela Lang, the founder of a group that mobilizes Black voters in Milwaukee, said it was important for the President and his advisers to remember the voters who were instrumental to him winning the White House. She and other progressive leaders say they intend to apply pressure to Biden to deliver on his promises.

"I always get kind of skeptical and a little nervous when people say that they want to unite everyone and bring everyone together," said Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. "I think sometimes that means watering down progressive policies for the sake of unity."

She said she has always been more excited by Trump's defeat than by Biden's victory. He was never her first choice, she said, largely because of her deep opposition to the 1994 crime bill that he helped write.

But Lang said she is heartened by Biden's words so far in his presidency, particularly highlighting the need for achieving equity. She realizes that passing Covid relief is the top priority, but she is patiently waiting for Biden to take steps to combat systemic racism and to overhaul criminal justice.

"We elect people knowing that they're not going to be perfect," Lang said. "And that means that we have to hold them accountable."

As Biden enters the second month of his presidency and beyond, this sentiment offers a window into his challenges as he seeks to thread the delicate needle to be a successful leader in the eyes of Lang and Quinlan -- and all others who hunger for change.

Quinlan, a devout Catholic, said she prays Biden will be able to unify the country.

"These passions on both sides, they have to come together somehow," Quinlan said. "I think he's a very kind man. I think he wants to be fair. He's got a big job ahead of him."

She added: "I really hope he fills out his term."

She doesn't regret her vote for Trump, she said, because she believed last year that he would do a better job fixing the economy. Yet among Trump's loyal followers, she is an outlier. She has never attended a single rally, despite Trump and surrogates repeatedly visiting last year.

"Safety, for one," she said, pausing to explain. "And I could get enough of it on TV."

After the election, she said, she became exhausted by the news and started to listen to music in the car and barely turn on her television at home. She said she suspects there were scattered cases of voter fraud, but clearly not enough to change the outcome of the race, as countless court decisions indicated.

She was horrified by the Capitol attack, she said, and disappointed that Trump never acknowledged his election defeat.

Quinlan said she would keep an open mind on Biden. But she said she had no intention of voting for Trump again, even if he should seek the presidency in 2024. She suspects that "he'll have fans until the end," she said, but she won't be among them.

"Oh, no. It's time to move on," Quinlan said. "New candidates, new people and let's see what the country's like in four years."

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