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Biden's pledge to unify the nation is falling flat, some voters say

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Biden is hosting a unity summit at the White House tomorrow to combat hate-fueled violence. Earlier this week, he talked about unifying the country around a common cause of fighting cancer. Not long ago, he gave a speech trying to rally Americans to unite against anti-democratic forces on the right. Unity has been a theme of the Biden presidency, but it's proven elusive, as NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: When Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign in May of 2019, he said he was running to restore the soul of the nation and unite the country. He's returned to this mission time and again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I pledged to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify.

I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days.

We will be a nation of unity, of hope, of optimism, not a nation of anger, violence, hatred and division.

KHALID: This promise of unity has been so central to Biden's presidency that I wanted to understand what it actually means to people. I met Oscar Castaneda back in April in Michigan. He's a community organizer around Lansing.

OSCAR CASTANEDA: You don't listen to this highly, super divisive rhetoric anymore.

KHALID: From the White House, you're saying. You don't hear that at all.

CASTANEDA: Correct. Correct. And I think that this is a huge success.

KHALID: But Castaneda isn't sure unity is the right metric to measure Biden's progress.

CASTANEDA: Did he unite the country? What I was thinking is he stop the hate.

KHALID: So stopping the hate is crucial, whether or not...

CASTANEDA: Yeah, I think - even if it doesn't heal, but at least it stops the - this language.

KHALID: But some people, like Jennifer Griffin, say it's not just about what the president is saying. It's about what people are saying or not saying to each other.

JENNIFER GRIFFIN: It's impossible to unite the country right now.

KHALID: Why is that?

GRIFFIN: Because white people refuse to discuss racism openly.

KHALID: I met Griffin on a reporting trip last month in Florida. She's not the only one who thinks the country is undeniable. David Leisk felt similar. I met him this past spring in Michigan. He's a liberal and says the reason he thinks the country can't unite is evidenced by the millions of people who listened to Trump's divisive rhetoric and still wanted him for four more years.

DAVID LEISK: There was no way that a country that looked at four years of Donald Trump's performance and still chose to vote to keep that instead of putting in a milquetoast like Joe Biden would ever unite behind Joe Biden.

KHALID: Democrats often blame former President Donald Trump for igniting divisions, and that does seem to pan out with some research. John Geer is a political science professor. He oversees the Vanderbilt Unity Index. It's an attempt to quantify just how polarized the country has been going back to the 1980s on a scale of 0 to 100. After Biden took office, it rose a bit to the high 50s.

JOHN GEER: Most of the low points took place during President Trump's time in office, and the lowest point was at 35 during the Charlottesville situation that was so upsetting to people across the country.

KHALID: But Geer says the divisions really started a couple of decades prior.

GEER: If you're going to put blame, I'd put it at Contract with America and Gingrich. That started it, I think. And you also had then Fox News coming right alongside because Fox News started about two years later.

KHALID: But some Republicans, like Walt Hickock, insist the disunity really started getting worse under former President Barack Obama. And now he says Americans seem to be fighting about everything all the time.

WALT HICKOCK: It doesn't matter what happens, but all of a sudden, you have two sides coming at each other. And I don't see anything bringing that together other than, you know, religious belief. And I don't see that happening in this world right now.

KHALID: I met Hickock this past spring. He voted for Trump but told me he's not sure any politician can help the country's unity.

HICKOCK: I think now it's, you know, probably too far gone, to be real honest. You know, I mean, I'm - part of me says I'm glad I'm 75. OK. I pity you because you got to live here for a while, OK?

KHALID: Part of this struggle is that there does not seem to be a unified vision of what unity itself means. John Geer, who runs the Vanderbilt Index, told me unity, as they measure it, isn't about agreeing on policy. It's about agreeing on the rules of the game.

Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.