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The Globe and Mail

Dear new President: A letter to the White House’s next tenant

Dear president-elect,

After years of campaigning, a hundred thousand hands shaken, a million miles travelled and hundreds of millions of dollars raised and spent, you have finally arrived. For the next four years, the White House and Air Force One are your home. You will be thought of as the most powerful person on the planet – though thanks to deep divisions among Americans, and the American constitution's division of powers, you will often feel powerless.

You have arrived at the presidency, but the office is not a destination. It should be, instead, your starting point. Voters elected you to do something about all that weighs on their minds, and their pocketbooks. And American voters of all stripes are marked by worry, frustration, fear and an unhealthy degree of anger.

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America votes: Coverage of the 2016 U.S. election night

Politics is about differences of opinion, and America is a country where those differences are deeper than ever. Two warring parties and their supporters increasingly inhabit two distinct planets. You must try to persuade voters from the other galaxy that you serve and respect them as much as you do those from your side of the universe. You go into this knowing that you will not convert many.

The precise geography of America's current political divisions is new, but a political landscape marked by deep canyons is a fact older than the nation itself. This is a country that was born in a civil war it prefers to call a revolution, and re-forged in the fighting of another civil war nearly a century later, which it then refought through emancipation, reconstruction, segregation and only a few short decades ago, desegregation.

Disagreement is, unfortunately, as American as American can get. It's neither new nor abnormal. It's why democratic politics was created: to manage differences by means other than violence.

What's new is how few bridges now cross America's political canyons. Most of them have been burned.

Once upon a time, Republicans and Democrats would compete, but also co-operate. But since the early 1990s, the parties have been less and less able to work together. For many voters, particularly on the Republican side, bipartisanship is a sin, and compromise is a four-letter word.

The next president must try to rebuild the bridges – even while recognizing that success depends on finding hands reaching across from the other side. Those hands are in short supply. But they are not non-existent.

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Democrats have at times tried to cross the divide by shifting to the right – President Bill Clinton famously triangulated, and to some extent it worked, since he won an election and then re-election. But despite his strategy, he also ended up facing unprecedented opposition from the "Contract With America" Republicans, who orchestrated a government shutdown and even impeached a sitting president.

Or consider the presidency of Barack Obama. Mr. Obama is a beautiful and powerful orator, and the issue on which he has always spoken with the greatest passion is the nation's founding sin, its great racial wound. He is the physical embodiment of that history of separation and comingling.

And yet Mr. Obama's greatest accomplishment is not rhetorical or spiritual. It's a dollars and cents matter: the creation, against overwhelming GOP opposition, of something close to universal health insurance. It's not perfect, but it is better than the alternative, where millions were uninsured, or one pink slip away from it.

The basic issues of jobs, taxes, wealth and health are what matter most to voters. Yes, they sometimes can be bamboozled by culture warriors, but the personal bottom line is always going to be a big part of the voting bottom line. The economic pain felt by millions of less educated Americans, which helped to power Donald Trump's campaign, is real. Don't forget them.

And yet for all the attention focused on the presidency, the truth is that you, the next president, will have unparalleled prestige, but much more limited power. You will not get to decide on a budget, or set the level of taxes, or determine where money gets spent or cut. Congress does that.

The president is often blamed for all that goes wrong (or more rarely, given credit for all that went right). You're about to discover just how grossly unfair that is.

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Tuesday night in America was not election night. It was elections night. There were 470 different contests for national office. Your race, the one for president, received all of the attention. But 435 seats in the House of Representatives were up for grabs, along with one-third of the Senate, or 34 seats.

Those other 469 elections matter, immensely, because the U.S. is not a parliamentary system. Even when one party controls both the White House and Congress, the president is not all-powerful.

And that can be the hardest thing for voters, and a new president, to come to terms with.

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