Trump foes need to accept his electoral win and create a robust opposition

With Donald Trump's surprise presidential win becoming all but official on Monday, it's a good time for reflection by his fervent opponents and most ardent supporters.

The end of doomed recount efforts and quixotic campaigns to flip Monday's vote by the Electoral College should at last force those in denial to accept that Trump will be the legitimately elected 45th president of the United States.

But the extremely narrow margin of victory should also remind Trump's legions that the president-elect lacks a resounding mandate for many of the extreme policies he promoted with vigor on the campaign trail. Trump's 306 electoral votes ranks 46th out of 58, well behind both of President Barack Obama's wins. And Trump currently trails by 2.5 million in the popular vote, placing him 47th in 49 elections since 1824.

Hundreds of activists, mostly women, gathered in front of Trump International in Columbus Circle for a 'Not My President!' rally and march against the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.
Andy Katz | Pacific Press | LightRocket | Getty Images

Only two presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and John Quincy Adams in 1824 did worse than Trump in the popular vote and still became president. And Adams took the White House following a vote in the House after no candidate received a majority of electoral votes.

Trump backers' claims of a "historic" and "landslide" win for the real-estate magnate are simply wrong. The GOP nominee lost badly in the popular vote and won by narrowly flipping just enough Midwestern states to get over 270. This matters for Trump's approach to governance and inclination toward conciliation with political rivals.

The president-elect has no mandate to eject all of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. His pledges to jail his presidential opponents, stage mass deportations and block Muslims from entering the United States all lack support from the majority of Americans.

There are some encouraging signs that Trump understands this. He has backed off calls to further investigate and prosecute Hillary Clinton and sometimes rebuffed the "lock her up" chants from adoring crowds on his victory tour.

Early signs also suggest the Trump administration will focus on deportations of undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records. Trump continues to talk about his giant border wall. But the fact is much of the Mexican border already features fences and walls with natural barriers covering the rest. Trump could enhance some of the existing structures, add more aerial security and simply declare victory on his wall pledge fairly early in his presidency.

But while Trump and his supporters should take the narrow electoral win into account, ardent opponents who believe the election was somehow stolen should also use the Electoral College vote as a moment to move along the stages of grief spectrum into acceptance.

Russian interference in the U.S. election clearly helped Trump with weeks of revelations of embarrassing emails from Democrats spilling into public view. FBI Director James Comey's strange decision to reignite the controversy over Clinton's use of a private email server just 11 days before Election Day also curtailed any momentum by the Democratic nominee. Bipartisan efforts to further investigate Russian meddling should proceed in 2017 without interference from Trump's White House.

But Clinton lost largely because she failed to connect with enough working-class voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio. Sexism and racism also played roles in Clinton's loss. But Trump outworked the Democratic nominee, staging more rallies and focusing on an economic message of renewed manufacturing greatness in the states where it mattered. Clinton also suffered from the historic difficulty the incumbent party faces in trying to hold the White House for a third term.

But accepting Trump as the legitimately elected president does not mean opponents need to just roll over and accept whatever Trump wants to do. Democrats should rightfully continue to press Trump hard on his failure so far to do much of anything to insulate his decision-making process from his business empire.

The question here is not whether Trump uses the office to further enrich himself (as bad as that might be) but whether he makes decisions that adversely affect U.S. security in the interests of Trump's business ventures abroad.

Democrats will have ample opportunities during the confirmation process to press nominees like Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general over his civil rights record and Steven Mnuchin for Treasury secretary over his actions during the financial crisis.

Democrats can also oppose the nature of Trump's tax cut and deregulation plans while members of his own party and administration can try to restrain the president-elect's promises to engage in self-defeating protectionism.

Democrats have a significant job at hand to change perceptions that they are a party for coastal elites dismissive of working-class fatigue over an agenda that focuses mainly on social justice issues. The sooner Trump denialism gives way to creation of a robust opposition agenda and compelling message, the better off Democrats will be.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.