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A Biden Presidency: Reset or Renewal?

The US elections are over. What will a Biden presidency mean?

It is finally over. The US elections that we thought would never end. But, of course, we all know it is not really over. President Donald Trump has still not conceded, even though a concession is not a requirement of the US Constitution, just a well-established practice. The counting will also continue for a number of days, alongside a recount in Georgia of the presidential race and run-offs for the two senate seats in early January, which will determine who holds power in the Senate.

Joe Biden is the first president-elect since Grover Cleveland (in 1885) who will come into office without controlling both houses of Congress. It was not the ‘blue wave’ many predicted, though if Biden wins both Arizona and Georgia he may end up with slightly more electoral college votes (306) than Trump won in 2016 (304). Trumpism was not repudiated, even if the public may have tired of the candidate himself. More Americans voted in the 2020 election than in over 120 years, with Biden’s 75 million and Trump’s 70 million (as of 9 November) the highest and the second-highest popular vote counts in US history. Trump even did better in the popular vote than he did in 2016, when he won 63 million votes.

In addition, Trump’s wholesale take-over of the Republican party helped secure – and even gain – a number of Republican seats across the board – in the House of Representatives, the Senate and in state legislatures. Once Trump leaves office in January, we also know he will not go away, as past presidents have done. Trump will continue to shout in ALL CAPS from the sidelines, with many in power possibly afraid to go against him for fear of losing their own supporters. Witness Senator Lindsey Graham and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley falling in line after being reprimanded by Trump’s sons. And with many Republican hopefuls already gearing up for a presidential run in 2024, we may see even less cooperation in the Senate, especially if the Republicans end up with a slight majority as anticipated.

However, one could argue that Biden’s win is a victory for the centre, and for unity and compassion over division. Biden was the first candidate to beat an incumbent in more than 25 years. If the Republicans keep the Senate, Biden will have to compromise, something he is well-known for. And compromise may not be a bad thing for a divided country.

A Biden Presidency

President-elect Biden’s top three stated priorities are: 1) get the pandemic under control; 2) heal national divisions; 3) reinvigorate the economy. Each of these will be an enormous challenge, especially given the reluctance of far too many Americans to follow more restrictive rules, such as wearing a face covering, to curb the pandemic.  

Note the absence of foreign policy in this prioritised list. This is not to say that the Biden team will not hit the ground running on foreign policy. Hundreds of policy wonks have been planning the transition for the last year, including working out who will fill various posts. Moreover, Biden has decades of experience in foreign policy and well-established relationships with world leaders and opposition figures throughout the world. He will not require the tutorial that both Barack Obama and Trump needed at the start of their presidencies.

The good news for America’s allies is that Biden – unlike Trump – has clearly articulated his foreign policy platform, which includes his commitment to work with allies on core issues of global concern. Biden plans to: rejoin the Paris climate agreement; rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO); support the UN; re-engage in arms control treaties; re-engage with NATO; and even try to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. Mostly, this is familiar territory for US presidents from both sides of the aisle – prior to Trump, at least. In addition, Biden will likely advocate a tough but nuanced policy on China, working with China where possible (for example, on climate change and North Korea) and pushing back, with the support of allies, when necessary (for example, on human rights abuses in Xinjiang or unfair trade practices).

At the same time, the Biden team will surely know that they will have to work hard to rebuild trust with these same allies and partners. There was an audible sigh of relief from many capitals across the globe, but a lingering suspicion will remain that if Americans could elect a Trump once, they can do it again. The next time, they may even elect a far more effective and destructive version. For the UK and other countries, this will mean developing their autonomy and resilience – independently and in coordination with allies.

Hence it will not be a ‘reset’ or return to business-as-usual, pre-Trump. Indeed, the world has changed and become more multilateral and fragmented, with powerful countries such as China flexing their muscles on the world stage, and a global pandemic that is far from over.

As Biden prepares to manage these extraordinary international challenges, in partnership with other countries, he will also have to deal with a range of issues that the Trump presidency accelerated. Trump’s overt sexism (some say misogyny), his reluctance to denounce the killings of George Floyd and other black men and women by police officers, and seeming support for white supremacists, galvanised the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. These, in turn, provoked long-overdue and important conversations and reforms on equality, sexual violence and race in the US. #MeToo and #BLM also reverberated around the world, prompting many countries (including the UK) to similarly focus on their own domestic issues.

Trump also acted as a major disruptive force in foreign policy. Trump was the first US president to publicly push back against China, which may have given other world leaders the confidence to do the same. And while many would disagree with his attempts to undermine international organisations such as the WHO, the UN, NATO, or even the EU, the reality remains that most of these institutions are in desperate need of significant reform.

Often, it takes major disruption to force much-needed change. Trump has been the disruptor president in all too many ways, at home and abroad. One can only hope, with Trumpism still alive and kicking in the US, and populist movements still powerful in many parts of the world, that our many shared global challenges can be tackled with a new sense of urgency. Whether Biden will be able to provide global leadership as well as heal America’s divisions, or be stymied into inaction by the right and the progressive left, is still to be determined.

We hope you will join us at RUSI over the coming months and years as we dig into these issues in greater detail.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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