Five Key Learnings for the Biden Administration
Examining the post-election landscape of the US and analyzing how the president-elect should tackle major policy on immigration, trade, and the Middle East.
1) Resistance to Biden is likely
The result of the election made it clear America has not rejected ‘Trumpism’ and remains deeply polarized. Donald Trump remains an important figure within the Republican Party, and perhaps even its leader.
Some senior figures in the party support his efforts to convey the impression the election was ‘stolen’ from them, and analysts such as Max Boot and Timothy Snyder are even comparing this to the Dolchstosslegende (myth of a stab in the back) in Germany after World War I.
Assuming Joe Biden does take over as president on 20 January, the question is what form any ‘resistance’ to his administration takes. Many opponents of the Trump administration saw themselves as the ‘resistance’ but that situation is now reversed as conservative opponents of Biden form their own movement against what they see as an illegitimate government.
As the number of coronavirus cases soars in the US, Biden is likely to immediately take measures that go further than the Trump administration did, which will increase opposition from conservatives who see such a move as restricting their freedom as Americans. And it is almost inevitable there will be a battle between the Biden administration and the conservative-dominated Supreme Court — whether over abortion, healthcare, or other issues.
The question is whether opponents of Biden can become a powerful movement as the proto-Trumpian Tea Party did after Barack Obama became president in 2008 — which was partly based on opposition to his economic stimulus measures, and partly on racial resentment.
Opposition to Biden comes from senior Republicans in Congress at one end of the spectrum, and armed militia groups on the streets at the other end. Each opposes Biden for different reasons — in particular, they are divided between social conservatives and libertarians — and it is not certain they will come together. Ultimately, much may still depend on Trump himself, whether — and how — he leads this resistance to Biden.
2) Biden’s ability to deliver key policies may depend on China
The 2020 US election results were slow to arrive but were decisive, with Biden on track to secure 306 electoral votes, leading by more than five million votes, and having flipped several states Trump won in 2016.
But the results also reveal America is deeply divided as more than 71 million Americans voted for Trump. Republicans also managed to hold and even increase their hold on the majority of state legislative chambers.
Notably though, some key ballots were ‘split’ as Americans who voted for Biden supported Republican candidates further down the ballot and vice-versa. By comparison, in 2016 not a single state split its vote as all 50 states chose a president and senators from the same party.
Nebraskans in the Second Congressional District (NE-2), which saw one of the biggest swings in the country of 8.6 percent, voted for Biden and re-elected the incumbent Republican congressman. All of this suggests that America is more moderate than it sometimes appears.
The big question is what this means for the president’s ability to deliver on his foreign and domestic policy agendas. And this will be shaped, although not determined, by the result of the two Senate seats in Georgia which go to a runoff on 5 January.
Until then, the Senate remains in limbo which has implications for the transition period, since the Republican Party remains in campaign mode until 5 January, is inclined to keep Trump’s base mobilized, and may be disinclined to compromise for bipartisan deals.
The implications of this division for governance could be grave without deft political management by Biden. One key finding of the election is the economic divide between Republican and Democratic voters, with 16 percent of the counties voting for Biden accounting for 70 percent of America’s GDP. The other 84 percent, won by Trump, account for less than 30 percent.
With the pandemic continuing to spread at a devastating pace, and inequality in America high, there are strong political but also economic and moral reasons to work quickly to deliver key policy goals. Fiscal stimulus to deal with the economic devastation of the pandemic was a great bipartisan achievement during the Trump administration, but renewal is desperately needed.
This looks set to be deferred until after the inauguration but the reality of a divided government will significantly impact the size of that stimulus and who benefits. But it will benefit Republicans to agree a stimulus, as so much of their support comes from low growth parts of the US economy.
Economic investment in national industries, research and development, and America’s competitiveness is also essential, but could also stumble in a Republican-dominated Senate.
One key issue that unites Democrats, Republicans, and the public is China, so a focus on this can help build broad bipartisan support for a domestic agenda that invests in education, and research and development, targeted at specific industries — all increasing US capability to compete with its chief geopolitical rival.
But if the China card is used to unite America, the challenge is to guard against demonizing China and moving the critical goal of international cooperation on climate, trade, and public health even further out of reach.
3) New immigration policies will not be easy
If 2016 unleashed the electoral potential of railing against immigrants and immigration nationally, the subsequent four years of rolling back guarantees for young immigrants known as ‘Dreamers’ and encouraging the separation of children from their families at the US border proved the popularity of reducing immigration as well as the tolerance — even support — of humiliating and abusing immigrants to do so. And yet odder still is the not-insignificant share of Hispanic vote that Trump won this time round with 30 percent of the vote — more than supported him in 2016.
With anti-immigrant fervour now fully awake and mobilized, and with media such as Fox News and Breitbart enjoying large audiences, re-establishing a rational, humane immigration policy under a Biden administration is not easy anyway — but it is about to get more difficult.
Regardless of whether the Biden administration wants to make it a priority in its first 100 days, immigration will likely become a top-line issue as the border pressure is growing. Economies to the south of the US are projected to contract by up to 8.1 percent this year on average and will grow, at best, only around three percent in 2021, potentially increasing the ranks of the poor by up to 20 million and raising the risks of greater crime and violence.
In addition, the recent spate of extreme weather in the region, such as Hurricane Eta causing massive flooding and mudslides in Central America, have displaced thousands of citizens from both their livelihoods and homes. There are already strong rumours of desperate migrants making their way to the US border, which will be red meat for Trump’s nativist base and the right-wing media.
Biden has promised to create a task force to reunite immigrant families separated at the border, pledged to expedite asylum cases, ridiculed the uncompleted border wall, and renewed his commitment to investing in the economic development and security of countries sending migrants to the US.
But efforts to establish a softer, humane approach to immigration will meet stiff resistance, and may scuttle any efforts at meaningful reform of immigration laws and policies. As migrants continue to flow to the US border, the issue will quickly rise to the top of the public debate with no easy answers for how to resolve it.
4) Middle East unsure about a Biden presidency
Biden’s statement that he is not going to be ‘America alone’ signals a return to multilateral engagement, and collaboration with allies is urgently needed for the US to negotiate a return to the Iran nuclear agreement and to resolve issues such as the Yemen and Syrian wars, and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian process.
But his Middle East agenda is constrained by domestic economic and health priorities, and the overarching geopolitical dynamics with Russia and China while, without full congressional control, Biden’s objectives in the Middle East will have to be tempered.
Although heralded in most global capitals, Biden’s win was not greeted with the same enthusiasm in the Middle East where American allies enjoyed close ties with the Trump administration. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE anticipate relations with Washington cooling, but they do see divisions within the US government as a moderating influence.
Biden’s biggest investment will be the Iran nuclear agreement, having stated his intention to return to it based on a ‘compliance for compliance’ basis. To succeed, his team must chart a pathway back to the negotiating table that includes bipartisan support, and addresses Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati concerns about Iran’s wider regional ambitions, while also managing Iranian demands.
As part of this, talks to end the Yemen war are critical. But this entire process which includes multiple actors will require significant diplomatic investment, thereby limiting attention to other issues.
In Israel, Biden has promised to revitalize talks with the Palestinians but, as with Yemen, significant US diplomatic investment will be needed to return to the prism of the two-state solution dealt a blow by Trump’s ‘Deal of a Century’.
The Palestinians will want to re-engage with the Biden team but, without new momentum, ideas, and leadership on the Palestinian side this conflict could languish. With limits on Biden’s agenda, the Abraham Accords that saw normalization of ties between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain could bring more inter-regional collaboration to manage an end to the Syrian war.
5) On trade, Biden brings calmer waters, but undercurrents remain
As the US adopts a less antagonistic and more cooperative approach to trade policy under a Biden administration, renewed international engagement will be on an issue-by-issue basis. An early sign for a new direction of US trade policy is finalizing the selection process for the next director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
But the first real test for his administration is to decide the fate of Trump’s steel and aluminium tariffs currently imposed on imports from the EU and other allies in the name of national security. These will likely be removed but less quickly than some expect because the Biden administration does not want to alienate voters in the ‘rust-belt states’ of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin who turned away from Trump in 2020.
There will be more continuity on trade in the years ahead although the potential for a large-scale realignment of US trade policy is limited, especially as Biden has made it clear he will initially focus on domestic economic priorities, so new trade initiatives must take a back seat.
Trade policy will also continue to face hurdles in Congress due to significant divisions both within the Democratic Party as well as between Democrats and Republicans. And many key trade concerns persist – in particular China’s trade and technology policies, as well as industrial subsidies, and the role of state-owned enterprises.
The US needs to ‘mend the fence’ with Europe on a range of trade issues, such as the long-standing Boeing-Airbus dispute and tensions over digital services taxes. Unless these are carefully managed, any joint effort to create more leverage with China risks being undermined – although the challenge from the US to Europe will be to confront China more vigorously. Potential asks could be for the EU to strengthen its export controls regime, or limit the sales of emerging technologies to China.
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