Before we consider the daunting challenges facing President-elect Joe Biden, we should consider the depth of his achievement.
At the age of 77, he emerged from retirement to surmount a history of failed presidential races. He placed fourth in the Iowa caucuses, fifth in the New Hampshire primary, and second in the Nevada caucuses, before finally winning his first primary ever, in South Carolina, on Leap Day. He then outpaced his competitors; assembled a diverse coalition; united a fractious party; chose the first woman of color to run as a vice presidential nominee; conquered doubts about his age and acumen; and defeated a sociopathic president whose unremitting viciousness would have challenged the most poised and confident of leaders.
He was spurred by thwarted ambition, to be sure, but also by the deep conviction that Donald Trump was rending the social fabric of the country he loved. It seems clear, in retrospect, that Biden was his party’s best candidate—likely the only one who could vanquish Trump.
His moderation, maturity, inclusiveness, and inherent decency made the undecided and unsettled feel safe in choosing him over a man whose feral inner landscape had turned America against itself. However embittered Trump’s partisans may be, for millions of Americans Biden’s accession feels like a fever breaking. This veteran of a 50-year public career defined less by innovation than compromise became, remarkably, a man for our times.
Amid vote-counting roiled by confusion, misinformation and the unprecedented complications wrought by deadly pandemic, Biden provided a salutary contrast with Trump’s corrosive claims of fraud. “Democracy’s sometimes messy,” he told us. “It sometimes requires a little patience as well. But that patience has been rewarded now for more than 240 years with a system of government that’s been the envy of the world.”
Here Biden’s very normality became a kind of statesmanship: He provided not only a measure of calm to counter the mass angst and anxiety, but reassurance that the core of our democracy—the counting of votes followed by a peaceful transition of power—would prevail. As our soon-to-be ex-president threatened, whined and blustered, striving to drag the country into the fever swamp of his own anarchic petulance, our electoral machinery ground on—the bones and sinews of a capable, honorable America engaged in a common enterprise which survived Trump’s contempt for the system which had elevated him so far beyond his worth. Biden, by his very temperance—from his calls for patience to his gracious and unifying acceptance speech—reaffirmed the nobility of ideals greater than the wants and needs of those who would lead us.
As Biden’s victory settles into our collective consciousness, it will bring to many a sense of relief and resolution whose very depth will reveal how completely Trump’s character disorder had permeated our lives. The essence of Trump’s pathology was that governance became a form of emotional terrorism. At last we will be able to look away from our president without fearing what he might do next.
For this we have Joe Biden to thank. But the conditions which gave us Trump remain. For among the things no politician could do is banish the bitter estrangement between two opposing Americas which placed a massive repudiation of Trump beyond reach.
The Democrats had a message of unity; a cohesive party; the support of numerous prominent Republicans. They were running against an incumbent who had defiled to the presidency; mismanaged a deadly pandemic; and caused a generally strong economy to plummet into a crippling recession—an aspiring autocrat whose aberrant and abhorrent traits could inform a treatise on mental illness: mendacity, grandiosity, cruelty, misogyny, misanthropy, and paranoia.
Trump’s presidency proved him to be precisely what he seemed in 2016: a man gripped by an ineradicable personality disorder which sucked us into the vortex of his insatiable needs. His notional America was not a model for the globe, but a Hobbesian landscape of ungenerosity, violence, fear, and predation that reflected his own inner world.
Yet, despite all, 48 percent of Americans voted to stay there. There was no great shift from 2016; no loosening of Trump’s psychic grip on millions of loyalists; no relief from the raw cultural divide which he maliciously exacerbated for his own twisted ends.
That schism defies resolution in a single election—or anytime soon. It is not merely geographic, economic, or educational; it is profoundly cultural and racial—a conflict between fundamentalism and secularism; white identity politics and the embrace of diversity; xenophobia and openness to immigration; equity for all and race-based resentment. For Trump’s followers, the wall was not merely a thing but a metaphor: a barrier against the cultural and racial “other” who threatened their vision of an Edenic America populated by insular white Christians.
To be sure, Trump’s political career thrived on the economic insecurity exacerbated by globalism. But that appeal is inseparable from the tribalism and racism he did so much to promote. The Republican base believed that that their resentments were his; their votes were less an expression of democracy than of a craving for an authoritarian who would subjugate the inimical forces personified by the African-American Barack Obama; the San Francisco feminist Nancy Pelosi; and a pioneering vice president-elect who symbolized both. Trump’s followers embraced his baseless allegations of massive voter fraud because, for them, democracy itself had become the enemy.
Anyone who believes that his base, deprived of their president, will submit to social comity suffers from the misapprehension that reason as they define it is accessible to all. And those who imagine that QAnon is an anomaly will learn soon enough that racism, atavism, ignorance, and anger are not easily extinguished. Cynics like Mitch McConnell, who cater to the GOP’s voracious donor class while assuaging its restive base, have no such illusions.
That has profound implications for the new Biden administration. Absent an unanticipated sweep of the two seats at stake in Georgia’s pending runoff, Republicans will retain control of the Senate. Although there is optimistic speculation that McConnell and Biden might have a productive and friendly relationship, it seems more likely that McConnell will do to Biden what he did to Obama: frustrate and obstruct. Sweeping legislative initiatives in education, healthcare, climate change, and infrastructure will fall hostage to the GOP’s rediscovery of its conveniently situational passion for fiscal discipline.
As ever, McConnell’s chief weapon will be the filibuster; his backstop a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court equally hostile to voting rights legislation, universal healthcare, campaign finance reform, oversight of financial institutions, the administrative state, and government regulation in such areas as environmental protection and worker’s rights. Indeed, the two forces protect each other: By preserving the filibuster, the GOP’s Senate majority will prevent Democrats from expanding the Supreme Court while slowing Biden’s judicial appointments.
Even Biden’s immediate imperatives—combating COVID and providing badly needed fiscal stimulus—will prove challenging. The least of it will be Republican sniping about more rigorous public health measures; the worst will involve their obstruction of any appropriately sized initiative to relieve unemployment, rescue failing businesses, aid states and cities, and help those deprived of adequate healthcare. The ongoing partisan gridlock will challenge Biden’s powers of legislative compromise—and, as crucial, his ability to reconcile Democratic moderates and progressives frustrated by McConnell’s hammerlock on legislation.
Already moderates who feel they saved the party in 2018 and 2020 are at odds with progressives whose enthusiasms—single-payer healthcare; defunding the police—they blame for defeating House members in swing districts. In turn, and against all evidence, some ardent progressives insist that Biden should have moved further left.
During the election, leading progressives like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez played an important role in supporting Biden. But not all their supporters are so politically judicious. Instead of feeling great about helping Biden save their country, they imagine that Sanders could have mesmerized Trump’s base—having twice failed to rally the base of his own nominal party.
Such fantasies are as pointless as blaming Biden for failing to pass progressive legislation and abolish the filibuster in a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell. What Biden needs is their support in achieving the legislative possible—and their help in using the considerable leverage of the presidency to accomplish real change.
For legislation alone hardly defines a president’s transformative power. Were it otherwise, this election would not be so consequential. But it is. Think of what Biden can do in such disparate areas as foreign affairs, judicial appointments, anti-trust enforcement, the administration of justice, environmental regulation, consumer protection, immigration policy, and the treatment of groups victimized by Trump, from Dreamers to undocumented immigrants to asylum-seekers cruelly separated from their children. Consider what Trump did all these areas, and be grateful for President Biden.
Consider, further, the power of our chief executive over such vital departments and agencies as Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, Labor, the EPA, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, the CDC, and our intelligence services. Consider, finally, our good fortune in having a president who will not use his power to undermine a constitutional framework so badly eroded by his rogue predecessor and amoral enablers like William Barr.
Regardless of ideology or party, sentient Americans should be grateful that Joe Biden won the contest between decency and disorder, empathy and inhumanity, diversity and exclusion, democracy and authoritarianism. The president sets the tone for who we are, and aspire to be. That is, perhaps, the ultimate grace of Joe Biden—because he believes in our collective goodness, he will leave the presidency, and therefore his country, better than he found it.