Assessing a Biden presidency

Although it is important to start any assessment of the US election with the proviso that President Trump has yet to concede defeat – and even if he does, he still has over two months in the White House in which he can affect the next president’s inheritance – it is now looking increasingly likely that come 20 January 2021, Joe Biden will be the President of the United States.

That it is still not certain that he will be, even after leading Donald Trump by over 5 million votes and a predicted 306-232 margin in the Electoral College, is partly due to America’s peculiar constitutional arrangements and partly of course to the unconventional nature of his opponent, who feels bound by few if any of the norms of democratic politics.  But even Trump’s own supporters are beginning to accept that the constitutional routes to their man overturning enough of the votes to snatch a victory are very limited, and the alternative, an unconstitutional and point blank refusal to surrender office, raises the spectre of such chaos and confrontation that even Trump may hesitate to go down that path.

It is reasonable therefore to start discussing what a Biden presidency might look like, what he will hope to achieve and what will actually be achievable.

As he assumes office, Biden will be one of the weakest incoming presidents in the Republic’s history.  It is well known that the US presidency is in practice less powerful than it appears; America’s systems of checks and balances, multiple repositories of political power and federal system offer the inhabitant of the White House much less actual power, much less ability to get things done, than say the British prime minister or French president has.  But an incoming president does usually enjoy a brief period where they can seize the political agenda, shape the debate and get things done.

Biden may not even have this luxury.  He is less in control of his party than most incoming presidents, with a sizeable part of both his party’s Congressmen and women and their supporters in the country much more radically minded than he is.  Much of the Democrat base has differing views on matters ranging from diversity and equality to taxation and the role of the state; Biden has been lent their support as part of the “stop Trump” effort, but this does not mean he has won it outright.

Arguably, despite losing the race for the White House Trump is more in control of the Republicans than Biden is of the Democrats – a very unusual state of affairs for a losing candidate.

Furthermore, the Democrats are not in full control of Congress.  The gains they hoped for in the Senate did not materialise, and the best they can now achieve if the run-off election for the two Senate seats from Georgia[1] both go their way is a split Senate, in which they with their two independent supporters[2] have 50 senators, exactly the same number as the Republicans.   That will give them control of the Senate courtesy of the Vice President’s casting vote, but the control will be very weak and always open to ambushes.

And in the House they actually lost seats, and now have the barest of majorities:  at the time of writing they have 219 Representatives out of 437, the thinnest majority possible.  Although the president can enact some policies by presidential directive, the  authority a president has to act without Congress is really quite circumscribed, and his power to persuade a recalcitrant Congress really quite limited.

Biden will therefore need to pick his battles carefully, rein in expectations, and conserve his energy and political capital for what really matters to him.  If only to maintain some sort of party discipline, he will certainly have to pay lip-service to some of the demands of the more radical wing of his party, such as action on climate change, police reform, minimum wage, more accessible health care and – inevitably – higher taxes on the better off.  But he knows that getting any of these through Congress will be difficult, and to avoid his presidency achieving nothing at all he will also have his own agenda he will be keen to pursue.

We think there will be four things high on his personal list:  restoring decency to politics, defeating the virus, mending relationships with America’s allies, and working out how to handle China.  This is not a small action list;  none of the four items is in any way easy, and if he achieves all four he will go down as a great president, whether he serves one term or two.  But it does leave only limited room and limited energy for introducing new and more radical programmes, which we suspect will not please some in his party.

Of the four, probably the least challenging is mending the relationships with America’s allies.  The West has suffered greatly in the last 4 years from a US presidency which invested very little in international organisations, obligations and friendships, leaving it divided and weak in the face of a hostile world, and almost anything Biden does will both be better than the Trump administration and welcomed by other western governments.

Whether this will be enough to counter a newly confident and increasingly assertive China is another matter.  We think it very likely that China will seek to test Biden much as Khrushchev tested Kennedy over Cuba. The obvious flashpoint (now that China has essentially completed its re-absorption of Hong Kong) will be Taiwan, and it is far from clear what Biden will be able to do if China threatens Taiwanese autonomy or even territorial integrity.

Before then, Biden has to confront the virus, which is a long way from being under control and where the Trump administration’s inability to work with opponents at the state level has produced a disparate national picture in which different states have experienced very different outcomes.

And the final element of our proposed four-point action plan, that of restoring some decency to the political discourse, faces huge headwinds, not least because there is no sign that Trump intends to retire from the scene.  This in passing is most unusual; most losing presidential candidates have stepped back after conceding defeat in order to let the party move on and rebuild, reflecting the general understanding that the party is more important than the individual.

But Trump has never subscribed to that idea;  all his actions are driven by a belief that the Republican party is there to advance him personally rather than the other way round.  Indeed, and as we have observed, his grip on his party is showing little sign of weakening, and probably the best explanation for his actions at the moment is not that he really expects to overturn the vote of two weeks ago, but that that he intends to stand for election again in 2024 and wishes to stay in the limelight until then.  Certainly many of the people who voted for him earlier this month show no signs of diminishing in their support for him, and his refusal to concede will encourage them to go on seeing him as a fighter and as the man to give their concerns voice.

A good indication of whether Trump’s brand of populism has survived, and so whether it would be realistic for him to stand again in 2024, will be the 2022 mid-term House of Representatives elections.  It is often said that the US House electoral cycle is so short (at 2 years, the shortest in any major democracy) that the next election starts almost as soon as the last one is finished; in this case it may have already started before the House elected earlier this month has even convened.  And both the tenor of the 2022 mid-term elections (likely again to be very divisive) and the level of success for candidates who support him will be a good guide as to whether Trump should follow what is undoubtedly his instinct and run again in 2024.

The main message that comes out of the election is that America is still deeply divided, its politics still deeply rancorous.  Biden cannot ignore the fact that the man he called the worst president in America’s history nevertheless garnered over 72 million votes, and retains a strong hold on his party and the body politic.  And the man who patently obviously wants to return politics to a more dignified, decent and consensual style, and who abhors everything about his opponent’s confrontational approach, will preside over a country which is fundamentally split, and where the two camps have both become more extreme, more antagonistic towards each other rather than less.

So, Biden inherits a country with multiple challenges both at home and internationally, he does so without a strong control over either his party or Congress, and he does so with an unconventional opponent who will not go quietly and is likely to be an ongoing source of political division and rancour.  For any president, this would be daunting; for the oldest man ever to assume the presidency[4], whose physical and mental health is not strong and whose energy levels are questionable, and who is already seen by many as mainly a place-holder, preparing for a Kamala Harris presidential campaign in 4 years’ time (a unique objective for a presidency), it may prove too much for him to achieve anything lasting, perhaps anything of substance at all.


[1]              It is part of America’s federalism that each state sets the rules for its elections itself, and in Georgia the rules say that if no candidate in a race with more than 2 candidates gets 50% of the vote, then there is a run-off between the two candidates with the most votes.  Unusually, this happened for both Senate races in the state this year;  the run-off vote is set for 5 January and the final make-up of the Senate will not be known until then.

[2]              There are two senators who formally sit as independents, Angus King, one of the two senators from Maine, and Bernie Sanders, one of the two from Vermont.  But both routinely vote with the Democrats and count with them for eg the allocation of positions on committees.

[3]           Not that this is necessarily to Biden’s disadvantage.  At the very least it will give him some leverage over the more radical wings of his party, as he will be able to point out that there is neither a strong electoral mandate for their policies nor the clear arithmetic in Congress to push them through if they tried.

[4]              Biden will be 78 when he is inaugurated, assuming he is as planned, which is not only older than all other incoming presidents but in fact older than any of his predecessors when they left office.