Joe Biden will have to walk a tightrope

He will have to deal with combative Republicans as well as resolve issues within the Democratic Party

November 10, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 12:27 pm IST

People gather at the Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House in Washington, DC on November 8, 2020. - Donald Trump returned Sunday to his golf course in a Washington suburb, a day after news media announced his defeat in the presidential election at the hands of Democrat Joe Biden. For his part, the former vice president attended Mass along with family members at a Catholic church near his home in Wilmington, Delaware, as he regularly does. (Photo by Daniel SLIM / AFP)

People gather at the Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House in Washington, DC on November 8, 2020. - Donald Trump returned Sunday to his golf course in a Washington suburb, a day after news media announced his defeat in the presidential election at the hands of Democrat Joe Biden. For his part, the former vice president attended Mass along with family members at a Catholic church near his home in Wilmington, Delaware, as he regularly does. (Photo by Daniel SLIM / AFP)

Large crowds had gathered in Black Lives Matter Plaza, a wide street in D.C. that leads all the way up to Lafayette Park outside the White House, on Saturday afternoon. The mood was unmistakably festive — drums in the distance, cars honking, music, people taking photographs, some standing silently, taking it all in. A few policewomen and policemen — watchful but relaxed, some with arms crossed — stood on the sides of the plaza. A stream of people and cars flowed to and from the White House area, people filled the sidewalks and drivers gave way to pedestrians and jaywalkers.

“It feels like we’ve just completed an exorcism,” tweeted political scientist Francis Fukuyama.

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A record 74 million Americans and counting voted for the man at the centre of Saturday’s celebrations, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. The day belonged to him and his running mate Kamala Harris, the first woman of colour to be elected to the position.

This is only part of the story though, as there exists a parallel universe in the U.S., one in which 70 million people voted for the incumbent, Donald Trump, who now holds the record for the second highest number of votes received.

Also read: Joe Biden wins U.S. presidency, vows to unify a deeply divided nation

Deeply divided

Those who support Mr. Trump and those who support Mr. Biden are deeply divided. Though COVID-19 has killed nearly 2,40,000 people in the U.S., only 24% of Mr. Trump’s supporters, as per a Pew Research Center survey, said last month that the issue was “very important” to their vote, compared to 82% of registered voters who support Mr. Biden. There is also a significant split on healthcare (Mr. Biden’s supporters give this more weight) and the economy (Mr. Trump’s supporters give this more weight).

This is the country whose stewardship Mr. Biden will inherit on January 20, 2021. The task he has set himself, of bringing the country together and healing it, is going to require him to navigate complex dynamics, which will often pull in opposite directions.

Also read: Joe Biden elected 46th President of the United States

To begin with, Mr. Trump, with a devoted base (that grew by some eight million since 2016) and a vast following on social media, is likely to remain a force to reckon with as long as he is publicly active and can tweet. Writing in The New York Times on his political future, Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman argue that Mr. Trump could use this to pressure Republican lawmakers to push back against Mr. Biden.

Some of the effects of Mr. Trump are already being seen. Only a small minority of Republican lawmakers have congratulated Mr. Biden on winning the election. Others have backed Mr. Trump’s sweeping and false claims around voter fraud, or have remained quiet, presumably waiting for Mr. Trump to have his day in court. Some Republicans, such as former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, and Senator Marco Rubio, are hedging their bets, making ambiguous statements around the validity of Mr. Trump’s claims.

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The magnitude of Mr. Biden’s task is, therefore, in some measure dependent on the hold Mr. Trump will have on his supporters. When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, his opponent, the late Senator John McCain, asked those who had voted for him to support their new president. Mr. Trump has yet to concede the election, let alone ask his supporters to give Mr. Biden a chance.

Republicans on Capitol Hill will continue to factor in Mr. Trump’s presence in the way they vote in the Senate. To gain control of the Senate, Democrats will need to win two run-off races in Georgia, scheduled for January 5. Failing this, Mr. Biden will need to win the support of Republican Senators to confirm his cabinet appointments, confirm judicial appointments, pass stimulus packages and implement healthcare and immigration reform.

Mr. Biden, who was a Senator for 36 years, will need to rely on his decades-long relationship with Senate Republicans like majority leader Mitch McConnell and Mr. Trump’s ally, Lindsey Graham, both of whom won their races comfortably and will be around in 2021. Mr. Graham said Mr. Biden “deserves” a cabinet and that he will find common ground with the president-elect. “There may be some people that I just can’t vote for because I think they’re unqualified or too extreme,” he said.

Mr. Biden is likely to use Executive Orders to get things through if faced with a Republican Senate. Regardless, he is reportedly planning a series of orders as soon as he assumes office to reverse a number of Trump policies, enacted via Executive Orders (Mr. Obama also used these to circumvent an uncooperative Senate). Orders to rejoin the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization and to reverse the travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries are among those being considered.

Tensions among Democrats

Combative Republicans will not be Mr. Biden’s only challenge: there will be issues to resolve within the Democratic Party between the moderates and progressives, who would have rather seen their candidate, Bernie Sanders, win the Democratic nomination and the White House, but got behind the Biden ticket.

Mr. Sanders himself campaigned hard for Mr. Biden. Had he won the nomination, it is far from clear that Mr. Sanders could have “rebuilt the Blue Wall” as Mr. Biden did last week, by winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — States that Mr. Trump flipped in 2016. However, in the south, the story is different. Grassroots activism in Arizona helped get the vote out for Mr. Biden. Demographic shifts and differences in voting patterns between urban and rural areas also contributed to Mr. Biden’s vote lead in Arizona and Georgia. Mr. Biden will need to find policies that speak sufficiently to the mandates that were given to him by these different groups.

Already there are some signs of stress within the party. Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic Congresswoman from Virginia, who narrowly retained her House seat, said on a call with other House Democrats that use of the word “socialism” had caused some of their colleagues to lose their seats.

Progressive lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who also retained her seat, told The New York Times that progressive policies like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All did not hurt candidates in swing districts, but running obsolete campaigns without an adequate digital focus did. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez cited “anti-activist sentiment” within the Democratic Party and suggested that running on a more progressive platform, rather than hurting the party in Congressional elections (Democrats lost seats in the House), could have helped it do better. She also said that the composition of Mr. Biden’s transition team would indicate whether the administration would take a “collaborative approach” or start “icing-out” progressives.

One consequence for Mr. Biden of having to deal with a Republican Senate is that it will probably temper divisions within the Democratic Party.

Mr. Biden is reportedly looking to put together a cabinet that will include the likes of centrist Republicans (such as John Kasich who supported him) and Democrats who are moderate as well as progressive.

Mr. Biden’s track record of working with colleagues across the aisle, his message of unity, and his empathy are going to be critical come January 20. Nobody, however, is going to get all of what they want. In a country as polarised as the U.S., that is indeed a very good thing.

sriram.lakshman@thehindu.co.in

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