A cacophonous US presidential election finally reached its conclusion, with Joe Biden being declared the winner. Amid the vote-counting drama of the past few days with mudslinging galore, the drawing of a line in the sand comes as welcome relief. Two septuagenerians traded rhetorical punches against the backdrop of a pandemic. Biden’s win sets the stage for the restoration of institutional normality and unity after the turbulence of the Trump era.
In succeeding at his third tilt at the US presidency, Joe Biden’s triumph is a tribute to his willpower and perseverance. At 78 years, Biden will be the oldest American president ever. With over 75 million votes cast in his favour, he also obtained the largest popular mandate in US electoral history. Furthermore, in Kamala Harris, the American electorate has voted for its first ever female vice-president. Her election marks an important milestone in the long march towards equality. Given her diverse heritage, the symbolism of the moment cannot be understated.
It was an election campaign like no other. From Biden’s perspective, there were three primary messages to press on. First, he wanted to emphasise his credentials as a unifier, who would seek to heal divisions after the acrimony of the Trump era. Second, that he would respond to the pandemic with greater efficiency and empathy than Trump. Third, to underscore that he would be able to protect and advance America’s interests at home and abroad. It was a message that resonated with the electorate.
The Democrats expectedly retained strangleholds across the east coast and the west coast. California and Massachusetts were not for turning. But what changed the electoral arithmetic was a revival of the ‘blue wall’ across the key swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Four years ago, the ‘rust-belt’ emphatically rejected Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party, for being out of touch. This time around, Biden’s courteous manner, folksiness and quiet dignity cut through.
To recall Hemingway, his description of courage as ‘grace under pressure’ is one that fits Biden well. When he passionately derided Trump for his handling of a pandemic that has resulted in over 200,000 deaths and spoke about bereavement, voters appreciated his authenticity. As a man who has faced tragedies in his life – such as the loss of his first wife and daughter when he was 30 years old and a son to cancer – Biden was able to relate to the grief cascading through American households. The contrast with the tone-deaf Trump bravado could not be clearer.
Biden was at his most impassioned when arguing that he would seek to govern in a bipartisan manner for all Americans. In other words, a majority vote for Biden signifies the yearning of Americans to return to a period of steadiness and reconciliation, after the tawdriness of the Trump era.
Global allies will also heave a sigh of relief. A Biden administration can be expected to favour multilateral cooperation. He intends to rejoin the Paris climate change accord. Biden is also likely to value NATO. Traditional norms of diplomacy and deep-seated alliances will be back in favour.
From an Indian perspective, what does a Biden win herald? It is fair to state that Biden is unlikely to attend mass rallies spouting ‘Howdy Modi?’ and will probably view the Indian PM’s closeness to Trump with some scepticism. A Biden government is also likely to scrutinise Modi’s policy moves with more depth and provide greater critical challenge. That said, the onus is on the Indian government to reach out to Biden and build relationships. There is a convergence of strategic interests between the world’s biggest democracies that should underpin ties.
Back to Biden though, key challenges lie ahead. Domestically, he needs to ensure that the approximately 70 million Trump supporters aren’t forgotten. Trump may have been defeated but Trumpism still endures. During the campaign, Biden managed to keep a coalition of strident leftists on the sidelines but they will resurface, with all manner of expensive and extreme demands. He ought to resist any temptation to veer sharply to the left and govern from the centre. Besides, a high-tax agenda may choke off innovation and an economic recovery. Biden will need to be firm on trade-offs, to ensure that the spectre of a depression can be avoided. Overseas, while there will be an attempt to rely on multilateral dialogue, the mission must be to protect American interests. Otherwise, critics will seize on this as an inherent weakness. Biden will also need to be assertive against China without plunging the globe into a trade war.
For now, a victory for Biden will be interpreted by many as a vote to end the irascible and loutish Trumpian theatre that has posed as statecraft for the past four years. In contrast, Biden has promised to ‘lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example’. He will need to urgently double down on an agenda of restoring America’s reputation and delivering on a transformational vision. After this election, what is certain though that the idealism of the American dream and its promise of a better tomorrow remains alive and well.
The writer is a London-based lawyer and political commentator