In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton, The World Turned Upside Down. The tectonics of global politics normally shifts once every eight years as the US presidency passes between administrations, but this weekend Donald J Trump became only the second one-term president in nearly 50 years, vanquished by near-octogenarian former Vice President Joe Biden.
The nature of Washington politics normally ensures that the business of governing seamlessly passes between the two major parties largely without interruption, with Republican or Democrat flavoured policy but often without substantial difference, but in 2016 an aberration occurred. Trump’s unexpected victory saw the US’s political stability, a key feature of post-war consensus, torn up as voters sought an alternative path.
Mr Trump, an iconoclast keen to withdraw from global organisations, reverse conventions and rip up his predecessors’ legacy, was this weekend defeated by a man with 47 years’ experience in the corridors of power. A repudiation, perhaps, but one that changes the world. Here are 10 ways…
1. Trump Is Vanquished! (But Trumpism isn’t…)
The ‘liberal elite’ took to the streets to celebrate the end of President Trump’s reign this Saturday and Biden has already announced that he plans to start naming his top team and plan for the transition. For America this means that the era of Donald Trump is well and truly over.
But probably not Trumpism. While the election result was a clear rejection of President Trump, he still received the second highest total of votes ever cast in a US general election. Further, the Republicans’ grip on the Senate looks likely to remain and they made gains in the House of Representatives, all of which suggests that while Trump was the wrong leader, Trumpism was the right political angle.
2. There’s A Woman In The White House!
It can’t be laboured enough just how norm-breaking the Biden/Harris ticket was. Sure, there was an old white guy at the top of it, Biden can’t help that, but he committed early in the process to select a woman as his Vice President and he’s delivered.
We did it, Joe!
Only the third woman VP candidate, Kamala Harris is the first to be elected into office and when she takes the oath in January she will be not only the first woman to wield elected power in the White House, but the first African American woman and the first South Asian.
3. Compassion Returns To American Politics
Donald Trump’s Presidency was noteworthy for projecting strength, whether it was through the policy of ‘America First’, through forming alliances with hard-man dictators or Trump’s trade-wars with the EU and China.
But this often came at a human cost. From children detained at the US border and separated from their parents to the ban on Muslims entering the country, Trump’s strengths came at a cost to the vulnerable. Joe Biden’s election was at least in part down to his genuine ability to empathise with those who are suffering. Borne out of loss, the president’s wife and daughter were killed in a car crash when Biden was a junior politician while his son Beau died of a brain tumour in 2015, Biden is a man who knows what it is to suffer.
4. It’s The Pandemic, Stupid!
If there was one thing that swung it for Biden it was the Coronavirus Pandemic and Donald Trump’s failure to make significant headway on the issue.
With the pandemic raging in the US at unprecedented levels, Biden’s hands will be tied in the immediate-term, as he doesn’t take office until January. But he will today set the tone for his response by appointing a team of 12 leaders on the subject, while urging simple mask-wearing, projected to save 50,000 lives between now and his inauguration, as a bare minimum.
5. A Return To International Norms
President Biden has already promised to put the US back into the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, heralding America’s return to global leadership.
The newly-minted President Elect has also promised to re-join the World Health Organisation after Trump slammed the WHO and their coronavirus response (and criticism).
Biden is also likely to take a different approach to China, though serious differences will remain over the South China Seas and over trade.
6. What About Brexit?
The world’s attention now turns from vote counts in Philadelphia to an impending no-deal Brexit in Europe. It’s unclear how the Biden election will, if at all, affect the process.
But Biden did not shy away from weighing in, letting the world know that any Brexit deal that threatened the Northern Ireland peace agreement would be opposed by his White House.
It’s likely that Biden’s election could have a pacifying effect on both parties. The President doesn’t want his first international action as President to be weighing in to referee Brexit (this worked out badly in 2016 when he and Barak Obama came out as pro-Remain).
There’s also now a US/UK trade deal on the table. It will be interesting to see how Biden eyes this. It seems likely the ‘back of the queue’ mentality of 2016 has given way to something rather more pragmatic. Plus there will be precious senate votes, particularly in farming areas, that will look at a potential trade deal in the midst of a global recession as a key opportunity. Just prepare to read the words ‘chlorinated chicken’ over and over…
7. Still A Special Relationship?
The UK’s alliance with the US is likely to remain crucial; we share a language, are a powerful military and nuclear ally, a leading NATO member, occupy a UN Security Council seat and play a crucial role as a ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence partner. All of these factors will become all the more important as trust is rebuilt between London and Washington by Biden’s commitment to international cooperation.
The question remains, though, will Biden and Boris get along? There’s plenty of reason to wonder, Boris’s sleight of Obama’s Kenyan origin as an assertion of being ‘anti-British’ still smarts, and Boris is regarded as a Trumpian force. But Biden will also be aware that Boris’s personal politics are closer to Democratic Party politics than either would like to admit while upcoming 2021 Climate Change conference and G7 summit will give both men time to acquaint.
8. Civil Rights Strengthened
Despite Trump’s oft-touted boast that ‘nobody has done more for black Americans since Abraham Lincoln’ (Lincoln overturned slavery in the US) there was concern from many in the country that a second term President Trump would use his ‘law and order’ rhetoric to divide Americans, particularly Americans that don’t look like his overwhelmingly white voter base.
Others sighing in relief will be women concerned about a woman’s right to choose on abortions plus the ‘Dreamers’ (Americans brought as children to the US by immigrants).
9. Healthcare For All?
It’s still eyebrow-raising to the rest of the world that healthcare in the US remains prohibitively expensive and is not universal. Biden and former president Barack Obama introduced so-called ‘Obamacare’, which extended coverage to millions of America and the 2020 election saw Trump seek to overturn this.
A Biden victory should save Obamacare, now all eyes will be on how Biden approaches efforts to implement the second raft of this, which may prove difficult given that a Senate majority looks likely to prove illusive.
It’s unclear how much of Joe Biden’s agenda will be achievable. Without senate control, with a Supreme Court stacked against him and a razor thin majority in the House of Representatives it seems that some of the popular policies on the left, such as a version of the ‘Green New Deal’ or universal healthcare may not be easy to deliver.
But if nothing else, Biden’s election has reset the political agenda across the globe, and the direction is hope. The US is no longer an object of global derision but again a voice for hope. Hope for little girls and those from minorities looking at Kamala Harris, hope for people who want leadership on climate change and hope that compassion is once again a norm in political life. Let’s just see if Biden can possibly deliver on such high expectations.
As we get back to ‘normal’ we can all look back on the last four years as a deeply strange and unfamiliar place. As former President George W Bush commented after Trump’s inaugural address ‘Well that was some weird shit’…