It is remarkably uncommon for a US president to fail to be re-elected. It has happened just twice in the long lifetime of Joe Biden: with Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. On Tuesday, however, it looks likely that it will happen again. It is not just that Donald Trump is trailing badly and consistently in the national polls — he was behind in 2016 but won nonetheless — it is that his support seems to be draining most in his own heartlands. Biden appears to be well ahead in industrial ‘rustbelt’ states like Michigan and Wisconsin where Trump’s protectionist message gave him victory four years ago.
There is little question that a Biden victory would be popular in Britain — as it would in many countries. For many, the four years of Trump have been a horror show which, angry tweet by angry tweet, has reduced America’s standing in the world. Trump never seemed to make the transition from an incumbent anti-establishment candidate to a president. To continue to behave as an insurgent when you are the most powerful man in the world is absurd.
But there are good reasons not to join the wild celebrations which will erupt on this side of the Atlantic in the event of Trump being deposed. Yet it is far from clear how Britain would benefit from a Biden victory.
From what we know, Biden would prioritise US relations with the EU over those with Britain — the opposite of what Trump promised. While a Trump victory could lead to a rapid trade deal between the US and Britain, Biden will be cooler. Our best hope might lie with his promise to reopen negotiations with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which Britain is also exploring membership — thus giving us a deal with the US through the back door. No one, though, should hope for too much. Trump has been condemned for his trade war with China, yet it was always a ruse to kickstart negotiations aimed at opening up global trade. Biden is assumed to be more of an internationalist than Trump, yet his $2 trillion climate action plan, which promises to deliver ‘American made, American sourced clean vehicles’ sounds all too much as if it could end up as protectionism in disguise.
Biden’s plan to fund his climate action plan by jacking up corporate taxes promises to be the opposite of the boost that the US economy needs as it attempts to recover from the Covid crisis. Nor will the job–creating machine that has been the US economy in recent years enjoy promises by Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, to reform the gig economy to make it harder for US corporations to employ freelancers. Harris is a senator for California, but she is not carrying the support of many of her state’s fastest-growing companies.
Trump’s bizarre antics aside, his presidency has been far from the disaster many predicted. The day after Trump was elected, the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman claimed that US markets might never recover from the trauma. Not only did they do so almost immediately, they have gone on to establish new highs in recent weeks in spite of Covid-19.
Others predicted war. Yet Trump has proved to be a leader who steers away from armed conflict. His tactic of wielding the hatchet before burying it eventually led to a serious improvement in relations between North Korea and the West, as well as between North and South Korea. The US assassination of Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, in January employed the same tactic: when Iran retaliated, Trump declined to be goaded into further action, working to reduce tensions. The deal between Israel and the UAE has done more to improve Middle Eastern relations than anything achieved by recent US presidents.
Trump has suggested that he might not accept a close defeat, leading the US into a constitutional crisis. But the mechanics of this election point to an indecisive outcome of a different kind. It will be one thing to occupy the White House, quite another for the Democrats to win control of the Senate which Biden will need if he is to govern with real power. At present the Republicans have a 53 to 47 seat majority, with 35 seats up for grabs next week. It doesn’t sound a huge task to turn four seats over to the Democrats in order to give Biden a majority — especially not with an unpopular Republican president. Yet none of the Senate battles looks like a guaranteed victory for Democrats. Biden could find himself a lame duck from day one — and a low-energy lame duck at that.
That might not turn out altogether to be a bad thing. In recent years — and not just because of Trump — the US has been consumed by ever-greater partisanship. This week the Democrats protested bitterly about the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court judge — yet in the final year of Obama’s presidency, many Democrats, including Biden, argued that it was the constitutional duty of a president to put forward a Supreme Court nomination if a vacancy became available. (Republicans, of course, have done the same in reverse.)
An America in which a Democrat president and a Republican Senate were forced to work together would have the advantage of disrupting the partisan trend. Such an outcome would restore some dignity to the White House while protecting the country from the loopy identity politics and anti-capitalism of the Democrat left. After four years of an unpredictable, narcissistic president, Biden with one arm tied behind his back might be what America needs.
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