Congratulations to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. In the end, the election wasn’t close, despite the illusion created by the order in which the ballots were counted, although it was far from a landslide. Biden will probably win 306 electoral votes and a solid majority of the popular vote.
Donald Trump becomes a rare president who was defeated in his party’s first term in the White House, the first since Jimmy Carter, who was the only such president in the 20th century. Trump’s presidency will certainly be remembered for lawlessness and efforts to undermine US democracy. Put that and personal-probity issues aside — no, we can’t really put them aside, but nevertheless — and Trump has a surprising amount in common with the law-abiding Carter.
Both of them were, at the end of the day, incapable of doing the job. Neither was well qualified to begin with, Carter a one-term governor and Trump a reality television star, and both tried to go it alone and hope their parties would follow them. Carter, to his credit, did learn in office. Trump showed no sign of it. Both were only able to win their nominations in the first place because their parties were disorganised and dysfunctional, and neither was able to solve that problem.
Biden joins George H.W. Bush as one of the two presidents best prepared for the job in the modern era. There had been other vice-presidents who became presidents before them, but none served during the modern vice-presidential era, which began with Walter Mondale (1977-1981), in which vice-presidents have been heavily involved in governing. Biden knows how the White House works. He knows how the Senate works, even if he hasn’t been a member for a decade. He knows how executive-branch departments and agencies work, and how presidents can influence them and make sure they function effectively. That’s something that presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all had to learn on the job.
Like Reagan and Clinton, especially, Biden seems to have solid political skills, the kind it takes to build and hold together, as the political scientist Richard Skinner put it on Twitter, “a coalition that ranged from John Kasich to Bernie Sanders.” The presidency is a management job and a political job, and Biden appears to have the right experience and skills to succeed in both parts of it.
Biden will have another advantage that the first President Bush had: A party with recent White House success. One of the reasons Carter and Trump struggled so much was that they surrounded themselves, partly by necessity and partly by choice, with people just as inexperienced in national governing institutions as they were. So did Clinton, and that was a big part of why he got off to a rocky start in 1993.
Clinton made the understandable choice to avoid those who worked in the Carter White House. Carter had been the most recent Democratic president when Clinton came to power, but he was widely seen as a failure and Clinton didn’t want to encourage comparisons. He may also have believed (and, if so, incorrectly) that there were no talented Carter-era options to choose from. Given that the previous Democratic president had left the White House 12 years before he took office, that meant that Clinton wound up with virtually no relevant experience in his first White House staff. It showed.
On the downside, Biden is … not young. Forget about Trump’s lies about Biden’s supposed mental impairment. Anyone who watched Biden’s performance in debates, interviews, and TV town halls over the last 18 months knows that he remains sharp and durable, although he certainly appears older as he approaches his 78th birthday this month and his stutter bothers him more than it did 20 years ago. He’s going to have to prove that he has the energy for an incredibly demanding job and that age won’t prevent him from seeing the world as it is today, rather than as it was during a 36-year Senate career that began in 1973. His successful nomination and general election campaigns are certainly good omens, but presidenting is a different challenge. Biden will also have to control his gaffe-tastic tendencies. He certainly isn’t a Trump-level fabricator (who is?), but he’s been known to make rash and inaccurate statements in the heat of the moment. He mostly controlled that impulse over the last 18 months, but not always.
Biden is also going to have to hold his electoral coalition together while reconciling two very different promises he’s made: To return the nation to normal, even boring politics after the turmoil of the Trump presidency, and to act boldly on an ambitious Democratic agenda. That will be complicated by a slimmer House Democratic majority and a probable Republican Senate majority. Liberal activists will demand plenty from the White House, and Biden himself and those around him will want to achieve their policy goals, even with an unfriendly Senate. It’s also going to be complicated by the continuing pandemic and the economic fallout from it. And the crippled post-Trump executive branch, from the diminished Centers for Disease Control to a hollowed-out US State Department, will take time and presidential energy to revive.
And that’s not even accounting for the challenge of leading a nation riven by false accusations that Biden stole his victory and the prospect of a defeated ex-president stirring up as much trouble as he can.
It’s a good thing Biden has an abundance of experience and skills. He’s going to need them.
by Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg