Almost 50 years to the day since he first entered politics, Joe Biden — erstwhile vice president, decades-long veteran of the Senate, national avatar of avuncularity — has been chosen as the next president of the United States. Wish him luck. He’ll need it.
His first challenge will be to steer the country through the hazards of the coming weeks. The full and final election numbers will take time to wrap up, and assorted legal gambits will need to be resolved. These almost certainly won’t change the result, but they risk fuelling anger and instability. Until the matter is settled and Trump quits the stage — doubtless insisting, as he goes, that he was robbed — Biden will need to be a patient and steadying influence.
And this effort can’t be confined to the weeks between now and taking office. The election was closer than many expected, and Biden should be cautious about claiming a mandate for radical change. He and the Democrats should press their agenda, to be sure — while aiming to win the broadest possible support. That means understanding and attending to the concerns of the many Americans who voted for Trump even as they recognised his flaws. Bringing the country together is something Biden, unlike Trump, will want to do. Seeing the need is an excellent start.
Such healing might be Biden’s greatest challenge — but it’s by no means the only one. The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified in recent weeks. Some 235,000 Americans have died, more than 50,000 are currently hospitalised, and many states and cities are once again on the brink of crisis. Biden needs to depoliticise the pandemic and remind Americans of their mutual interest in keeping it at bay. The country can’t waste more time on culture-war imbroglios over mask-wearing. Biden should work with state governors and health officials to marshal the unified national response — emphasising personal responsibility and a shared sense of duty.
His next task is to get the economy back on track. It’s possible that Trump will negotiate in good faith with Democrats on another round of relief measures during the lame-duck session. But don’t count on it. With the makeup of the next Senate still uncertain, Biden should be prepared to work with both parties to pass a bill that supports ailing state and city governments, prudently extends supplemental unemployment benefits, and offers additional targeted relief for low-wage workers. Biden often talked about his bipartisan deal-making skills on the campaign trail; he’ll need them to get any such bill passed.
The new president also needs to push reforms that respond to Trump’s repeated abuses of power. House Democrats introduced a raft of such measures in September, including provisions meant to curtail abuses of the pardon power, prevent presidents from profiting from their office, and protect the integrity of the justice system. These are reforms that would serve the country well regardless of who is president, and Republicans have no proper basis for opposing them. A deal on such a bill should help all sides.
Finally, Biden should start work on restoring America’s standing in the world. This week, the U.S. formally quit the Paris accord on climate change, having given notice last year that it would. That decision needs to be reversed as quickly as possible, so that America can play its part in this vital global effort. Trump disdained international cooperation of the kind Biden has long championed, leaving the country’s traditional friendships and alliances in tatters. Biden should work to repair them.
Mending America itself won’t be so easy. Over more than 18 long months on the campaign trail, Joe Biden articulated no great overarching vision and proposed no revolutions. His most ardent promise was simply a return to normality: to reasonably competent governance, a less divisive politics, and a civic life free from the chaos and corruption of the Trump era. If he achieves only that over the next four years, he will have done the country a great service.