It is likely a Biden presidency will change the world. The question is: will it change it quickly enough? By Richard Cooke.

Biden looks to square the Oval Office

United States president-elect Joe Biden.
United States president-elect Joe Biden.
Credit: Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images

“I am a gaffe machine, but my God what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can’t tell the truth,” Joe Biden said, and that was how he half-announced his third tilt at the Democratic nomination for president. Biden was at an event in Missoula, Montana, where even the moderator introduced him by reciting the former vice-president’s failings. He was too old. He would be insulted by Donald Trump. He didn’t have enough money. Questionable senatorial votes tarnished his past. All true, and when Biden did commence the primary season proper, in New Hampshire, he attracted a mere 8 per cent of the vote. He ran what The Guardian called “a disastrous fifth”, behind Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.

So perhaps it is fitting that Joe Biden begins his life as the president-elect with more waiting. The elation generated by his win was a slow build – mail-in and absentee ballots took days to count – and it remains stymied by obstacles not yet removed. Foremost of these is incumbent Donald Trump, who has so far refused to concede. On MSNBC, a former FBI official compared the president to a “barricaded subject” in a hostage negotiation situation. Regime loyalists in government and the media have tried to paint Biden’s victory as either uncertain or fraudulent, and the absence of evidence for these claims only proves their boldness.

But these hindrances also obscure the scale of Biden’s achievement. He is only the 10th challenger to defeat an elected president in the history of the United States, and his margin of victory in such a contest exceeds Ronald Reagan’s. Only Franklin Delano Roosevelt fared better. Biden garnered the highest vote for any US presidential candidate to date, and will surpass his opponent’s total by more than five million ballots nationally. He reconstituted the so-called “blue wall” of Democratic-voting states in the Midwest, and is the oldest man ever to win the presidency, with Trump now the second-oldest.

Biden’s acceptance speech was delivered in his adopted home city of Wilmington, Delaware. It has remained his home throughout a 36-year senatorial career, a decision that entailed a three-hour daily commute to Washington, DC, by Amtrak train. The motivation for this arduous ritual was love: in 1972 his first wife, Neilia Hunter, and their infant daughter, Naomi, had been killed in a car crash, which his two sons, Beau and Hunter, had survived. Afterwards Biden insisted on seeing them daily. When a crowd welcomed him to the presidency, he spoke first of the country and then of family.

Even Kamala Harris, who will be the first woman to occupy the vice-presidency, and her husband, Doug, were brought into the fold. “Kamala, Doug – like it or not – you’re family,” Biden said. “You’ve become honorary Bidens and there’s no way out.” Harris was making history, Biden pointed out, as “the first woman, first Black woman, first woman of South Asian descent, and first daughter of immigrants ever elected to national office in this country”. He went on to acknowledge transgender citizens as part of his broad coalition, and gave special thanks to the African–American community.

This nod to Americans’ manifold identities was another reminder: Biden had won on perhaps the most progressive campaign platform taken to a federal election. While he had stopped short of some Sanders-led reforms such as “medicare for all”, his energy policies are ambitious. He advocates the Green New Deal and borrows from its language on environmental justice. He will commit the US to net zero emissions by 2050 and embark on a clean-energy “revolution” that will help to shore up union jobs and infrastructure.

Whether a Biden–Harris administration can achieve these goals – which may extend to a price on carbon – hinges on the still-undecided senate. Even if Democrats win a Georgia runoff election in early 2021, energy policy may remain hostage to coal country Democratic senators such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. Manchin co-sponsored a bipartisan energy legislation package in February that backed a smorgasbord of renewable energy, carbon capture and further investment in nuclear power, but other bipartisan measures around efficiency-promoting building codes have faltered.

Biden has lionised this kind of cross-party co-operation, harking back to the tense compromises that defined the civil rights era. “This nation cannot function without generating consensus,” he said in May, and talked up the prospect of his “Republican friends” having an “epiphany”. Nevertheless, the Grand Old Party has eschewed peace talks over the past decade, fighting the Obama administration at every turn. Trump governed as a kind of anti-Obama, drawing up a list of the 44th president’s legislative achievements and looking to strike through each one. Critics fear a Republican-controlled senate and conservative-stacked Supreme Court will continue this recalcitrance.

The atmosphere is more receptive, though: Japan and China are former climate action holdouts that have now made their own net zero pledges, so Biden’s win further cements Australia’s lonely status in international climate politics, leaving it friendless in the developed world. Scott Morrison has offered congratulations, but while the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Britain all specifically referenced climate change in their initial conversations – Boris Johnson identified it as the first among “joint priorities” – the Australian leader did not.

The change in other diplomatic postures is more unclear, perhaps because the current position of the US in world affairs is so mercurial. Biden is likely to ease off on the trade war with China, but may take a firmer stand against Beijing’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Present confusion is profound enough that Trump has two distinct tranches of support on Chinese social media: a cohort within China who believe he is weakening the US, and a set of expats who believe he is weakening Communist China.

Biden has signalled immediate re-engagement with multilateral institutions, and under his stewardship the US will re-enter the Paris Agreement as a matter of urgent priority. Trump’s spat with the World Health Organization, also provoked by its perceived coddling of Chinese President Xi Jinping, will be smoothed over. The WHO’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been far from flawless, but it has had the opportunity to learn from its mistakes.

That cannot be said for Trump himself. Biden has endured many fallow and uncertain spells in his 47-year career in politics. None are as dangerous as the strange pre-presidency weeks he must see out before his January 20 inauguration. Without the power of an administration behind him, he must wait out a still-dangerous lame-duck president, legal challenges, possible recounts and a chance of bureaucratic intransigence to begin his administration.

Biden had said previously he was “ready to litigate” the question of “what kind of nation are we becoming”, and that litigation will not remain metaphorical. Asked about the transition preparation by the State Department, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration”. It was best interpreted as a joke, albeit an uneasy joke, but at the Pentagon a mass firing of civilian leadership suggests the possibility of a darker intent.

More pressing is a pandemic still out of control, in the hands of an executive with no intention of controlling it. Before the election, Covid-19 cases in the US were tracking at 100,000 a day. With the advent of cold weather, days with 200,000 new cases in a 24-hour period have arrived. On November 10, the country had a record high in virus hospitalisations of more than 60,000. The incoming president is guaranteed to inherit the most significant domestic crisis since the Great Depression, and the next two months are near certain to make it worse.

Just hours after assuming the presumptive presidency, the Biden team named a new taskforce to tackle the crisis. The president-elect had spoken about the importance of science during his acceptance speech, and the taskforce was solely composed of doctors and health experts. In the same speech he promised “to marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time”, primarily “the battle to control the virus”. The make-up of Biden’s taskforce is already a departure from a bleak era of purported hydroxychloroquine miracle cures and bleach injections.

Never interested in coronavirus, even when managing it could have buoyed his electoral chances, Trump experienced what he reportedly called “this fucking virus” as something that damped the sharemarket rather than as a threat to human life. Now even that incidental concern is gone, and Biden, while motivated, is impotent. A life touched too frequently by tragedy will incur another: the preventable yet inevitable deaths of thousands more American citizens, even as they have voted for protection.

Some 77 million Americans cast a vote to be rid of Donald Trump, but they will not be rid of him soon enough. With luck his fury will be expended on the golf course, rather than on the remnants of a professional public service. There are some meagre bright spots – Biden’s senior moments and “gaffe machine” tendencies will hardly register as unpresidential anymore – and Trump did blaze part of a trail for measures such as parenting leave and protecting patients’ preconditions. In ordinary conditions, he was at his best when he did nothing. After the plague struck, this lackadaisical tendency became negligence of the most fatal kind.

Much of this damage can never be undone, and a Biden administration, no matter how competent, will struggle to reverse the rest. He has waited 47 years for this moment, and now Joe Biden, and the United States he leads, might run out of time before it even begins.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 14, 2020 as "Squaring the Oval Office".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription