Trump’s damage to the US will be hard for Biden to undo
30 Nov 2020|

Three weeks after a divisive US election and multiple challenges of the results by President Donald Trump, the official transition to President-elect Joe Biden was finally allowed to begin. Biden’s first cabinet choices (all familiar, none too flashy) aimed to reassure those eager to see the United States return to critical international arrangements that the Trump administration pulled out of, attacked or tried to starve—the World Trade Organization, the UN Human Rights Council, the World Health Organization, the Paris climate agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, among others.

Those announcements, plus Biden’s nominations of the first women as Treasury secretary and director of national intelligence, and the Homeland Security’s first Latino and immigrant head, signalled a hoped-for end to a tumultuous four years marked by abuses of power, the active sowing of division and discord at home and abroad, an impulsive and contrarian foreign policy, and ‘America first’ attacks on core US relationships around the world.

Yet, the Biden team faces a grave reality: America is not well. Election week brought record-high Covid-19 infection and hospitalisation rates as the country headed into the epidemic’s ‘most deadly phase’. The interim period has also offered little comfort about the deep polarisation that plagues the United States at leadership and popular levels.

While the outcome of Georgia’s two senate run-offs won’t be known until January, it is a certainty that any Biden agenda will face obstacles from either a divided Senate or, more likely, a Republican-led one. The Democrats will retain control of the House of Representatives, but with probably the smallest majority held by either party in over two decades, a point that will embolden House Republicans and divide the Democratic Party’s moderate and progressive wings. And notwithstanding Biden’s clear popular and electoral victories, Donald Trump still received 47% of the popular vote.

These sobering figures have serious political consequences for the incoming Biden team and its national security agenda. Trump’s actions since the election compound the challenge. Still refusing to concede, Trump has convinced as many as 86% of his nearly 74 million voters that the election was rigged. Meanwhile, high-ranking Republicans have done little to stop or even criticise Trump’s efforts to interfere with, destabilise and hamstring the political transition of power. As if that weren’t enough, he also fired key members of his national security team in a post-election shake-up.

These actions expand the vulnerabilities associated with presidential transitions and, at a minimum, complicate the incoming Biden administration’s ability to hit the ground running. Efforts to undermine the civil service these last four years also suggest that the Biden administration will spend no small amount of time undoing the damage done to state capacities and agencies. If the first few post-election weeks are any indication, the remaining weeks of the Trump presidency offer plenty of time to create more trouble.

Most of all, governance, including the ability to push forward new legislation, stimulus packages and multilateral commitments, is likely to be stymied. Temperamentally and institutionally, Biden favours consensus, but the political reality of a deeply divided polity will have serious consequences for Biden’s priorities and what the administration can do.

By necessity, domestic issues—the Covid-19 crisis, the economy, and racial and socio-cultural divisions—will command centre stage. These factors are all interlinked and will challenge any nationwide effort to contain the human, political and economic costs of the Covid-19 crisis, even with the promise of working vaccines. If people won’t wear masks, will they take a vaccine? Even in good years, the US ‘has never managed to vaccinate more than half of adults for seasonal influenza’.

The US electoral process compounds the difficulties. It poses a challenge to governance in normal times, given the biennial congressional election cycle, and current conditions add to that. President-elect Biden, who will be 78 on inauguration day, has indicated he will serve only one term. He could change his mind, of course, but he’ll be 81 come 2024, which means that the Democratic leadership is already in play. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, 81, has also indicated that this may be her last term. Meanwhile, President Trump (though no spring chicken himself) is reportedly already considering a 2024 run.

These challenges will present real dangers to US interests both at home and abroad, at least in the short term. They will also complicate the incoming administration’s efforts to form US strategy and policy in ways that neutralise the many questions raised about America’s role in the world role—among allies, partners and rivals—as a result of the last four years.