Midterms week is never much fun, but this past one was worse. Worse because, on top of everything, it involved hours of staring at red-and-blue maps, anxiously waiting for new “vote dumps” and trying to make sense of gradually shifting margins in slow-counting battleground states.
Although we don’t yet have final election results from all states, the outcome of the presidential contest is now clear: Joe Biden will be the 46th president of the United States. Donald Trump might continue to fight the outcome by refusing to acknowledge his defeat and spouting unfounded claims of election fraud, but his time in office will end in 10 weeks.
Biden, however, could face an uphill battle to make meaningful change happen once he’s in office—even his pretty moderate idea of change. After all, Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives, kept control of key statehouses and seem likely to hold on to a narrow majority in the Senate. The confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett also secured a six-to-three conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
As a result, the Biden administration will probably face “obstruction at every level,” similar or even worse than during the Obama years, according to The Guardian. Major domestic policy reforms such as universal health care, higher taxes on the wealthy, electoral reform, etc., probably won’t happen if the Senate really stays under GOP control.
Internationally, however, the impact of this election will be felt. The U.S. is still one of the countries the world looks to for leadership—and foreign policy is an area where the president has broad authority to act on his own. It’s debatable whether or not that unilateral authority is generally a good idea, but it could allow Biden to repair at least some of the grave damage that Trump’s presidency has done on the international stage.
Biden’s foreign policy agenda is expansive. He has the unenviable task of restoring relationships with wary allies and assuring them that the U.S. can again be relied upon to keep its agreements and commitments. He is faced with transnational threats that Trump has ignored or exacerbated, above all the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. He also needs to rejoin multilateral institutions like the World Health Organization and UNESCO to show that America hasn’t abandoned the idea of international collaboration.
Tackling all these issues won’t be easy, but Biden can address them without worrying as much about an obstructionist Congress. Some other pressing problems—for example, the expiring arms control treaty with Russia—would require action by Congress. But, thanks to the long-standing deference given to the executive branch on foreign policy matters, there is a lot that the new administration could change.
Biden will bring considerable foreign policy experience to the Oval Office. His long record on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is not perfect by any means. His presidency will probably mark a return to the imperfect, but at least somewhat principled and predictable liberalism of the Obama years. But, at the very least, I trust that Biden won’t insult African countries by calling them shitholes, won’t take the word of foreign strongmen over his own intelligence agencies and won’t praise the dictatorial leader of our most serious geopolitical adversary, China, as a king. That would be a marked improvement.
On that note, it’s not just Biden’s win that matters to the world; it’s also Trump’s loss. Although the outcome was too close to say that Americans truly rejected Trump’s ideas, his defeat—the defeat of the poster boy of contemporary far-right nationalism—sends an important message to allies and adversaries around the world, all of whom were most definitely watching.
The way Trump lost also matters. Although it is too early to say exactly what tipped the scales, there are early indicators that Trump lost the election because the very groups he has disparaged the most fought back. Black activists fought voter suppression and were crucial in driving up turnout that helped flip Michigan, Pennsylvania and maybe even Georgia against Trump. Women voted against Trump at least as decisively as they did in 2016. Latinx organizers mobilized against Republicans in Arizona to help turn that state blue in the electoral college for just the second time since 1948.
Trump’s loss, especially in the way it came to pass, is a powerful signal to the world that maybe hate won’t prevail, maybe democratic values count for something and maybe the resurgence of nationalism and xenophobia can be defeated.