US Presidential Elections: Reflections of an outside observer

Written By: Shraddha Bhandari
Place: New Delhi Published: Nov 12, 2020, 04.14 PM(IST)

Even though the Biden- Harris teamwork has begun, this race is far from over Photograph:( AFP )

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President-elect Biden has his work cut out for him- a Presidency marred by narratives of voter fraud, a split legislature and severe domestic challenges- Covid, economy and a visibly polarised society

By all official counts, Democratic Party candidate - Joe Biden is the new President-elect of the United States of America. After a gruelling morning on 4 November, where President Trump took substantial early leads in most swing states, Biden gradually narrowed the gap in the next few days. Even though the Biden- Harris teamwork has begun, this race is far from over. Trump has refused to concede & his legal team has threatened battles in almost all swing states.

In the last couple of decades, this was perhaps the most closely watched American elections internationally. More than the issues, there was a feeling that the future of the American narrative, balance between right-wing and liberal Left and US's foreign policy was at stake. The fact this was held in a pandemic that threw up unique ways of campaigning, voting and counting added to the thrill.  Certain key aspects stand out with implications for domestic US policy and its role in the world:

First, about the content of the vote – There was no 'blue wave' as was predicted by some pollsters. Given the polarization in American society and the nature of the electoral system, any appetite for radical change was an extreme prediction. The Democrats managed to secure the Presidency but their showing in the legislative races was far from satisfactory. They lost seats in the House of Representatives (lower house, where they had a majority) & were not able to get enough seats in the Senate (the upper house) to flip from Republican control. Runoff races in Georgia in January 2021 might give them two more seats to get 50:50, in which case the Vice President-elect Harris can cast a tie-breaker in case of a deadlock.

Explanations for these trends have abounded – was it an anti-Trump vote more than an anti-Republican vote? Did the Democrats overestimate their appeal and now need to introspect. The indications are somewhere in the middle – Trump managed to get 70 million popular votes, more than in 2016 but the Democrats were also able to enthuse their traditional supporters with the message of  'getting Trump out' and vote in larger numbers. 

The voter turnaround in this election was the highest since 1900. For the Presidency, credit has to be given to Biden, who was not even the DNC’s (Democratic National Convention) first choice and was largely selected to build consensus amongst its diverging moderate and progressive sections. Biden built a grassroots campaign, chose a symbolic running mate, star campaigners like Obama and was able to build a narrative around the mismanagement of COVID. 

In the end, the election was not as close as it was initially purported to be – Biden has 4 million-plus popular votes’ lead that might increase as the counting continues in many states. He also managed to flip five states – Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennslyvania and Republican states of Arizona and Georgia. 

The legislative results, however, have unleashed infighting between the 'moderate' and progressive' wings with the former blaming the latter’s extreme ‘rhetoric’ for Democrat defeats even in states that Biden was able to carry along. The charge is that demands such as 'Medicare for all', 'Defund the police' etc created a condition that many Americans voted for Republican candidates in these races while rejecting Trump for Presidency. This can be true in some cases but does not seem like a general trend. 

Some poll trends have shown that there was a nation-wide pro-Democrat swing (though moderate) since 2016 in the election for a President – but a pro-Republican swing since 2018 in elections for the House. The Democrats in the legislature have been held as responsible as the Republicans for the deadlock on passing a stimulus, non compromising attitudes on judicial nominees, etc. Plus the Democrat strategy of putting accomplished candidates, mainly 'women', was aped by the Republicans in these elections with better than expected results. 

So what we have in the US now is a recipe for uncertainty. A Biden Presidency, a Republican-controlled Senate (unless Democrats can win Georgia races), a House with a reduced majority for the Democrats and a Supreme Court with a 6-3 majority for conservative judges. Trump's constant allegations about voter fraud and illegal electoral processes are going to cast a shadow on Biden's presidency that will make it hard for him to carry 70 million people on his COVID agenda, for instance. 

The Senate Republicans, whose approval Biden requires for passing key legislation, will make it difficult to undertake crucial reforms, including on taxation, reform of the electoral process, etc. A reduced House Democratic majority will make it difficult for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to get the moderate & progressive sections to co-exist. The result will be a legislative deadlock on many issues unless Biden, a long time, a seasoned politician, can build bi-partisan consensus at least on the immediate requirements.  

What happens in the US has consequences globally and even more so because Trump broke from years of diplomatic consensus to bestow personal favors/displeasure on international actors. As Biden emerged the likely winner, there was relief in certain quarters – traditional US allies and Iran against which Trump had taken a hard stance; acceptance in others such as Middle East allies and silence from Brazil, Russia and China. 

But despite the fears that Biden will undo many aspects of the Trump foreign policy – the truth is that his first few months will be spent in combating US's domestic challenges – containing COVID surge, an ailing economy & polarised race relations. The first few executive orders could focus on reversing Trump measures aimed to reinforce the US's commitment to multilateralism – re-entering the Paris climate accord, the WHO and lifting the travel ban on Muslim nations. 

With a bipartisan consensus on the need for a 'hard stance' towards China, Biden will continue the Trumpian stance towards China though his approach is likely to be different. China’s economic ‘espionage’, theft of intellectual property, human rights abuses, interference in Taiwan will be the main issues of contention. Biden is likely to re-cultivate US relations with its traditional allies, including in Europe and Asia. In the Middle East, a calibrated return to the Iran deal of 2015 will be on the books as also a return to a mediator stance in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but these are not high priority goals.  

But all of this is still some days away. In the meantime, the US and world will have to grapple with Trump’s legal challenges, a voter base emboldened to use nonconstitutional means to challenge elections results & Trump’s last few unilateral foreign policy moves on Iran, arms treaties and Israel.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer)

Shraddha Bhandari

Shraddha is the Co-Founder, Intelligentsia Risk Advisors. She is an experienced hand in strategic consulting/intelligence, crisis management and risk analysis for businesses and international organisations. 

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