The results, at last, seem clear. After several emotionally wrenching days of vote-tallying across the country, Joe Biden has won the 2020 presidential election.
That victory is, first and foremost, a relief. The campaign of destruction that President Donald Trump has waged against democracy and decency will, in fact, end. Whatever the future may hold ― and there are good reasons to believe it will be bleak ― at least this particular nihilist will no longer have his hands on the levers of administrative power.
But Trump’s removal alone will not solve the nation’s troubles. It will not even prevent them from deepening over the next few months. Biden will likely enter office with the economy in deep recession as an uncontrolled pandemic rages. What was once bemoaned as bitter partisanship has metastasized into an at-times murderous cultural animosity. Trump has bequeathed his successor a country in which many Americans on different sides of the political divide not only dislike each other, but take active pleasure in their mutual estrangement.
Make no mistake. Despite the win at the top of the ticket, the election results are a deep disappointment to the Democratic Party. No one now living has faced a more favorable electoral environment than Biden did this year. Trump’s botched pandemic response has resulted in a death toll of 235,000 and counting. The economy is in shambles, with more than 750,000 people losing their jobs every week. Trump himself remains unpopular, with an approval rating that has never passed 45% over his entire tenure in office, after losing the popular vote by 3 million in 2016. The Senate map offered as many as 10 bona fide pickup opportunities to Democrats, who will now consider themselves fortunate to emerge from the final vote tally with the seats needed to take control of the upper chamber. They lost seats in the House.
But it would be an error to interpret these mixed results as a mandate for the status quo and the joys of divided government. They show, instead, the dangers of political campaigns focused on the lives of politicians rather than on the people they hope to represent. Voters did not like Donald Trump, but they could not see themselves in Biden, because he refused, again and again, to tell them what he would actually do to improve their lives.
Biden secured his primary victory not with big ideas but with the repeated insistence that he alone was the safest bet to defeat Trump in November. In the general election, he burdened himself with only two serious campaign promises: to “heal” the country and to listen to scientists about how to fight COVID-19. What, exactly, those meant was for the most part left unspoken.
There were policy items to be found in the corners of Biden’s website or discussed, occasionally, during debates. But the single, core message Biden and the Democratic Party sought to drive home was that Trump was the wrong kind of man for the job.
“Character is on the ballot,” Biden told his convention audience in August. “Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy ― they are all on the ballot. Who we are as a nation. What we stand for. And, most importantly, who we want to be ― that’s all on the ballot.”
By running on character rather than a clear agenda, Biden hoped to unite everyone repulsed by Trump without alienating them from one another. Under Biden’s banner are torture apologists from the George W. Bush administration, young socialists from the Bernie Sanders campaign, aging Republicans horrified by Trump’s pandemic malpractice, and old hands from the Clinton administration eager to revive the era of free trade and balanced budgets. The single shared goal that stitched this coalition together ― the defeat of Donald Trump ― has now been accomplished. What remains for many of these supporters is a nebulous and malleable desire to simply escape a season of political intensity.
But it is clear Biden cannot heal the country by retreating from conflict. His opposition, a Republican Party that now rejects democracy itself as a guiding principle, will do everything in its power to prevent him from addressing any of the fears and frustrations currently facing the country. Even the most modest of governing goals ― ending the pandemic and the recession ― cannot be achieved without assertive public action and substantive reforms to both government and our dysfunctional economic order. If Republicans and Democrats are to get along in Washington, Democrats will have to abandon serious problem-solving for the rest of the country.
“To thwart the rise of the next Trumpian demagogue, Biden and the Democratic Party must overhaul the system that created and sustained Trump the business magnate.”
And bad as the country’s economic problems are now, they are about to get much worse. Many of the government programs that mitigated the crisis came with expiration dates that are now on the horizon. A federal eviction moratorium will expire on Dec. 31. Several states that have mandated the continued supply of heat, water or electricity to households behind on their bills are allowing these protections to sunset. Absent a new agreement from Congress and with a lame-duck Trump, the federal government itself will shut down on Dec. 11. Holiday travel is understandably down, outdoor activities are disappearing with cold weather, and the failure to pass a stimulus package before the election has left households all over the country with tight budgets. State and local governments, which employ roughly 16 million people, face devastating budget shortfalls from the pandemic that will bring millions of layoffs in the new year.
An unfortunate truism about our nation’s capital is that the higher the stakes are in American life, the smaller the thinking will be in Washington. With a cascade of crises on the horizon, there will be enormous pressure from cuff-linked power brokers for Biden to notch small victories and move on to containing the next foreseeable disaster.
The experience of the Obama administration reveals the shortcomings of such a strategy. As Obama careened from deadline to shutdown, he often succeeded in preventing the worst, and the public did, with a few notable exceptions, typically blame Republicans for whatever specific mess the government found itself in. The sum of these victories, however, was pyrrhic. They did not arrest the acceleration of economic inequality or its political corollaries, the rise of authoritarianism and political apathy.
Some of Obama’s mistakes were tactical. He believed Republicans would come to the table when they wouldn’t, offered up overly generous compromises, and, perhaps most importantly, undershot the scope of relief required in the 2009 stimulus package. But the administration also suffered from a genuine failure of vision. The most famous dictums from the Obama team ― “don’t do stupid shit,” “hard things are hard,” “plan beats no plan” ― are about avoiding mistakes and acknowledging limitations. They are not about changing the world.
A weak victory may not leave Biden with a choice about whether to change the world. Without a Senate majority, all talk of meaningful policymaking will be moot for at least two years. But if Biden does have the power to act, he will need to take bold action on the economy as swiftly as possible.
There are few indications that Democratic leaders recognize the imperative. The most popular theme at the Democratic National Convention in August was the idea of finally being able to relax and get back to a vaguely defined “normal” politics. “These are not normal times,” bemoaned former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican. “This is not normal,” agreed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “It’s not a normal time,” Obama said, before vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris concluded that the nation was “grieving,” among other things, “the loss of normalcy,” and Julia Louis-Dreyfus predicted Biden would “restore dignity and normalcy to the White House.”
The top issue for voters across all demographics in this election, according to exit polls, was not normalcy, but the economy. The economy is a complicated idea for most people ― it’s about paychecks and utility bills, but also about fairness and inequality. When people say they are unhappy with the economy, nearly all of them mean they want to make more money. But many are also expressing frustration with a social order that increasingly concentrates private power in unaccountable hands as it delivers too many fruits of society’s labors to an irresponsible elite.
Four years from now, voters will still care about the economy. And if they don’t like it, the White House incumbent to absorb that blame will be a Democrat. The Republican alternative will likely share many of Trump’s worst qualities and be less burdened by Trump’s obvious incompetence. To thwart the rise of the next Trumpian demagogue, Biden and the Democratic Party must overhaul the system that created and sustained Trump the business magnate.
In the closing weeks of his campaign, Biden tied his prospective administration to the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt ― a leader who came to office during an era of crisis and met the moment by reformulating the very nature of American government. Roosevelt made mistakes, but he recognized that continuing the status quo of 1932 would bring the end of American democracy. He brought to government an energy and ambition that Biden must now embrace if we can hope to avoid an authoritarian future in the 21st century.
The country cannot afford for him to fail.
Zach Carter is the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes,” named by Publishers Weekly as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year. It is available from Random House wherever books are sold.