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What will a Joe Biden presidency actually mean for America?

Joe Biden campaigns in Michigan. - Credit: Getty Images

James Ball looks at how a Donald Trump defeat would effect the USA, and the world.

The consensus is in: there is something like an 85% to 90% chance that Democratic candidate Joe Biden will win the presidential election next week and begin the countdown to his inauguration in January 2021.

But if people have strong feelings about that prospect, they’re probably not about Biden himself.

Despite Republicans’ best efforts to spin scandals around the business dealings of his son Hunter, or paint the former vice president as in hock to the left fringe of his party, Americans by and large don’t have too much negative to say about Biden – as his favourability numbers show.

They might not be as effusive and enthusiastic in their support as they were for his former boss Barack Obama, when he first ran for the same job, but they don’t particularly hate him either – a rare trait for a politician in a country as polarised as the US has become.

No, the strong feelings being generated about the 2020 presidential race – in the USA and across the world – stem of course from the man Biden is running against: president Donald Trump.

In a single term, Trump has smashed almost every political norm, mired himself in numerous corruption investigations, ran a chaotic and almost comically inept administration – and appointed three people to the Supreme Court, and hundreds to the federal bench, a legacy that will last at least a generation.

Trump has come to define the entirety of US politics, and so inevitably the entirety of the 2020 election race. The ballot, at least at the top of the ticket, might as well be ‘for Trump’ or ‘not Trump’, which is surely part of Biden’s appeal. If an election is about stopping your opponent, a relatively bland candidate is an asset in this endeavour.

However, when the election is over, someone has to govern for the next presidential term, and in the world where that’s Joe Biden, we’ve spent almost no time thinking about what that might actually mean for the USA – and for the world. Given that even with its somewhat diminished status in recent years the US is still the world’s leading superpower, that’s a strange place to be.

It’s certainly the case that Biden would not be able to undo all the damage of the Trump presidency overnight. No candidate possibly could. But at a minimum, there are lots of simple ways in which Biden would at least right the ship.

Perhaps the most immediately damaging, if least visible, aspects of the Trump administration is its sheer incompetence. Largely through inattention and indifference, Trump left hundreds and then thousands of key vacancies unfilled, or filled on an acting basis by woefully under-qualified cronies.

This left the State Department little more than a shell of itself, set back efforts to control nuclear and chemical weapon decommissioning around the world from the Department of Energy, and hollowed-out the federal government in numerous other ways. Simply by appointing even basically competent professionals to these types of roles, Biden will rebuild some of the damage caused over the last four years.

That won’t be enough for anyone. But it’s not at all clear Biden can do much more. The first potential barrier in his way is simply the House and the Senate. The Republican party of 2020 is the party of Trump, more extreme even than the Tea Party before it. Should Biden win power, it will do everything in its power to block his every move and make America ungovernable for him.

At present, the House is held by Democrats and this would serve in Biden’s favour – and it seems likely that if Biden took the presidency, Democrats would almost certainly hold the House. That’s one barrier down, but the more serious one is the Senate.

Senators serve six-year terms, elected in thirds every two years – meaning one in three Senate seats are up for grabs in 2020. To gain even basic control of the Senate, Democrats would need to take at least three of the 35 seats on offer, which is regarded by many political observers as a tough but not impossible challenge.

If Republicans hold the Senate, Biden’s hopes of passing virtually any major legislation of note head to zero. So too would any prospect of making any particularly controversial appointments, over which the Senate has a veto. Biden could find his hands bound from day one of his presidency, as Obama’s were from 2010 onwards – but to an even greater extreme.

Even assuming Biden had a Democrat-controlled House and Senate, people shouldn’t expect a transformative agenda. Traditionally, Biden was known as something of a centrist Democrat, quite distinct from the liberal warriors represented by Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. He does not support Medicare For All, he rejected the Green New Deal, and similar proposals that play well with the party’s grassroots.

That’s not to say Biden wouldn’t try to strengthen Obamacare, fund welfare to a greater extent, and pass green bills – but he wouldn’t be trying the radical measures some on his left flank would hope for.

Those across the world pinning their hopes on a Biden presidency changing everything would likely be disappointed, too. Biden would be unlikely to be dramatically friendlier to Europe than Trump, though might reinstate regular Nato and EU cooperation – to the relief of many.

Any rebuilding of the international order could be a jumping point for better things, though: we need to work together to tackle the climate crisis, prevent future pandemics, and to do something for millions of refugees across the planet. A Biden presidency could begin that work, while scaling back Trump’s constant flirtation with international strongmen.

He certainly wouldn’t be a saviour of Brexit for either faction – the UK would likely drop down his priority list, with a trade deal remaining vanishingly unlikely (and still including the big agri measures so opposed under Trump’s proposals).

The USA’s international priorities just don’t feature the ‘Special Relationship’ nearly so highly as we here might hope.

Biden and Democratic support for Ireland means the US would be unlikely to intervene in a no-deal, and its priorities make any significant intervention in any direction vastly unlikely – but this would remain true under Trump.

Neither president would save nor stall Brexit.

On a broader level, Biden alone could not hope to rebuild what Trump has broken. He will face a hostile federal judicial bench – and Supreme Court – ready to strike down anything ambitious he passes. He will face a bitterly divided and potentially violent public. And he will face a US body politics with its every norm and standard of decency smashed.

Political standards – like public trust – take decades to build and weeks to shatter. Joe Biden risks becoming president of the ashes left behind by Donald Trump’s four-year conflagration.

But everything has to start somewhere, and doing so from four years of Trump is better than from eight. Next week, we might start to see the first evidence of green shoots emerging from the burned-out wasteland.

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