Sir Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying: “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted”. And boy have Americans tried their best! As US presidents, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump stretched the limits of their mandate to the utmost in opposite directions: they polarized US society, accentuated the fault lines that already existed fueling hatred and other passions. While media projections have declared Joe Biden as the winner of last week’s presidential election, Trump has not recognized him leaving the process in limbo.
Trump has not been a typical president. His opening act during the 2016 presidential campaign was that of a rebel who would not adhere to any rule. Instead of building, Trump dedicated himself to tearing down things and instead of trying to fix things, Trump devoted himself to lash out. As president he has been disgraceful, but no one can deny Trump’s merit of having advanced the agenda he promised in fiscal, regulatory, environmental, and trade matters. One may or may not agree with Trump’s view of the world, but he was been consistent with what he promised to his electorate. As for the rest of the US public, Trump has responded: to hell with your institutions.
Biden was not the most attractive or dynamic presidential candidate out there, but he was the only one who was able to unify the Democratic Party. Despite his obvious limitations, circumstances could not have been better for Biden’s rise: the Covid-19 crisis undermined Trump’s main advantage -the accelerated growth of the US economy, employment and wages- and the press could not have been kinder to him. As president, Biden will have to deal with a complex political landscape, starting with his own party, which has shifted to the left in a way that frightened much of the US electorate, including his own.
The Democratic Party has not only moved to the left, but in recent months, it produced violent and destructive movements on the streets of multiple cities. Biden was unable to dissociate himself from these movements, something that undoubtedly influenced the result. In the face of this scenario, many key independent voters ran back to Trump. In addition, the incipient recovery of the economy and of employment after the Covid-19 downturn, allowed Trump to argue that his strategy was still a winner. Although the polls continued to show a high probability of a win for Biden, the margin kept closing in the last days of the campaign.
Biden was not the natural candidate for the Democratic Party. He won the presidential nomination precisely because he did not threaten any of its components. Biden emerged as a candidate because, Democratic Party’s establishment recognized that Bernie Sanders, the favorite of progressives, had no chance of winning because most of the party remains moderate. Still, it is now clear that all that was insufficient for the Democrats to achieve a decisive victory. Trump continues to have a solid base and, despite his bad manners, many Democrats and independents fear the advancement of progressives’ initiatives more than the intemperance of the current president.
Biden’s main strength is very simple and obvious: he is not Trump. The huge pushback against Trump was enough for Biden to navigate calmly through the campaign. If he wins, Biden will have to contend with the reality of a very divided nation, characterized by extreme positions and contempt among voters with opposing party preferences. And that without counting the huge differences within his own coalition regarding governing agendas and expectations
What is fascinating about the US is the insularity of the two worlds that comprise it. People in the East and West Coasts tend to have an optimistic view of the world, a jobs and income structure increasingly tied to the information economy and a propensity to Europeanize their health care, pensions and other services. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the Midwest (particularly the so-called Rust Belt) live amid precariousness, pessimism and lack of opportunities that the world’s economic and technological transformation has denied them. The contrast in the quality of education between the two regions is staggering. Obama gave precedence to the former, while Trump to the latter. Both Presidents were polarizing forces in the eyes of the opposite side, leading to the tensions expressed in last week’s election.
What is striking about this US presidential election is not the immediate result but its dynamics. What was forecasted as a safe, and even overwhelming, victory by Biden ended in a virtual draw. The new president’s margin to maneuver will be limited, largely determined by the final outcome of the elections in the US Senate. Trump would have no problem with a scenario like this given that his only goal will be to persevere on a divisive governing agenda. For his part, Biden will have to find a way to work with his Republican counterparts to build common ground to restore a semblance of order, repair key institutions, and achieve domestic peace. The good thing about this challenge is that it matches Biden’s personality neatly and will allow him to leave aside the progressive base that did so much damage to him in this election.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition.