People react as media announce that Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden has won the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., November 7, 2020.
Patrick T. Fallon | Reuters
It is now likely that former Vice President Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States. He’ll do so with the largest number of votes ever cast for any American presidential candidate in history after an electoral-turnout rate that was the highest since 1900.
Though it may not feel that way right now, that outcome would mark a triumph of historic significance for the country’s democratic process and institutions. It would be one that would come despite President Donald Trump’s incendiary, unsubstantiated charges on Thursday of electoral fraud and despite a host of legal challenges that will now play out but be unlikely to change the outcome.
Though one would hope the Republican chorus against Trump’s disruptive efforts would be louder, significant voices are joining. Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, whose state is a key battleground, called the president’s charges “disturbing to me because he made very, very serious allegations without any evidence to support it.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, tweeted, “STOP Spreading debunked misinformation.”
Biden and his team recognize that history compels them, once elected, to emerge as more than just the victor. America’s internal divisions and a rising tide of international challenges will require the kind of unifying leader that America has had before at such times of dangerous division.
The challenges may seem daunting, but they were also daunting when Gerald Ford stepped in after the resignation of Richard Nixon. And the current rifts in the United States are nowhere near as bitter as what faced President Ulysses S. Grant after the Civil War in 1869, when he succeeded Andrew Johnson, the first U.S. president to be impeached.
Johnson refused to attend Grant’s inauguration, and Grant refused to ride in the same carriage as Johnson. Yet President Grant brought together a divided country and healed the post-war economy, and his new Department of Justice prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan.
Vice President Biden has been consistent as a candidate that he wishes to play a unifying role as the president for all Americans — and alongside the country’s traditional allies.
It will not be easy, but it is doable.
The Republican gains in the House of Representatives and the party’s likely continued hold on the Senate majority would present both an obstacle and an opportunity for a Democratic president. In the first days of his administration, Biden could strike deals across the aisle to take on the potentially unifying perils of COVID-19 and the economic downturn through more productive stimulus spending and infrastructure investment. With Kamala Harris as the first Black woman to serve as the nation’s vice president, a Biden administration would be well-positioned to support an inclusive, new civil-rights movement.
It’s also far beyond time for the United States to rally its democratic partners around the world in common cause to tackle the rising, systemic, authoritarian challenge posed by China and others – an issue against which US political differences pale in importance.
Perhaps a Trump concession to Biden will yet come, which would help the healing. For now, that is difficult to imagine.
Under no conditions could one expect anything approaching the power of Senator John McCain’s concession to Barack Obama in 2008. McCain’s speech went viral this week across the country, underscoring the national yearning for that brand of elegance.
“In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been,” said McCain then, Obama’s “success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president, is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving. This is a historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.”
Still, Vice President Biden would enter office having won a record of nearly 74 million votes and still counting, exceeding the previous highest mark of 69.5 million achieved by President Barack Obama, in whose administration Biden served. The national turnout will exceed 66% of registered voters, the most since Republican President William McKinley defeated his Democratic challenger William Jennings Bryan in 1900, with a 73% turnout.
It has become popular among American adversaries and allies alike to espouse the view that the long period of U.S. global leadership that followed World War II, creating the international institutions and rules that have governed the past 75 years, is nearing its end. Some critics point to the divisions, nastiness, and messiness of our 2020 elections as decisive evidence of that.
“The U.S. is in degradation,” tweeted Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the Global Times in China, who is often considered an unofficial spokesperson for Beijing.
Difficult days still lie ahead. This transition could be like none we have ever seen. But this year’s electoral outcome offers more reason for hope than despair.
Our current thinking is colored by how we’ve received the results, but the margin of victory over time could allow a President Biden to shift from campaigning to governing with a tone and content that has the potential to be transformative. Don’t forget: President George W. Bush’s 2004 win, which was described as giving him a strong foreign-policy mandate, came with 286 electoral votes and a 2.4-point margin in the popular vote. A Biden win could grow to over 300 electoral votes and a margin of 4.5 to 5 points.
A Biden victory would provide an opportunity for Americans to regain their appetite for compromise at home to tackle the country’s most pressing challenges and for international common cause to safeguard the gains in democracy and prosperity of the past 75 years.
A gracious concession would help. Thankfully, however, our democracy rests not on the actions of the defeated, but on the votes of our citizens and our constitutional process of transition.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.
This column was originally published in the Atlantic Council blog.
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