The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden beat Trump. But can he bring about a restoration?

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Joe Biden is now the president-elect of the United States. News outlets projected Biden’s victory on Saturday morning, sparking a wave of celebrations across the country. In the left-leaning bastions of Washington and New York — Today’s WorldView’s current home and perennial one, respectively — cloudless skies and balmy weather led to all-day citywide outpourings of joy.

In the evening, Biden delivered a triumphal speech where he urged conciliation after half a decade of deepening political polarization, in part stoked by the demagoguery of President Trump. “We must restore the soul of America,” Biden said. “Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses. And what presidents say in this battle matters. It is time for our better angels to prevail.”

The current occupant of the White House, for his part, remained driven by his impulses. Though no real evidence has emerged of the electoral fraud and irregularities he and his allies are alleging, Trump appears unwilling to concede defeat and has launched a quixotic series of legal challenges. At least in the bubble of far-right social media, those baseless claims will continue to be aired and may give life to Trump’s next act out of office as a driver of resentful ultranationalism among the Republican base.

Biden’s campaign, though, didn’t skip a beat. Its website swiftly converted to announce the presidential transition, framing Biden’s upcoming tenure as one aimed at “restoring America’s leadership.”

In some other countries, that’s a welcome pitch. Numerous world leaders congratulated the former vice president over the weekend. Some senior officials explicitly saw in it hope for the kind of restoration Biden had promised after years of Trump’s “America First” agenda.

“During the election campaign, Joe Biden made it clear that he believes in Team Play when it comes to the United States on [the] international stage instead of acting by its own,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement, gesturing to Biden’s far more positive view of multilateral diplomacy. “We want the West to play as a team again.”

In perhaps the most garish illustration of the point, the new cover of German news magazine Der Spiegel updated its controversial 2017 image of Trump holding aloft the severed head of the Statue of Liberty with one of Biden placing it back on the statue’s robed shoulders. Its tagline: “Make America Great Again.”

According to my colleagues, that work of restoration would begin immediately once Biden takes office in January with a flurry of executive orders scrapping or reversing some of Trump’s signature initiatives. The United States would rejoin both the Paris climate accords and void Trump’s angry withdrawal from the World Health Organization, the lead U.N. agency battling the coronavirus pandemic. Biden would reinstate the program allowing “dreamers,” immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children, to remain in the country. And he would repeal Trump’s travel bans on some Muslim-majority countries.

But the Democrats’s inability to win a majority in the Senate — barring dramatic January successes in two runoff races in Georgia — may hamper Biden’s ability to meaningfully lead. The long-simmering tensions within Biden’s coalition between moderates like him and an emerging leftist wing that wants the party to pursue more robust structural reforms like universal health care are already threatening to blow up just days after the election. Gridlock in Washington may lead to “paralysis in fiscal policy, and continued reliance on the Fed as the main backstop not just of the U.S. economy but of the entire global economy,” wrote economic historian Adam Tooze. “That is a recipe for lopsided financial bubbles that increase the risk of future financial instability and benefit the wealthy minority who own financial assets.”

Through executive actions, Biden will be able to reverse Trump’s rollback of dozens of public health and environmental regulations that had been put into place by the Obama administration, when he was vice president. But other stumbling blocks await.

“He could rejoin the Paris accord on climate change. But he cannot force a Republican Senate to fund alternative energy,” wrote Edward Luce in the Financial Times on Friday. “He could rejoin the World Health Organization, but he would need [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell to authorize U.S. funding for the body. He could bring America back into the Iran nuclear deal but any changes would have to be approved by the U.S. Senate.”

And then there are the considerations of the rest of the world. Biden wants to revive the nuclear deal, but conditions in Iran and pressure from its adversaries in the region may make fresh overtures too difficult. (The Trump administration, as a parting gift, hopes to conjure up new sanctions on Tehran before the end of the year.) In Beijing, there’s little optimism about a new U.S. president adopting that different an approach after years of Trumpian confrontation.

Even with Europe, a Biden administration may not see eye-to-eye on issues like collective security and trade. Policymakers on the continent are deeply aware that emerging majorities in the United States are less committed to helping bankroll European defense and are, in general, far more concerned about America’s ability to rebuild at home.

The Biden camp has made clear in its messaging that it is focused on, first, navigating the United States out of the pandemic. On Monday, it’s expected to unveil a coronavirus task force of top-notch scientists and public health officials. Aware of criticism from the left, Biden will also seek to “rebuild our economy in a way that’s more sustainable and more inclusive, and deal with division and inequality,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, to my colleagues.

Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the foreign policy committee in the German parliament and a contender to take over Christian Democratic party leadership from Chancellor Angela Merkel, said in an interview with The Post that the U.S.’s domestic “rifts will take a lot of time and energy for the Biden administration.”

Röttgen, like his country’s foreign minister, welcomed revived “multinational cooperation” and said he expected positive developments in the international community’s reckoning with climate change. “But there will be no return to the good old days,” he told my colleagues.

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