There is still some cleaning up to do, vote recounts and lawsuits among them. But it appears that Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats are on track to accomplishing their number one goal of this election, the toppling of President Trump. No longer will Trump occupy the most powerful office in the world, spewing vitriol and imaginary grievances. No longer will the world be worried that the United States is in the grips of a madman. These are no small achievements.
Moreover, the Biden team can also take heart that they ended the contest with a series of breakthroughs in key states, resurrecting the Blue Wall while expanding their successes across the Sunbelt.
Yet the overall election results left Democrats achingly short of what they hoped: Instead of a blowout, it was a squeaker; instead of a Senate majority, control for now is in Republican hands; instead of gains in the House, a half-dozen seats were lost; and to rub in salt, Republicans also gained control over at least two more state legislatures, giving them the upper hand in redistricting over the coming decade.
Realization is now dawning among Biden supporters that, despite their best efforts, this election could indeed become what the ancients called a pyrrhic victory. To paraphrase Plutarch, one more such victory and we shall be undone.
On Jan. 20, Biden will enter office with the toughest challenges faced by any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt and one of the weakest hands. He faces a split Congress, a divided country, an economic recession, and a pandemic that’s on track to kill 390,000 Americans by Feb. 1.
Increasingly, the central question will be whether he and his team can effectively govern. Can he heal our divisions, restore public trust, and move beyond gridlock? No one knows for sure, but everyone should know it will be damn hard.
Biden campaigned with bold pledges to strengthen health care, contain the coronavirus pandemic, pump trillions into the economy, address racial and social inequities, and save the planet from climate disaster. Yet, he now faces the fact that almost all of his proposals will first need the approval of the Senate, which is controlled by majority leader Mitch McConnell. This is the same McConnell whose number one objective during the Obama years was to bring down the president. This is the same McConnell whose office served as a graveyard for initiatives passed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House. Now, as a Biden presidency approaches, McConnell’s colleagues say he expects to maintain an even tighter rein. Word is circulating, for example, that he wants to exercise a veto over Biden’s cabinet choices. If that sounds outlandish, well, it is.
Consider, too, how Biden will navigate the cross-pressures within his own party, where squabbles are already breaking out. Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as well as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York proved to be worthy allies of Biden during the fall campaign. They held their tongues on policy differences with Biden while helping to mobilize the young and others on the left. How will Biden honor the progressive wing of the Democratic Party while also listening to centrists who argue that Biden won the national election because he championed their mainstream ideals?
Or think about the mischief and mayhem Trump himself may unleash in coming months. His bitter, unhinged statements this week suggest that as he goes down he may try to bring our democracy with him. What should the nation do, for example, if he signs papers pardoning himself and his allies, protecting them from federal prosecution? Send them for resolution to the Justice Department of Attorney General Bill Barr?
Indeed, Trump could become the wild card of our politics. Clearly he doesn’t want to leave the stage. Nor do many of his fans want him to. As difficult as it is for Democrats to fathom, 67 million Americans knowingly voted for four more years — 5 million more than he got last time out. No one else in the GOP comes close to Trump’s continuing power, which means that many GOP officeholders will continue to genuflect at his door. Trump could easily become a shadow president, threatening to run again.
Fortunately, Biden is a healer by nature and a good listener. One of his strengths is his ability to form partnerships with people of different perspectives. It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to the times. But Biden can’t heal the country by himself. He will need millions of other Americans to understand the perils we face as a people and continue the good fight. The crusade to save our democracy didn’t end with this campaign; we are just getting started.
David Gergen is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he co-founded the Center for Public Leadership. He has served as a White House adviser to four presidents and is currently a senior political analyst at CNN.