Despite President Trump’s non fact-based claim that the election was rigged, all states have certified their data and Joe Biden will soon be voted the 46th President of the United States. His administration will however face an uphill path, not only because it is likely not to have the majority in the Senate – which will be decided in the run-offs in Georgia in January, but also because of the heavy legacy of the Trump Presidency. The choices he made so far in his Cabinet – all seasoned people, well-versed in government – is his first, wise, response to these challenges.
Trump’s economic policies were particularly favorable to white unskilled workers and to his peers, the super millionaires. The main losers – indebted and with a reduced buying power - were middle class workers. With COVID, one American in four is today unable to pay his bills, a ratio that becomes one-in-two among poorer workers. Unemployment, in ever growing numbers, deprived people of their health coverage, at a time when it would be more necessary than ever. Even the economic growth came at great costs, for instance in environmental terms: from energy efficiency to water pollution, Trump repealed over 125 environmental safeguards enacted by the Obama Presidency.
Trump’s major success is without doubt courts’ nominations: 300 federal judges, 60 in the Courts of Appeal circuits, and 3 Supreme Court Justices, a bounty that will shape the US for decades to come and the decision on New York’s faith place is a first sample of what is to come.
Other areas where Trump leaves a heavy legacy are foreign policy and domestic cohesion. Foreign policy is likely to be the easiest to fix. A former Vice President and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden enjoys personal ties with international leaders, and he will quickly bring the US back into the realm of traditional alliances and multilateral fora. His new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, will be an asset in mending fences. While initially Trump’s foreign policy was characterized by continuity, soon his schizophrenic action brought the US out of the Paris Agreements, the JCPOA, UNESCO, TPP, the UNCHR, and the WHO (the complete list is here), not to mention the 545 Latino children whose parents are nowhere to be found, the erratic relations with China and Russia, and even with NATO and the UN. America’s traditional allies are eager to go back to business as usual and Europe was sadly unable to fill the vacuum left by the US.
One traditional ally who is on the contrary going to have a harder time is the UK’s Boris Johnson. Joe Biden, who is proud of his Irish heritage, has repeatedly said the U.S.-brokered 1998 “Good Friday” peace deal for Northern Ireland must not be undermined. His call to the Irish Taoiseach Michael Martin on the same day he talked to Johnson, was a clear signal that Ireland can count on the support not only of its EU peers but also of the Unites States in the Brexit negotiations. President-elect Joe Biden has said that the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland must remain open no matter the outcome of Brexit negotiations between the U.K. and the European Union, and that he would take any risk to the peace process “personally.”
The question of domestic social cohesion is more complex and harder to solve. It is not by accident that even during the campaign Joe keept repeating that he was the Democratic candidate, but that he will be the President of all Americans.
Contrary to common wisdom abroad, the US is a fragmented and deeply diverse country. Fragmented in terms of wealth, education, race, language, occupation, religion, interests, geography, political idea, lifestyle, just to mentions a few. The North / South gap between former slave states and the others still runs deep. Just 66 years ago, the US was a segregated country: in 17 states, blacks were – according to the law – lower beings. The Supreme Court historic decision of 1954, Brown vs Board of Education, only formally ended segregation. In the 1970s, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was among the colored kids who were “bussed” to white schools to force integration. Only in 1964, with the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson brought an end to the Jim Crow laws that made it almost impossible for blacks to vote.
The election of the first African American President, Barack Obama, was an historical moment. Many saw it as a reparation for centuries of hardships, and a sign that American was finally integrated. Without doubt, things have improved. In 1967, when the ban on interracial weddings was finally lifted, only 3% of American couples were mixed. In the 1980, it was 7%; in 2015, 17%. Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff will be the first interracial and religiously diverse vice-presidential couple. But the reality is that scars runs deep, divisions are hard to mend, and de facto segregation still exists in many areas of the country.
In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin argues that there is a nostalgia of the (white) middle class’ golden age, the 1950s and 1960s. While Obama enacted progressive policies welcomed by liberals, the poorest whites silently grow rancorous. One only needs to leave the main arteries to see Third World-style poverty: shacks and trailers camps, at times with outside toilets, are all over the country. Poor whites with no education, skills, or perspectives in an ever-evolving world, blamed the first African American for their hardships. White supremacist groups resurfaced. Donald Trump was able to detect that discontent and run on it. In the US, the President set the tone of the country; long gone Obama’s decency and courteous tone, verbal and physical violence surged. These people believe Trump’s claim that the election was rigged; they are disenfranchised, and angry. How to bring them on board is the major challenge the Biden-Harris Presidency will face and only a person with Joe Biden’s humanity may have a chance at it.
Federiga Bindi is a Professor of Political Science and Jean Monnet Chair at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, Senior Fellow & Director at the Foreign Policy Initiative and Institute for Women’s Policy Research