But Democrats were unable to muster a “blue wave" repudiation of Republicans and the incumbent president, despite a coronavirus pandemic that decimated the economy and left almost a quarter million Americans dead. Biden will be challenged to mend the nation’s deep partisan divides even as the outgoing president alleges, with no evidence, a broad conspiracy to rig the election against him that somehow crossed both state and party lines.
Biden has proven a survivor. His campaign was not derailed by an amateurish and implausible effort by Trump’s associates to smear him as corrupt. And despite under-performing in states like Florida, where he devoted considerable resources, the former vice president was able to fall back on voters in the Rust Belt he has courted for decades.
He won more than the 270 Electoral College votes required to secure the White House by winning the state of Pennsylvania on Saturday.
Ultimately, Biden’s victory might be attributed to the fact that enough Americans simply liked him better than Trump. Despite the president’s efforts to attack him as corrupt and senile, a CNN poll found 55% of Americans viewed the former vice president favorably a week before the election -- including a quarter of people who describe themselves as conservative. For an exhausted electorate, faced once again with a surge in the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, the Democrat represented a known quantity.
Biden’s campaign, tailored to highlight his decades of experience and his human touch, offered a searing contrast with Trump, dogged since April by public disapproval of his stumbling effort to curb the pandemic. While only a third of Americans said Trump would unite the country, six in 10 said the same of his Democratic challenger, who served two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president.
Sill, Biden faces immense challenges as he attempts to govern. His victory provided little lift to down-ballot Democrats, and the GOP could hold on to its Senate majority pending two runoff elections in Georgia -- likely foiling liberal dreams of sweeping new climate legislation or overhauling the nation’s health care system.
“Biden has his work cut out for him," said presidential scholar Joe Ellis, the recipient of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History. “There’s a big agenda out there, and you can expect him to take on the issues, but to do so in a way that is centrist and Democratic and calm us down. But how much the rhetoric of politics will cool off and how much he’s going to be able to actually achieve is not clear."
A son of Scranton, Pennsylvania, who became a fixture in Washington, Biden believed the Democratic Party had erred in conceding working-class White voters to Republicans. He ignored a steady drumbeat of critics who worried he was too moderate, too old, too cautious, focusing instead in his primary and then in the general election on winning over voters he could count on to show up: seniors, African-Americans, women, and Rust Belt Whites who defected to Trump in 2016.
Biden’s reward is an office he has sought since the 1980s. But the job now comes with harrowing responsibility.
There is no historical analogue for a president assuming power at the height of a pandemic, facing both persistent widespread unemployment and the threat that hundreds of thousands of his citizens may yet perish. Biden has also promised to restore “the soul of the nation" amid political and racial strife that only deepened during Trump’s term in office.
He will be 78 when inaugurated in January and Biden is sure to face regular questions about his stamina and capacity to govern the world’s largest economy.
He’ll also need to build a political mandate after a closer-than-expected victory in an election that was always going to be a referendum on Trump, the most polarizing president in modern American history and only the third in American history to be impeached.
The future president has promised to make the pandemic his top priority, with a vast expansion of surveillance testing for the virus so that schools and workplaces can safely reopen. Efforts to negotiate a new stimulus package will likely consume the president-elect’s immediate attention, even before his inauguration, with Democrats arguing that his election is an affirmation of their call for trillions in new federal spending, including putting money in the pockets of displaced workers.
Ahead of the election, Senate Republicans had fought a more than $2 trillion stimulus plan put forth by Democrats.
Eventually, Biden will have to navigate pressure from the liberal wing of his party to pursue ambitious and potentially polarizing policies -- though if Republicans retain control of the Senate, that would make it easier for the new president to brush off liberals’ aspirations as political impossibilities.
Biden’s team is expected to prepare a slew of day-one executive orders rolling back travel and immigration restrictions Trump imposed and restoring environmental and consumer protections the defeated president tried to gut.
The former vice president will look to immediately re-engage on the world stage, seeking to bring the U.S. back into the Paris climate accords, the Iran nuclear deal, and the diplomatic normalization with Cuba that began under Obama and stalled under Trump.
In many ways, the beginning of the Biden presidency will echo that of Obama’s, when the new president had to the lead the country’s recovery from the Great Recession.
The challenges are arguably greater this time, both because of the pandemic and the fractures within the Democratic coalition exposed by Trump’s presidency.
Because Biden’s win has the sense of rebuke rather than a mandate, it’s unclear how much political capital he holds to pursue his agenda, especially if Republicans keep the Senate.
And while Biden has sought to tout his experience working across the aisle, since Obama’s election, congressional Republicans have moved ideologically rightward. They are unlikely to give Biden opportunities for bipartisan achievements.
His presidency will endure other constraints. The federal judiciary was overhauled by Trump and Mitch McConnell, the leader of Senate Republicans, with conservatives now holding a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court. Trillion-dollar budget deficits and the $27 trillion national debt may hamper Democratic spending plans.
Biden has already outlined plans to spend billions to combat climate change and renew the nation’s infrastructure, proposed allowing Americans to purchase government-run health insurance, and said he wants to increase taxes on corporations as well as individuals making over $400,000 a year.
His ambitions face one other major headwind: a defeated president already unshackled by conventions or decorum, who has given little indication he’s ready to go quietly.
Despite his electoral rebuke, Trump remains enormously popular within a Republican party he reshaped in his image. About 7 million more Americans voted for him in 2020 than in 2016.
If he so desires, Trump could become one of the most influential kingmakers in presidential history, choosing among a 2024 Republican presidential field that may include Vice President Mike Pence, numerous former cabinet officials and loyal lawmakers, and perhaps even members of his own family.
Or the president may look to retain the political spotlight by pledging to seek the White House again himself in four years, chalking up his loss to the pandemic and a system he’s long argued is rigged against him.
As he criss-crossed the country with a series of rallies over the weekend, the president often reflected on his comfortable station before politics and warned the places he visited that he would never return if they didn’t support his re-election.
“Can you even imagine losing to a guy like this?" Trump asked supporters at one rally last week. “Actually, I wish he was a good and even a great candidate, because if something happened, you feel a little better. But could you imagine?"