Election 2020

Biden Edges Toward Narrow Victory in a Deeply Polarized America

If he wins the White House, the Democrat will need all his skills to reach across the aisle and avoid political paralysis.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden delivers remarks at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport on Oct. 30. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Democratic challenger Joe Biden edged closer Wednesday to amassing the necessary 270 electoral votes he needs to defeat President Donald Trump and become the 46th president of the United States—winning back two key Midwestern states that his party lost in 2016, Wisconsin and Michigan, in late vote counts.

But the incumbent Trump has refused to concede, instead sponsoring legal challenges to vote-counting in several battleground states. And it was clear, based on exit polls, that the nation remains even more bitterly polarized than pundits thought, posing titanic challenges for a Biden presidency. Voters were sharply divided based on race, ethnicity, and education, perhaps even more so than in 2016. Reflecting those divisions, a record number of Americans are believed to have voted in the presidential election, but the partisan divide is fraught with rage and even threats of violence.

Biden himself, in a statement late Wednesday afternoon, did not declare victory but said, “I’m confident that we’ll emerge victorious,” and that “when it’s finished, God willing,” he’ll be only the fourth challenger in the last century to unseat an elected incumbent president. The former vice president—who if he’s inaugurated Jan. 20 will be, at 78, the oldest president to be sworn in—also alluded to the difficulties ahead, facing a possibly still Republican-led Senate.

“The presidency itself is not a partisan institution,” Biden said, harking back to Trump’s tumultuous, highly divisive tenure, which made him the only president in the modern polling era never to have reached 50 percent approval at any point during his tenure. “We have to stop treating our opponents as enemies,” Biden said.

But that’s exactly the effort the Trump campaign has already launched, filing suit in Philadelphia alleging improper monitoring of ballots that Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani called “totally illegitimate.” At a news conference, the president’s son Eric Trump said, “The Democrats know the only way they can win this election is to cheat in Pennsylvania.” 

Many thousands of votes remain uncounted in Pennsylvania, but even as Giuliani was speaking, Fox News joined CNN in calling Michigan for Biden, taking him up to as many as 264 electoral votes, according to the Fox count, which also called disputed Arizona for the former vice president. Biden would then need only Nevada, a state where he is leading, to put him over the top, even without winning Pennsylvania. But the final vote counts remained uncertain Wednesday night.

Earlier that morning, Trump prematurely declared victory in Michigan and other states, saying he’d won the election. “Frankly, we did win this election,” Trump said in remarks from the East Room of the White House, making an unfounded claim that the results are a “fraud.” 

“Quite possibly we’ll do a national lawsuit and really expose the corruption of the Democratic Party,” Giuliani said. The  same day the Trump campaign challenged the counting of votes in several other states.

Biden’s plea to “lower the temperature” is therefore likely to go largely unheeded, especially if Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who retained his seat—keeps control of the Senate as well. (A half-dozen contests remained uncalled.) Though Biden has plainly won the popular vote, as Hillary Clinton had in 2016—with the count as of early Wednesday evening at 50.3 percent to 48.1 percent—the nation remains almost evenly divided in electoral votes and state legislatures.

Biden advocates placed some hope in his 47-year career of working with Republicans. “As senator and vice president he repeatedly demonstrated an ability to reach across the aisle to get things done, both in domestic and foreign affairs,” said Michael Haltzel, a former senior Senate aide to Biden. “In the latter category Biden was the leader of the successful bipartisan Senate efforts to enlarge NATO and to put an end to the wars in the Balkans. President-elect Biden’s administration will reestablish close cooperation with America’s allies and confront our adversaries with calmness and resolve.”

Other Biden allies have stressed the same points over the years. “He can sit down in foreign policy or other issues and find a common interest and drive the ideas forward,” his former Senate chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, who filled Biden’s senatorial seat after the latter became vice president, told me in an interview in 2010. “Look at what he did with Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond [in passing the chemical weapons treaty and crime bills, respectively, in the 1990s]. I mean, Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond! You don’t get more conservative than that. ” 

Biden is also a deeply experienced internationalist committed to U.S. alliances and has pledged to act swiftly to restore U.S. prestige by reversing Trump’s worst failures on COVID-19, the economy, global stability, and climate change. A Republican-led Senate will almost certainly fight him every step of the way, and U.S. allies will remain nervous and unsettled.

“He understands governance better than anyone else,” the former Republican senator and defense secretary Chuck Hagel told me in an interview in 2010, saying it was he who advised Barack Obama to pick Biden as his running mate in 2008. “In particular, he understands Congress.”

But that means a President Biden will also know he’ll have to compromise—and he’s already indicated he’s willing to do so in an America that is still dominated by Trumpian politics. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine Trump running against him again in 2024.

Biden, for example, will find it difficult to simply resurrect the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal he once advocated, in part because he must accommodate the powerful progressive wing in his own party that, like many Republicans, favors more protectionism. Biden has already said he would not simply rejoin the pact but would seek to renegotiate it to include “strong rules of origin” requiring more manufacturing in the United States, and before entering any new international trade deal he would focus on a Trump-like $400 billion “Buy America” initiative to boost domestic production.

Support for the World Trade Organization, which was fathered by Democrats under President Bill Clinton, is fast dwindling as well in the face of a now-bipartisan consensus that China has unfairly abused its rules to rob middle-class Americans of their jobs. And Biden, like Trump, has been seeking to pare down America’s role overseas for years; as Obama’s vice president, he argued against a U.S. buildup in Afghanistan and negotiated an accelerated withdrawal from Iraq.

Even so, the economy and COVID-19 will be the biggest challenges. Foreign Policy contributor Adam Tooze, an economic historian, wrote Wednesday: “The most likely result is divided control of the White House and Congress (with Republicans maintaining control of the Senate), 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.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh