Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Nov 26, 2020
What basic structural limits does the 2020 election outcome place on the new White House? Where will the new administration go from here?
Where the surprising US election leaves the new Biden team

As the Democratic politician, Keith Ellison, so eloquently put it: “Not voting is not a protest. It is a surrender.” Suffice it to say, that on both sides of the aisle, Americans in the 2020 election are not prepared to give up their voice just yet. At around 67 percent, as a percentage, more Americans voted this past month than in any election in the past 120 years.

So, what are we — and equally importantly the new Biden administration — to make of the results? What basic structural limits does the 2020 election outcome place on the new White House? Where will the new administration go from here? Below are a few general thoughts about the election that allow us to answer these central political risk questions.

1. The coronavirus proved decisive in Donald Trump’s demise: Over this seminal issue, Americans generally agreed that the president — given his notable lack of empathy and impatience with the details of governing — was not up to the task. A September NBC poll found that a decisive 61 percent of those surveyed believed the Trump White House has failed in its basic COVID-19 response. It is mighty hard to win an election if, over the seminal issue, a candidate is found wanting.

2. But for all this, Trump still came tantalisingly close to winning: All but given up for politically dead — primarily by left-leaning pollsters who entirely missed the actual close-run nature of the contest — Trump came within a hair’s breadth of pulling off another stunning presidential upset. Forced to win a gamut of states that were considered toss-ups at best, Trump nearly ran the table, surprising many experts by winning Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Iowa, while coming very close in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin and Michigan. Overall, Real Clear Politics notes that Biden won 49.4 percent of the vote in the battleground states, with Trump just on his heels at 49.3 percent. As Americans actually elect presidents through the electoral college, on a state-by-state basis, the actual result of the 2020 contest simply couldn’t have been closer.

3. Overall, the Republicans had a surprisingly good night: Down-ticket, things turned out even better for the GOP. With three races outstanding, Democrats have managed to retain control of the House by a slim margin of 220-210, though the Republicans actually gained 10 house seats, a result that shocked most observers wrongly expecting the Democrats to build on their majority.

The Senate proved even more disappointing for Democrats; with two Georgia seats set to be determined in a 5 January run-off (at least one of which is expected to be won by the GOP), Republicans look set to retain their majority, as they already have 50 seats to the Democrats 48. Democrats went into the election confident of taking control of the upper house, with winnable seats in Iowa, Maine, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Montana there for the plucking. In the end, the Democrats lost them all — picking up seats in Colorado and Arizona while losing a seat in Alabama — and the Republicans have surprisingly weathered the storm.

4. Biden, for all his calls for a peace, will instead inherit political deadlock: By retaining the Senate, master tactician Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — whose preferred nickname is ‘The Grim Reaper,’ having frustrated the Obama administration’s domestic agenda for six years — is in the perfect position to curb the excesses of the progressive left of the Democratic Party.

Gone is any chance for the enactment of the progressive wish list: Medicare for All, The Green New Deal, Supreme Court Packing, Ending the filibuster in the Senate, and expansive spending in the wake of the pandemic. While bipartisan infrastructure reform (to the tune of around USD 1 trillion) and some serious further COVID-19 stimulus are likely (to the tune of the same amount), the dreams of the Democratic social democratic left have been utterly dashed by the election results.

5. This deadlocked outcome is a good thing: While politicians inherently hate political gridlock, history feels otherwise. Over the past 100 years, it is when power is divided that US GDP rises fastest, and the stock market does best. The genius of America’s founders was to force compromise on politicians through the ingenious system of checks and balances. They still know best; the US has had one Republic, while the French have had five.

6. Contrary to pre-election expectations, this surprising political configuration will force Biden to focus on foreign policy: As an old Washington hand, I can tell you that power — like water — always flows to the path of least resistance in the American system. Bereft of the expected big Democratic win across the board, and with far more constitutional powers to act on his own in foreign rather than domestic policy, look for the new Biden administration to be forced to concentrate on foreign affairs as a way to make its mark.

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