Why Joe Biden’s US election victory matters even with a Republican senate

From action on climate change to effectively legalising marijuana, there’s plenty the president-elect can achieve.

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On Saturday morning, Associated Press called the state of Pennsylvania for former vice-president Joe Biden.

On Friday night, speaking from Wilmington, Delaware, Biden said that, though the television networks and the Associated Press had not yet called it, "The numbers tell us a clear and convincing story. We are going to win this race." He added that he and his running mate, Kamala Harris, were not waiting on a call to get to work, and had already met with public health experts and economists. He said we are Americans, not enemies

At present, though, it is also evident that it is unlikely, or at least unclear, that Democrats will retake the Senate. 

Which party controls the Senate will likely come down to not one but two run-off elections in January in Georgia (though Al Gross, an orthopedist and former commercial fisherman, an Independent running as the Democratic nominee, and also the target of an antisemitic attack ad from his opponent, has yet to concede). And it is possible that both of those go the Democrats’ way, but it is also possible that they do not.

There is good reason that Democrats should be concerned by this. It means that many of the structural changes progressives in particular wanted to see — the abolition of the filibuster and the Electoral College, the promise of packing the Supreme Court to take back the balance of ideological power, granting Puerto Rico and Washington, DC statehood — will not happen. 

There are already reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is planning to block progressive appointees to Cabinet positions (though Biden could follow the example of his predecessor and leave people as “acting” secretary in their posts). Any part of Biden’s legislative agenda will likely get bogged down, as much of Obama’s did after Republicans took back the Senate in 2010. Democrats are, rightly, worried about what two years of obstruction and frustration could mean for their electoral prospects in the 2022 midterms.

But for all of that, a Biden victory is not a defeat for Democrats, and it is not nothing for America. Put very simply: having Biden in the White House will be different than having Trump in the White House.

For one thing, there are still actions Biden can take without the Senate. Presidential power in this country is, to put it mildly, not insignificant. There are parts of a progressive climate change agenda — like rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and facilitating investment in clean energy and environmental justice — that a Biden administration can do all on its own. He can effectively legalise marijuana, the criminality of which presently disproportionately impacts people of colour, and get drug companies to lower their prices. A President Biden could work within the multilateral system — with allies instead of attacking them — to address issues like climate change, human rights violations, nuclear nonproliferation, and recovery from the global pandemic.

[See also: What the US election means for the rest of the world]

A Biden presidency could also, critically, undo the damage and reverse some of the cruelest policies that the Trump administration has put in place. The ban on travel from several majority-Muslim countries can be lifted. Funding to Palestinian refugees can be reinstated. He can reverse the decline in legal immigration and refugee admissions. 

Biden would, presumably, not be bringing Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy advisor and guide on all things immigration, back to the White House, which means we will not see an attempted elimination of birthright citizenship, or the decline of refugee admissions to zero, or a more difficult US citizenship test, or an end to Temporary Protected Status (the programme through which people cannot be deported when their is a crisis in their country) — all of which Miller was reportedly considering for term two. One imagines a Biden administration would not tell transgender people in the military that they do not have the right to gender-affirming medical care.

The politicization of the State Department and the US intelligence agencies can be put on pause, with civil servants allowed to do their jobs with protections intact. Ambassadors will not be used to try to get foreign leaders to investigate the president’s political opponents, and people will not be pushed out for speaking up, nor for being baselessly smeared as Soros stooges.   

It matters, too, that we will have at least a reprieve from a president who hesitates to condemn white supremacists; who referred to neo-Nazis as fine people; who told the Proud Boys to stand by on live television; who appeared to encourage his supporters to intimidate voters; who tried to use the Department of Justice as his own personal defense team against allegations of sexual assault; and who is, even now, sowing doubt over the legitimacy of the US electoral process.

Republicans may yet keep the Senate. But Democrats did not lose the White House. In fact, they very likely won it. That’s not nothing. For millions of people in the United States and around the world, it’s quite a lot. 

[See also: Will Donald Trump take the US 2020 election to the Supreme Court?]

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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