The recent US presidential election had several binaries: Good vs Evil, Decency vs Indecency, Truth vs Lies, Racism vs Inclusion, Rich vs Poor, Unity vs Division, Reason vs Irrationality, Consensus vs Confrontation, Science vs Stupidity, Globalisation vs Isolationism. Fortunately for America and the world, the better side of human nature prevailed. Just about. I must say I was shocked at the byzantine American electoral process. Completely absurd that a president can be elected even after losing the popular vote, as Donald Trump did in 2016, and the chaotic counting process. We may not always get everything right, but we should feel proud of the efficient way our general elections are conducted, and the results announced. The victory of Joe Biden in a closely fought US presidential election is as much about the triumph of democracy as it is about the defeat of one of the most toxic presidents in US history, one who even tried to delegitimise the election. The 2020 vote, as Biden put it succinctly at the start of his campaign, was to restore the ‘soul of America’ and erase the ‘darkness’ that had descended on the country under Donald Trump.
The president, despite all his bluster, was already under a darkening cloud this year. Covid-19 has ravaged the United States, with 9.5 million cases and 234,000 fatalities as of November 5, making it the world’s worst-affected country. Trump was slow to move against the pandemic and, by some accounts, even downplayed it initially. The impact of the virus on the US economy has been catastrophic, ending the longest recorded US expansion from 2009 to March 2020.
The former real estate tycoon from New York now joins a short list of just two other American presidents in the last half-century, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, who were defeated after a single term. They lost mainly because, as the memorable 1992 Bill Clinton campaign slogan put it, ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ In Trump’s case, it would be, ‘It was Covid-19, stupid!’
Trump’s troubled legacy will endure long after he leaves the White House for various reasons. He moved the United States away from its leadership role in the world, shredded alliances and had the singular distinction of being a mercurial, unpredictable US president, feared by friends and foes alike. The task before President Biden, who at 77 is the oldest president-elect ever, is formidable, both at home and abroad. He has the arduous responsibility not just of restoring America’s leadership role in global affairs and rebuilding alliances but also of integrating the ‘untied’ states of America, restoring racial harmony and fighting a likely second wave of Covid infections. The very fact that this contest went down to the wire indicates that Trumpism is alive and kicking in America. This does not bode well for the country’s future. These are serious divides that will hamper the ability of the Biden administration to govern.
Our cover story, ‘Hard Road Ahead’, written by Group Editorial Director (Publishing) Raj Chengappa, looks at what the Biden-Harris partnership means for India and the world. The six experts we consulted are upbeat about the future. Former NSA Shivshankar Menon believes Biden’s priorities will be domestic issues and not foreign policy. “He is going to have to try hard to bring jobs back, get manufacturing going and push for economic growth.”
The high point of Indo-US ties under the Trump administration had been in the fields of defence and security. The two countries are now locked in a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, have signed three major foundational defence agreements and have arms deals worth billions of dollars in the pipeline.
Bilateral trade remains a thorny issue, though. Trump took India off a preferential trade scheme offering Indian exporters tariff-free access to US markets. Biden is unlikely to significantly steer away from his predecessor’s ‘America First’ policy of focusing on the US markets and economic recovery. This could cause India some anxiety as the US is bound to emphasise access to India’s markets.
The free pass that Trump gave India on human rights and on Kashmir could also become a point of friction in the months ahead, particularly with vice-president Kamala Harris. Harris, the first person of Indian origin to become vice-president, spoke up in the Senate in October 2019 in the context of the Indian government diluting Article 370, saying that “we have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world” and “there is a need to intervene if the situation demands”.
It remains to be seen what path Biden walks with China, whether he will choose to strike a deal or continue his predecessor’s hostile policy. In any case, there are unlikely to be any huge surprises. However, in dealing with any American president, we should always remember what John Foster Dulles, the eminent Secretary of State during the Eisenhower presidency, had said: “America has no friends, only interests.” That said, Biden marks a return to a predictable and, hopefully, a more responsible United States.