President-elect Joe Biden is giving a campaign speech in 2019 in Iowa. Behind him there is a giant US flag hanging on the wall.

Picking Up the Pieces: America after the 2020 Election

With the most votes in American history, Joseph R. Biden became President-elect of the United States. Biden faces many difficult tasks, including bridging the gap between his supporters and those of Donald Trump who is refusing to accept his defeat. Anthony Silberfeld of the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, DC, provides an outlook on the difficult transition period and the Biden presidency.

On the morning of November 7th, Joseph R. Biden became President-elect of the United States. The end of the Trump era was marked by cars honking their horns throughout the nation's capital, and impromptu dance parties spreading from Philadelphia to New York to Atlanta and beyond. In poetic fashion, it was Mr. Biden's home state of Pennsylvania that carried him across the elusive threshold of 270 electoral votes, putting an end to days of tension and uncertainty that followed this election.

Though the final figures have not been tallied, there are several things we do know. First, Biden will finish this election earning the most votes in American history. Second, more than 70 million Americans expressed their support for President Trump, leaving Trumpism as a fixture in our political landscape. Third, bridging the gap between those two camps will be a difficult, but the most pressing, challenge for the incoming President.

While the Democrats succeeded at the top of the ticket, the party underperformed down-ballot. The Democrats retained the majority in the House of Representatives, but lost key seats along the way, and failed to flip state legislatures that would have allowed Democrats to control the redistricting process for the next decade. The race for control of the United States Senate hinges on the results of two run-off races in Georgia which will be decided on January 5, 2021. With the presidential election in the rear-view mirror, political operatives, 2024 presidential hopefuls, and big-money donors will shift their attention to the Peach State as the final battleground to determine if Washington will be run exclusively by the Democrats, or if divided government will prevail.

But not everyone in the US has moved on so quickly. President Trump and his supporters on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in the public, have refused to accept the result of the election, claiming widespread fraud without evidence. To date, the Trump legal team has presented its case in court 10 times since Election Day and has lost each time. Nevertheless, the incumbent president refuses to concede and is reportedly prepared to rally his supporters around the country to fight until the bitter end.

Transition Interrupted

President Trump's failure to accept the election results is problematic on a number of levels. The Presidential Transition Act of 1963 clearly states "Any disruption occasioned by the transfer of the executive power could produce results detrimental to the safety and well-being of the United States and its people." A peaceful transfer of power is not just the right thing to do, but abrogating this process comes with serious national security risks.

In the 2000 election, for example, the truncated transition resulting from the US Supreme Court deciding the election more than a month after Election Day, left President-elect Bush with insufficient time to receive a proper handover, or to staff agencies adequately, leading to a lack of coordination that hampered America's response to terror attacks. One of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission report pointed to the need for a timely and seamless transition between administrations to ensure continuity and reduce potential vulnerabilities.

President Trump has ignored those warnings and has even taken administrative action to halt this transfer of power by preventing the General Services Administration from providing the funding and office space typically afforded a president-elect, and has indicated those resources would not be forthcoming until all legal proceedings have been exhausted by the Trump campaign.

The impact of this defiance trickles down to the grassroots level as well. Trump's unwillingness to concede has fanned the flames of division that have been the hallmark of his administration, and make the healing process, that is always required after a contentious election, more difficult to achieve. His supporters urge him to fight on, and right-wing media outlets insist that these efforts will result in a Trump victory.

Meanwhile, the reality of the situation is beginning to take on a momentum of its own. Some Republican leaders, media outlets and conservative groups have acknowledged the Biden victory, while world leaders seem all-too-eager to turn the page on the Trump administration. For his part, Mr. Biden has been conciliatory and measured throughout this delicate period, making overtures to those who voted for and against him with equal effort. Though it will take time for all parties to accept the inevitable, on January 20, 2021, Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. So, what can we expect from the new president?

Strength at Home Leading to Strength Abroad

President Biden will take the reins of a country with deep social, economic, racial and religious fissures, so his number one priority will be to repair a country that is badly broken. He is, at his core, a pragmatist, and recognizes that the only way the United States can project strength abroad is to strengthen its position at home.

The rise of China presents an opportunity for the US to do both simultaneously. One rare point of convergence between Republicans and Democrats these days is the need to confront China to preserve America's position as a global power. Does that open bipartisan opportunities for infrastructure spending, investment in domestic technology and a coalescence around trade policy? If Biden can dilute some of the toxicity in the atmosphere, he may find willing participants for this agenda on both sides of the aisle.

There will, of course, also be an interest in undoing some of the more damaging policy choices implemented by the Trump administration. An American return to the Paris climate accord, direct engagement with the WHO on the COVID crisis, and protecting immigrant populations in the US will be dealt with immediately. We may, however, find a wait-and-see approach to issues like the Iran Nuclear Deal and Chinese tariffs. In both cases, the Biden administration will want to see a change in behavior before providing relief from the punitive measures taken by his predecessor.

On the transatlantic front, there is little question that Biden will be an upgrade for this partnership on both style and substance, but there is an expectation in some European quarters that the US will have to earn back the trust that was squandered by a Trump administration who often questioned the value of NATO and the European Union. Mr. Biden, it appears, recognizes that challenge and is prepared to do the work.

Beginning of the End…Or End of the Beginning

US general elections are always long and contentious, but this one was particularly disorienting. Was it the difference in character and temperament of the two candidates, the wildly distinct media bubbles, or that we've all been locked away in the midst of a global pandemic? Who can be sure? These months have passed in a blur, yet have seemed unending at the same, so one can be forgiven for not knowing which way is up. But in a matter of time, the dust will settle on the 2020 election, allowing us all to take a deep breath, before catching up to the 2022 mid-term election campaigns that have already begun.