Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden addresses the nation from Wilmington, Del., Nov. 8 Credit: CNN

Vowing to be “a president who seeks not to divide but to unify,” Joe Biden addressed the nation on Saturday night for the first time as President-elect and the winner of a bitter presidential contest that brought the four tumultuous years of Donald Trump’s presidency to a nail-biting end.

Jogging on to the stage at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del. to the rhythm of Bruce Springsteen, Biden declared his “a convincing victory,” thanked politicians in the crowd as if it were still a campaign rally, and reintroduced his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, to the American people. He also thanked his staff, the kind of hat-tip that a victorious candidate would give on election night–only this time it took four days.

The former vice president offered a particularly strong shout out to African-Americans, a vital constituency that saved his sagging campaign during the primaries and helped lift him to victory in the general election: “You always had my back. And I’ll always have yours.”

Biden repeated his unity theme–“This is the time to heal,” he said–and said bipartisanship was part of his mandate. He also vowed to strengthen the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, announcing the first meeting of his own pandemic task force on Monday.

Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris spoke first at the outdoor “car rally” of about 360 vehicles. The crowd exploded in cheers and honks as the first woman to be elected vice president took the stage ahead of Biden. “To the American people who make up our beautiful country, thank you for turning out in record numbers to make your voices heard,” Harris said.  “You chose hope, unity, science, and truth.”

Many elections are called historic, but this one unarguably is. It is the first ouster of an incumbent president in 28 years and the end of a presidency that was the most divisive in the 20th or 21st century. Biden, 77, becomes the oldest person to assume the office and will be only the nation’s second Roman Catholic president, the first being John F. Kennedy 60 years ago. Harris, 56, will become the first female vice-president and the first of African-American and Indian heritage. Her parents were immigrants to the U.S. from Jamaica and India.

Biden’s victory was impressive by any measure. He won at least 50 percent of the popular vote, a number comparable to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and higher than the vote won by Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton during his two terms. His final count of electoral votes is likely to be north of 300.

In American cities and towns, Biden-Harris supporters erupted in celebration, honking car horns and congregating to cheer the moment in parks and in homes and in iconic spots such as Lafayette Park in front of the White House and Times Square in New York City in scenes reminiscent of victory celebrations at the end of World War II. Across the street from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the celebration continued for hours.

President Trump’s determination to fight the election results in the courts, which he repeated in a statement on Saturday, seems doomed. “The simple fact is this election is far from over,” the statement said while the normally loquacious president avoided the microphones. (He was at his golf club in Sterling, Va. when the race was called for Biden.) Lower courts and judges appointed by presidents and governors of both parties have swatted away the Trump campaign’s attempts to alter the count. The president’s invocation of the Supreme Court as a lifeline to a second term ignores the justices’ inability to issue a single ruling that would stop balloting nationwide, making a repeat of the Court’s 2000 Bush v. Gore decision all but impossible.

Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes put the Democratic nominee over the top, according to the Associated Press, whose call Saturday morning opened the floodgates to other news organizations declaring Biden the winner. The state was the most bitterly contested of the election, and its falling into the GOP column four years ago shocked Democrats, as did other Great Lakes states turning red. It is also the birthplace and early childhood home of President-elect Biden, who visited there more than any other state. AP also called Nevada for Biden. No winner has been projected in Georgia, North Carolina, and Alaska.

When he assumes office Jan. 20, Biden faces extraordinary challenges, most importantly taming and reversing the COVID-19 pandemic and bolstering an economy deeply wounded by it.  He is likely to have to do it with GOP control of the U.S. Senate. No president has been elected in a crisis with such little congressional ballast. Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama had strong congressional majorities when they were elected and faced the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

Senate Woes

Democrats’ slim hopes of wresting control of the Senate rest on two Georgia races that will be determined by run-off votes in January. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are the two Democrats who hope to oust two incumbent senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.

Republicans were on track to pick up at least five seats in the House, putting an ax to the promising Congressional careers of several freshman Democrats elected in the 2018 blue wave and giving a gut punch to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Without the Senate, Biden’s agenda could be on life support. The Senate, likely controlled by Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader from Kentucky, puts the most ambitious dreams of liberal reform–an end to the filibuster, statehood for the District of Columbia, and new seats on the Supreme Court–in peril. Biden’s progressive tax and spending plans seemed doomed. Even if Democrats can claw their way to a 50-50 tie in the Senate–making Vice President Harris the tiebreaker–it would require lockstep unity in a Democratic party not exactly known for it.

Not Since LBJ

The anxiety-producing presidential race showed that Americans remain deeply divided as they faced the starkest presidential race since Lyndon Johnson squared off against Barry Goldwater in 1964. Biden headed the most progressive Democratic ticket since then. His party’s platform touts massive expenditures, like Green New Deal style-investments in alternative energy and a bold public option to bolster the Affordable Care Act, as well as cultural changes like the end of the Hyde Amendment—which prohibits federal funding for Medicaid-financed abortions (Biden has supported the latter since 1979). The Democratic Party’s platform doesn’t fulfill all of the wants of its ascendant left-wing. Still, there’s enough there to keep them happy—for now.

By contrast, the GOP had no platform this year, reflecting the Republican Party’s subservience to the president. The triangulation that Trump hinted at in 2016—echoing Democratic priorities like protecting Social Security, investing in roads and bridges—never materialized. The Trump of 2020 pushed for an end to the payroll tax, which would end Social Security. Famously and laughably, “Infrastructure Week” proved to be a mirage. Trump proved to be a standard, donor-class Republican with an inhuman face. His anti-immigrant fervor, disdain for defense alliances, and multilateral trade pacts were a patina on the traditional Republican faith in the trinity of tax cuts, conservative judges, and deregulation. His violation of presidential norms from continuing to own his business to tweeting insults at all hours offended many. It made Trump one of the most divisive figures in American history.

Trump’s coalition was paved with states with large populations of white working-class voters. That proved insufficient in a changing America where their percentage of the electorate continues to shrink. Biden’s strength among suburban voters, minorities, women, and the college-educated gave him more than half the popular vote and at least 273 electoral votes and likely more.

Biden’s low-key, some called it lackadaisical, campaign proved wise. One upside for Biden: it kept the focus on Trump, making the election a referendum on the president.

The Long Game

Biden was simultaneously the most likely and least likely Democratic nominee this cycle. His 50-year tenure in electoral politics made him well known, and his eight-years as Barack Obama’s wingman transformed him from a Senate lifer into presidential timber.

But his age—he turns 78 this month—was always a looming burden, and his long history in the U.S. Senate is both a bragging right and an albatross. When Biden was sworn into the Senate in 1973, just days after his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident, the chamber had deep roots in the past. Three World War I veterans were still serving, as were multiple former segregationist Senators who chaired powerful committees, forcing him to work them and charm them alongside other young liberals. Ted Kennedy, who came to the Senate in 1962, ten years earlier, had the same work-with-segregationists history when he ran for president in 1980. Still, the Democratic Party of that year didn’t hold it against him, perhaps because he was a Kennedy. Biden got no such break this year. When Kamala Harris whacked him on school busing to achieve racial desegregation, it smarted.

But Biden played the long game. He didn’t jerk too far to the left during the primaries. He didn’t embrace single-payer health care, even while he jettisoned pro-corporate stances on bankruptcy reform and antitrust that unsettled the many financial institutions that make Delaware home. His long cultivation of Black voters—Delaware is the state with the ninth largest Black population, he often noted—and his unswerving loyalty to a younger Black president made him ripe for the endorsement of James Clyburn in South Carolina. The powerful House Democratic Whip used his Palmetto State machine and Black voters’ ready enthusiasm to push Biden to a resounding victory over minority candidates like Cory Booker or the party’s left stalwarts, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The party gathered around Biden quickly; endorsements from rivals such as Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar poured in. The moment of Sanders’s inevitability proved very short, snatched by the Black voters in the state that launched the Civil War. Warren faltered quickly, coming in third in her home state.

Trump’s Republican party was unified from the start. He never faced a serious primary challenge. Those who put up a fight with the president like Republican Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake walked away rather than facing uphill battles in primaries dominated by MAGA devotees. The president could have used his unified party to reset his unpopular presidency, returning to infrastructure or easing back on the constant Twitter invectives. But he didn’t.

Trump Blows His Chance For a Reset

And that was before the pandemic. Perhaps the gravest national crisis in 100 years or at least since World War II and the Depression, COVID-19 could have been Trump’s lifeline. But a negligent response sent the death toll higher than it should ever have been. He turned mask-wearing into a political statement instead of a prophylactic. His blathering made him seem more idiotic than Churchillian. His continued self-indulgence amidst death—complaining about not getting a fair shake from Fox News of all places—made him seem, if not AWOL from the pandemic fight, then like he was cosseting the enemy. Even his illness, which might have provided a moment to right his campaign, was only a fleeting photo op. Still, the fact that he remains an underdog with a chance is testimony to his grip on rural America, traditional Republicans, and white-working-class men.

In Harris, Biden found a running mate that matches their party perfectly. The California senator represents the Democrats’ diversity, with her Jamaican and Indian ancestry, Jewish husband, and Jewish stepchildren. Hailing from the Bay Area, although now living in Brentwood, she’s pure West Coast blue. If elected, she’ll be the first woman to occupy the vice-presidential mansion in Washington, D.C. The first president or vice president since Warren Harding not to have had their own children.  (Biden will be the first widower to be elected since Woodrow Wilson.) Her election is also representative of the electoral power of African-American women, the most loyal bloc in the Democratic coalition.

The evening ended with a fireworks display over the event on the banks of the Christina River.

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Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.