Damaged liberal hearts may briefly be lifted by the fact that Joe Biden received more votes than anyone in US presidential history — until they find out Donald Trump came in a historic second. He even exceeded Barack Obama’s peak 2008 tally. The real lesson from Tuesday’s record turnout is that America is bitterly, energetically and almost evenly divided. That is the salient background to Mr Biden’s equivocal mandate.
The question is what a President Biden could do with it. The answer is much less than even he — the most moderate of Democratic contenders — would have hoped. Barring a serious upset, Republicans will retain control of the US Senate. Mr Biden would be lucky to push through even the incremental parts of his agenda, such as a public option for US healthcare insurance, big investments in green technology and free tuition for middle-class college students.
Tuesday night left the epoch-changing hopes of American progressives in tatters. There is no chance Mr Biden will be able to abolish the Senate filibuster, add new states to the US, such as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, or expand the size of the Supreme Court. Should a vacancy come due in the 6-3 conservative-majority court, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, can simply block Mr Biden’s nominee. The best for which Mr Biden can hope is a modest stimulus package.
In the meantime he will have to contend with the current White House occupant. If Mr Biden confronts the spectre of being a lame duck, Mr Trump threatens to invent a different version of the species — a wounded duck prone to lashing out. The chances that Mr Trump will concede defeat are slim. He could tie up narrowly lost states in recounts and litigation for weeks. And he is unlikely to extend the hand of co-operation during the 11 weeks of transition.
Mr Biden will have to prepare for office sight unseen. This could have material consequences. It is doubtful, for example, that Mr Trump will share records of his “operation warp speed” on the coronavirus vaccine. The best for which Mr Biden can hope is that Mr Trump goes quietly having shredded forests of White House documents.
Mr Biden’s presidency risks being caught between two irreconcilable forces — a stubbornly entrenched Trumpian right and an embittered Democratic left. The sobering reality to Mr Trump’s likely narrow defeat is that almost none of his co-conspirators met the same fate.
Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina, was comfortably re-elected, as was Mr McConnell. Democrats may well have lost seats in the House of Representatives. The Republican newcomers are more Trumpian than Mr Trump. One of its intake is Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is an avowed supporter of QAnon, the far-right conspiracy group. Any chance this election would break the Republican fever, as Mr Obama once put it, has been dashed.
So what could Mr Biden do? The short answer is that he will strive to find an American middle that no longer seems to exist. Whatever deals he strikes with Mr McConnell will alienate the Democratic left. Yet in the absence of an attempt at bipartisan co-operation, Mr Biden would accomplish little.
That gives Mr McConnell the upper hand. Some things, such as a federal coronavirus plan, can be done by executive order. Others, such as big appointments, will have to meet with Republican approval. Expect Mr Biden to appoint at least one or two Republicans to his cabinet. The left will hate that.
Only in foreign policy will Mr Biden have freedom of manoeuvre. Therein lies a paradox. US democracy has taken a reputational battering on the world stage. The 2020 election is unlikely to reverse that. Foreigners know that US politics is trench warfare in which each side grinds out tiny gains at great expense. Big realignments are a thing of the past.
Yet the world will feel America’s change more than most Americans. Within days of taking office, Mr Biden is likely to undo half of what Mr Trump has wrought. He will rejoin the Paris accord on climate change, the World Health Organization and possibly the Iran nuclear deal. But his chances of raising the US minimum wage will be close to zero. Higher taxes on America’s wealthy are off the menu. The ghost of Mr Trump will stalk Biden’s America.