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Beyond the pandemic

US Election: The Big Conversation with Samantha Power

In early November, Samantha Power, a former US ambassador to the UN during the Obama administration, gave us her take on where the electoral winds were blowing – and what a Biden presidency would mean for the future of America.

Biden has promising pathways to victory

While Trump had led by 600,000 votes in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, that gap had closed to 140,000 when we spoke to Ambassador Power. Twenty-four hours later, Biden had reportedly gained the edge, while Georgia was too close to call.

The Democrats’ Senate hopes are alive

The race in Georgia has proved close for not only the presidential candidates but also the state’s Senate hopefuls. The special election is headed for a runoff in January 2021 and the state’s second Senate race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican incumbent David Perdue looks like it’s headed in a similar direction as neither candidate holds more than 50 per cent of the vote. The Democrats are counting 48 Senate seats so far – the promise of these runoffs in Georgia give hope that they could make it to 50.

But Trump is challenging the results

Since 2017, Trump has been laying a predicate for claiming fraud in elections, said Power. Now he is inciting his base to believe that this election is being ‘stolen’ and pointing to the slow count as evidence of supposed ‘irregularity’ rather than what it actually is: evidence of due process. Trump has launched legal challenges in multiple states, some of which have a basis, most of which do not. Trump has grounds to bring a case in Wisconsin – Biden won the vote by less than 1 per cent, which is grounds for a recount. But elsewhere the legal basis for his challenges are hazier: the Trump campaign has claimed that poll watchers weren’t given ‘meaningful access’ to the count in Michigan and Pennsylvania but there’s little evidence to support that. Unless there is clear evidence of a violation of state law, the cases won’t advance through the courts, said Power.

Can Biden unite America?

Biden has stuck firmly to his message of unity in the speeches he has given since election night: he is promising to be a president for all Americans. But there are splits even within his own party about whether Biden represents the interests of the more progressive wing of Democrats, let alone the polarisation that affects the country more broadly. Power said there are some spots to be optimistic about though. Achieving real unity requires his political opponents to co-operate and the media’s portrayal of Biden will matter. Fox News, the foremost conservative media outlet in the States, played it straight on election night and commentators criticised Trump for prematurely announcing his victory and claiming fraud. They might play ball with Biden.

Biden’s foreign policy will be based on tenets not slogans

While Trump looked for a ‘bumper sticker’ to guide his foreign policy principles, Biden’s foreign policy will be based on a few key tenets, said Power. Biden recognises that there are two major sets of challenges for any leader: global threats and questions of polarity. Managing the first set of challenges like climate change, cross-border terror networks and – most immediately – a pandemic requires international co-operation and strong alliances. As such, Biden will work to restore America’s relationships overseas. Dealing with the second challenge – an increasingly multipolar world with Chinese and Russian ascendency – likewise relies on the US and its allies to show unity when not only disagreeing with China and Russia but also co-operating with them too.

But he may be blocked on issues like climate change without the Senate

As president, Biden would be commander in chief, and have the prerogative and the executive power to take foreign-policy decisions. But there are some global issues like climate change where Biden’s executive power will not be enough, because acting on it requires domestic policy change. Biden will be able to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, but to enact progressive climate legislation will require agreement from both the House and the Senate. If Biden relies on his executive power to introduce legislation, this may be subject to legal challenge in the courts, which likewise lean conservative.

Bandwidth might be a problem for achieving foreign policy goals, but Biden will try to walk and chew gum

Domestic issues will be the principal concern for a Biden presidency’s first months, with the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice top of the agenda. While these issues might take precedence, that’s not to say that a US under Biden would be a bystander when it comes to global injustices. Biden is sceptical of US military deployments overseas but his administration would, Power says, likely follow a human rights-led foreign-policy agenda.

Trump won’t be able to fend off legal action against him

State-level investigations into Trump’s taxes and financial dealings will be able to go ahead, said Power. There are limits to the President’s executive power and granting himself a pre-emptive pardon does not look possible for Trump under the law. Biden would ensure the independence of the Department of Justice in any such investigation, setting up a ‘Berlin Wall’ between the department and the White House.

The 2020 election was a victory for democracy

For months before the election, the Republican party litigated to try to keep people from the polls. But the miles of voting queues and the huge voter turnout show the determination of Americans to take part in their democracy. It is their engagement in this election that has made a Biden victory possible.