Turning the Page: A Biden Presidency and the Role for Us

With many votes yet to be counted, it is now clear that former Vice President Joe Biden has won the Electoral College and likely will win the popular vote by several million votes. In choosing Biden and Kamala Harris as the next president and vice president of the United States, Americans have on the whole decided, in the election with the largest number of voters in U.S. history, to embrace competency over arrogant amateurism and a more inclusive vision for America. The Biden-Harris team has much work before it, as the most uncertain transition period in recent history begins. 

As the new administration prepares to take office, we at Just Security look forward to continuing to deliver expert analysis that holds those in power accountable, stays on the lookout for executive overreach, and fosters robust congressional oversight. Our recent series — the Good Governance Papers — reflects these ambitions across a broad array of issues in the national security space.

So what does this election mean and how do we think about the future?

As we take stock, it is clear that a majority of voting Americans are determined to change the course of the country. Yet it would be hard to conclude from the electoral map that President Donald Trump, or Trumpism, has been fully repudiated. Far from it. Many millions of Americans endorsed Trump’s racism, divisiveness, bullying, and disregard for the rule of law — or, at the very least, did not see these as deal-breakers. The Senate that enabled Trump’s corruption, incompetence, self-dealing, and cruelty may yet remain in Republican control. Trump’s eagerness to fight the election results, the still-looming threat of civil unrest, and the worsening pandemic mean the moment of national crisis many feared may not yet have passed.

But come January, the United States will have a change in leadership at the very top, and with that comes an opportunity to change course in areas where the Trump administration’s failures have come at enormous costs to the country. This is particularly true when it comes to the government’s pandemic response. A Biden administration does not need a Democratic Senate to start implementing a comprehensive strategy to fight COVID-19 and prepare for the competent and equitable distribution of a vaccine when it is ready. This is good news for every American. 

A Biden presidency also promises a chance to restore the fundamentals of American democracy that Trump has weakened: respect for the rule of law and democratic norms, promotion of human rights at home and abroad, and greater protection of free and fair elections. A President Biden will not be soliciting foreign interference in an election to secure himself a second term or offering autocratic leaders favors within the U.S. criminal justice system. He will not seek to use the Justice Department against political opponents for his personal gain or tear up international agreements just because they were reached by his predecessor. 

A measure of stability in U.S. foreign relations — once taken for granted across Republican and Democratic administrations — can be expected to be restored. Long-standing strategic allies can count on a President Biden’s support. Fellow democracies will be treated as partners, and Biden will not heap praise on authoritarians or mimic their behaviors of encouraging violence among their own populations and seeking to use the State as a tool for personal aggrandizement. 

Still, the damage Trump has done to U.S. institutions — from the Justice Department, to the Intelligence Community, to the State Department, and the U.S. Postal Service — and to the body politic is extensive and will be difficult to repair. For his supporters, Trump has eroded their faith in the idea of a non-partisan civil service, promoting the idea of a so-called “Deep State,” which he would have his supporters believe has been out to get him since 2016. He has attacked journalists, and undermined the very idea of objective truth. He has attempted to politicize everything from mask-wearing to Christmas. And he has eroded the legitimacy of the judiciary through appointments of unqualified, hyper-partisan, or untested federal judges — overwhelmingly white, male appointments.

On the international stage, it will be an uphill battle to win back the trust of allies, who now understand that they cannot necessarily count on U.S. support for more than four years at a time. A Biden administration will face a huge task in seeking to undo the fundamentally self-destructive foreign policy Trump has implemented, particularly when it comes to climate change, defending human rights, holding fast against Russia’s aggression, and restoring U.S. leadership on non-proliferation and arms control. The good news is that this is also an area where a President Biden will draw on deep experience and, in some respects, will be less hampered by an obstructionist Senate. But whether the international system has changed — to course correct for the unreliability of U.S. leadership — in ways that cannot be put back in the bottle remains to be seen. We will forever be a country that could elect a Donald Trump. How can allies and foreign countries count on U.S. commitments with that reality in mind, and how can the Biden team build international institutions that ensure continuity of U.S. assurances over time? 

At Just Security, we welcome restoration of the rule of law and the return of basic decency to the White House and the federal government. Nevertheless, we intend to stay vigilant as ever — not just through this volatile period of transition when a lame duck President Trump may seek to further stoke division, or even violence, and may seek to sabotage the incoming administration in ways unfamiliar to previous transitions in which presidents of both parties have aimed to set up their successors for success. We will make every effort to fulfil our goals of holding the U.S. government and other actors to account throughout the Biden administration as well. 

It is essential that the media continues to play its role as a watchdog for the American public, no matter who is sitting in the White House. In doing so, the press may be able to win back some of the trust it has lost over the years through a process that Trump has accelerated with his almost daily attacks on journalists and the media as an institution. Here at Just Security, we will continue to bring to the foreground expert analysis of legal and policy issues in the United States and across the globe, raising the voices of civil society leaders, scholars, experienced civil servants, human rights defenders, senior officials of international organizations, and those most impacted by the national security policies enacted by governments and multilateral institutions, from minority communities in the United States to those on the other side of our borders, including civilians in conflict zones. 

In America, everyone has work to do. Trump will no longer be the president after January 20, but this is a nation painfully divided, economically hobbled by a disastrous pandemic response, and weighed down by decades of war. The public remains too vulnerable to actors — domestic and foreign — who are interested in dividing us for their own self-interests. Conspiracy theories are taking hold. Systemic racism remains woven into American life, from our school systems to our police departments. We are grieving those we have lost to COVID and those who are victims of racialized institutional violence. There is deep hurt that requires healing and structural inequalities in urgent need of addressing. While a President Biden will not be able to solve all of these problems, he promises steadiness, competency, and a rejection of hate-fueled politics, such a welcome change after the last four years.

Photo: President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris greet the crowd at the Chase Center November 07, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).

Tess Bridgeman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security. Former Special Assistant to the President, former Associate Counsel to the President, former Deputy Legal Adviser to the National Security Council (NSC), formerly Served at the Department of State in the Office of the Legal Adviser, in the Office of Political-Military Affairs and as Special Assistant to the Legal Adviser. Currently Senior Fellow and Visiting Scholar, Reiss Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law. Follow her on Twitter (@bridgewriter).

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). Follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).