Biden wins presidency, ending four tumultuous years under Trump

President-elect Joe Biden gestures on stage after speaking, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was elected the 46th president of the United States on Saturday, promising to restore political normalcy and a spirit of national unity to confront raging health and economic crises, and making Donald J. Trump a one-term president after four years of tumult in the White House.

Biden’s victory amounted to a repudiation of Trump by millions of voters exhausted with his divisive conduct and chaotic administration, and was delivered by an unlikely alliance of women, people of color, old and young voters and a sliver of disaffected Republicans. Trump is only the third elected president since World War II to lose reelection, and the first in more than a quarter-century.

The result also provided a history-making moment for Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who will become the first woman to serve as vice president.

With his triumph, Biden, who turns 78 later this month, fulfilled his decadeslong ambition in his third bid for the White House, becoming the oldest person elected president. A pillar of Washington who was first elected amid the Watergate scandal, and who prefers political consensus over combat, Biden will lead a nation and a Democratic Party that have become far more ideological since his arrival in the capital in 1973.

He offered a mainstream Democratic agenda, yet it was less his policy platform than his biography to which many voters gravitated. Seeking the nation’s highest office a half-century after his first campaign, Biden — a candidate in the late autumn of his career — presented his life of setback and recovery to voters as a parable for a wounded country.

In a brief statement, Biden called for healing and unity. “With the campaign over, it’s time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation,” he said. “It’s time for America to unite. And to heal. We are the United States of America. And there’s nothing we can’t do, if we do it together.”

In his own statement, Trump insisted “this election is far from over” and vowed that his campaign would “start prosecuting our case in court” but offered no details.

The race, which concluded after four tense days of vote-counting in a handful of battlegrounds, was a singular referendum on Trump in a way no president’s reelection has been in modern times. He coveted the attention, and voters who either adored him or loathed him were eager to render judgment on his tenure. From the beginning to the end of the race, Biden made the president’s character central to his campaign.

This unrelenting focus propelled Biden to victory in historically Democratic strongholds in the industrial Midwest, with Biden forging a coalition of suburbanites and big-city residents to claim at least three states his party lost in 2016.

Yet even as they turned Trump out of office, voters sent a more uncertain message about the left-of-center platform Biden ran on as Democrats lost seats in the House and made only modest gains in the Senate. The divided judgment — a rare example of ticket splitting in partisan times — demonstrated that, for many voters, their disdain for the president was as personal as it was political.

Even in defeat, though, Trump demonstrated his enduring appeal to many white voters and his intense popularity in rural areas, underscoring the deep national divisions that Biden has vowed to heal.

The outcome of the race came into focus slowly as states and municipalities grappled with the legal and logistical challenges of voting in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. With an enormous backlog of early and mail-in votes, some states reported their totals in a halting fashion that in the early hours of Wednesday painted a misleadingly rosy picture for Trump.

But as the big cities of the Midwest and West began to report their totals, the advantage in the race shifted the electoral map in Biden’s favor. By Wednesday afternoon, the former vice president had rebuilt much of the so-called blue wall in the Midwest, reclaiming the historically Democratic battlegrounds of Wisconsin and Michigan that Trump carried four years ago. And on Saturday, with troves of ballots coming in from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, he took back Pennsylvania as well.

While Biden stopped short of claiming victory as the week unfolded, he appeared several times in his home state, Delaware, to express confidence that he could win, while urging patience as the nation awaited the results. Even as he sought to claim something of an electoral mandate, noting that he had earned more in the popular vote than any other candidate in history, Biden struck a tone of reconciliation.

It would soon be time, he said, “to unite, to heal, to come together as a nation.”

In the days after the election, Biden and his party faced a barrage of attacks from Trump. The president falsely claimed in a middle-of-the-night appearance at the White House on Wednesday that he had won the race and that Democrats were conjuring fraudulent votes to undermine him, a theme he renewed on Thursday evening in grievance-filled remarks conjuring up, with no evidence, a conspiracy to steal votes from him.

The president’s campaign aides adopted a tone of brash defiance as swing states fell to Biden, saying they would demand a recount in Wisconsin and take legal action to stop vote counting in Michigan and Pennsylvania. On Friday morning, Trump’s campaign issued a statement vowing to press forward with legal challenges and declaring, despite the erosion of his leads in Pennsylvania and Georgia, “This election is not over.”

Though Trump’s ire had the potential to foment political divisions and even civil unrest, there was no indication that he could succeed with his seemingly improvisational legal strategy.

In the end, it was Pennsylvania that provided Biden the necessary 270th Electoral College vote to claim victory, with Biden leading by over 4 million votes nationwide.

Through it all, the coronavirus and its ravages on the country hung over the election and shaped the choice for voters. Facing an electorate already fatigued by his aberrant conduct, the president effectively sealed his defeat by minimizing a pandemic that has created simultaneous health and economic crises.

Beginning with the outbreak of the virus in the country at the start of the year, through his own diagnosis last month and up to the last hours of the election, Trump disregarded his medical advisers and public opinion even as over 230,000 people in the United States perished.

Biden, by contrast, sought to channel the dismay of those appalled by Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic. He offered himself as a safe harbor for a broad array of Americans, promising to guide the nation out of what he called the “dark winter” of the outbreak, rather than delivering a visionary message with bright ideological themes.

While the president ridiculed mask-wearing and insisted on continuing his large rallies, endangering his own staff members and supporters, Biden and Harris campaigned with caution, avoiding indoor events, insisting on social distancing and always wearing masks.

Convinced that he could win back the industrial Northern states that swung to Trump four years ago, Biden focused his energy on Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Biden triumphed in those states on the strength of overwhelming support from women, who voted in large numbers to repudiate Trump despite his last-minute pleas to “suburban housewives,” as he called them.

Many of the women who decided the president’s fate were politically moderate college-educated suburbanites, who made their presence felt as an electoral force first in the 2018 midterm elections, when a historic wave of female candidates and voters served as the driving force behind the Democratic sweep to power in the House.

Even aside from the pandemic, the 2020 campaign unfolded against a backdrop of national tumult unequaled in recent history, including the House’s vote to impeach the president less than a year ago, a national wave of protests over racial injustice last spring, spasms of civil unrest throughout the summer, the death of a Supreme Court justice in September and the hospitalization of Trump in October.

Along the way, Trump played to his conservative base, seeking to divide the nation over race and cultural flash points. He encouraged those fears, and the underlying social divisions that fostered them. And for months he sought to sow doubt over the legitimacy of the political process.

Biden, in response, offered a message of healing that appealed to Americans from far left to center right. He made common cause by promising relief from the unceasing invective and dishonesty of Trump’s presidency.

The former vice president also sought to demonstrate his differences with the president with his selection of Harris, 56, whose presence on the ticket as the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants stood in stark contrast to Trump’s relentless scapegoating of migrants and members of racial-minority groups.

Biden will be only the second Catholic to attain the presidency, along with John F. Kennedy.

In an era when political differences have metastasized into tribal warfare, at least 74 million voters turned to a figure who has become known as the eulogist in chief for his empathy and friendships with Republicans and Democrats alike.

In a sign of how much Trump alienated traditional Republicans, a number of prominent members of the party endorsed Biden’s candidacy, including Cindy McCain, the widow of former Sen. John McCain; the party’s other two presidential nominees this century, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, declined to endorse Trump.

Yet for all his lofty language about uniting the country, Biden was a halting candidate who ran a cautious campaign, determined to ensure that the election became a referendum on Trump. The former vice president fully returned to the campaign trail only around Labor Day, and for weeks he limited his appearances to one state every other day or so. He went west of the Central time zone just once during the general election.

As he prepares to take the oath, he will return to Washington confronting a daunting set of crises. Biden will be pressed to swiftly secure and distribute a safe vaccine for the coronavirus, revive an economy that may be in even more dire shape in January than it is now, and address racial justice and policing issues that this year prompted some of the largest protests in American history.

And he will do so with a Congress that is far more polarized than the Senate he left over a decade ago, with many Republicans having embraced Trump’s nativist brand of populism and Democrats increasingly responsive to an energized left. If Biden cannot bridge that divide as president and elicit some cooperation from the GOP, he will face immense pressure from his party’s progressive wing to abandon conciliation for a posture of combat.

Biden has held out hope about working with Republican lawmakers while declining to support his party’s most ambitious goals, like single-payer health care and the Green New Deal; he has resisted structural changes such as adding justices to the Supreme Court.

This irked his party’s base but made it difficult for Republicans, from Trump down the ballot, to portray him as an extremist. Biden was largely absent from the appeals of GOP candidates, who instead used their advertising to insist that the Democratic Party would be in the hands of more polarizing figures on the left such as Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Unlike the last two Democrats who defeated incumbents after voters tired of Republican leadership, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Biden will not arrive in the capital as a youthful outsider. Instead, he will fill out a Democratic leadership triumvirate, which includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, of lawmakers who are 70 or older.

Biden alluded to himself during the campaign as a transitional figure who would bring the country out of a crisis and then make way for a new generation. But he has privately rejected suggestions that he commit to serving just a single term, viewing that as an instant guarantee of lame-duck status.

One of the most significant tests of Biden’s presidency will be in how he navigates the widening divisions in his party.

He may enjoy a honeymoon, though, because of both the scale of the problems he is grappling with and the president he defeated.

This election represented the culmination of nearly four years of activism organized around opposing Trump, a movement that began with the Women’s March the day after his inauguration. Indeed, Biden’s election appeared less the unique achievement of a political standard-bearer than the apex of a political wave touched off by the 2016 election — one that Biden rode more than he directed it.

But Trump’s job approval rating never hit 50% and, when the coronavirus spread nationwide and Biden effectively claimed the Democratic nomination in March, the president’s hopes of running with a booming economy and against a far-left opponent evaporated at once.

Still, many Democrats were nervous and some Republicans were defiantly optimistic going into the election, both still gripped by Trump’s shocker four years ago. And well into the night Tuesday, it seemed as if the president might be able to do it again. But four days later, after a year of trial in America and four turbulent years of the Trump administration, victory was in hand for Biden.