Home Current Column The Constellation of the US Elections: Background, Context and Implications (Part II)

The Constellation of the US Elections: Background, Context and Implications (Part II)

by Mark Becker

Editor’s Note: This article is the second part of the one posted on Dec 5. Due to the length of the whole article, the editorial team decided to split it in two parts.

At present, Joe Biden appears well enough equipped to pursue the majority of his agenda, staunchly if not aggressively. However, his immediate actions are not likely to be particularly significant on the global stage as Democrats initially seek to counter much of what Trump and the GOP instituted over the last four years. The 2020 election has already set the stage to expand that sphere of influence in ensuing elections, but we are unlikely to see Biden push a radical agenda with an eye toward further consolidating that power in the 2022 ‘midterm’ elections.


Expected early policy initiatives include: doubling the federal minimum wage, enhancing the Affordable Care Act, funding public schools at all levels, creating more affordable housing, criminal justice reform and an emphasis on labor-friendly business regulation. Those will take the vast majority of the new administration’s time, particularly in Biden’s first year.

Still, what has always stood out most in his agenda has been environmentalism, which likely will drive the United States’ foreign relations over his four-year term. Biden has stated that his he intends to rejoin the Paris Climate Pact on his first day in office, repeatedly emphasizing a goal for the U.S. to pursue net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. That will in turn foster improved relations with Canada, which also is committed to the same goal, in what should be a theme of Biden’s Presidency – rather than isolating the country from worldwide affairs as Trump did, leading shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration for everyone’s mutual benefit.

Biden and Democrats will be eager to repair America’s global image following the Trump Presidency, and with the Republican Senate are extremely unlikely to pursue any kind of adversarial stance. Democrats will be looking to 2022 to try to flip the Senate so they have full legislative and executive control for the following two years, but Republicans actually will be narrowly favored to both hold the Senate and flip the House. There has only been one instance in history where the President’s party gained control of either the House or Senate in a midterm election. Instead, it is far more common for the opposing party to gain control of one or both chambers in Congress, as has occurred in each of the last three midterms. Meanwhile, Biden will enter office as the first President since George W. Bush to face divided government from his first day in office. That can limit what might otherwise have been an extreme-liberal agenda, but it also may play into Democrats’ favor in 2022 as the party is unlikely to be able to cause significant backlash as a result of strong-arming deep-blue policies through legislation without complete control of Congress.

Though Biden’s ability to pursue radical change domestically will thus be somewhat limited, it has less effect on how the U.S. pursues foreign policy. While redistricting can have an outsized influence on how those midterms are contested, Biden assuredly will tailor international relations chiefly around his primary personal concern  – environmentalism, which will be harder to set domestic policy due to the Senate. He is also likely to take progressive stances on cyberwarfare and migration, which can be expected to better ingratiate the U.S. with the European Union after four years of tension, to say the least.

Supreme Court

A particularly timely wrinkle in Biden being elected President but with Republicans retaining control of the Senate relates to the Supreme Court, which has received extraordinary attention over the past four years. Kentucky Republican and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow a vote on Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, in the final year of his term while pushing through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to replace in record time just weeks ago. Prior to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in September (which may have contributed in part to Biden’s successful election), the U.S. public had been treated to one of the most fascinating periods of judicial review in modern history. Split 5-4 in favor of Republican-appointed justices, the court made a series of rulings in which politics played a role of rare little consequence, including notable instances where Justice Neil Gorsuch and Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s liberal contingent on issues including LGBTQA+ and abortion rights.

With Trump’s three appointments now on the bench, the 6-3 conservative majority is poised to dominate rulings for the foreseeable future. Ginsberg’s failing health in recent years left many expecting a quick retirement if Biden could win the election and Democrats achieved a Senate majority, as had been expected of the court’s oldest-serving member, Stephen Breyer (82). That now might prove riskier, as McConnell has shown a willingness to be as intransigent as any majority leader in history. He will be quite cognizant of the chance that both the court’s longest-serving Justice, Clarence Thomas (since 1991), and Samuel Alito (aged 70) might also be in the final stages of their careers, which could just as quickly lead to a 6-3 Democratic advantage.

Age and Succession

It also cannot be overlooked that Biden is the oldest President-elect, and in fact would instantly become the oldest President in history, as he will turn 78 before assuming office on Jan. 20. Clearly aware of his voting base’s concerns, and considering the polarity of support for other Democratic Primary candidates, he selected as his running mate California Senator Kamala Harris, who will become the first female, Black and South Asian Vice President.

Significantly, Harris disagrees with Biden on several issues, but generally would be expected to continue shepherding the existing agenda until the 2024 election. This is a scenario in which many concerns shared worldwide regarding the continued existence of Trump’s base, given his 2016 success and how close this past election was, could actually come into play, whereas those fears are unlikely to factor into the effectiveness of Biden’s Presidency. A mixed-race woman assuming the Presidency, however, assuredly would incite a large portion of that group, which would not only lead to an exceedingly tense election but also threaten to shackle any prospect of bipartisan legislation. Harris’ inclusion on the ticket was a strategic one to gain the support necessary for election, but which could bite Democrats, possibly sooner than later. Regardless, the 2022 midterm elections will serve as the same referendum 2018 did on Trump’s Presidency and demonstrate how much stock should still be put into how he rallied his followers over the past four years.

American government is structured such that no one ideology can easily drive political agenda over any period of time. The nation’s first President, George Washington, made a point in his Farewell Address to caution against even the existence of two dominant political parties, in addition to the system of checks-and-balances set in place among the three-branch government. With a Democratic President, narrowly Democratic House of Representatives and Republican Senate, and conservative Supreme Court, the United States is set for exactly the type of governance which its founding fathers’ appear to have intended when crafting the Constitution in 1787. While the world can expect stark changes to foreign relations following the Presidential election, the system is structured to foster long-term continuity in policy which will begin to become more apparent after Biden’s inauguration and as the 2022 elections approach.

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