Reset: the new Biden-Harris Administration
The peaceful transfer of power is an enduring hallmark of sustainable democracies, and with it comes the supporting bargain that those who do not win in an election have the opportunity to compete in future elections.i These fundamental principles of democracy were significantly challenged over the last several months as the incumbent Trump Administration and its supporters contested the outcome of the November elections, and on 6 January sought to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power through a popular insurrection on the US Capitol. The Biden-Harris ticket garnered 81 million popular votes and 306 Electoral College Votes, while the Trump-Pence ticket won 74 million popular votes and 232 Electoral College votes, giving the Democrats a victory in both the popular vote and the Electoral College vote for the Presidency.
The months after the November election were filled with drama and a series of tumultuous events, including over 60 unsuccessful separate legal challenges, a close Senate runoff election on 5 January in Georgia, Presidential meddling in state-level results, and a violent attack on Congress itself in the midst of certifying the results of the election. The outcome of these events is Democratic control of the Executive, the House of Representatives, and the Senate.
In my previous article, I expressed worry that this election would be dangerous, owing to a summer of social unrest, the conduct of a genuine and transparent election under conditions of a raging pandemic, and a pattern of increased political polarization. My fears were indeed realised in the event of the Capitol insurrection, and even with the inauguration of the Biden-Harris Administration, the spectre of violence continues with recent leftist attacks on the Democratic Party headquarters in Portland, Oregon.
In the run up to the Capitol violence, the intelligence community had warnings that armed action was possible. Longer-term analysis conducted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies shows that 70% of recent domestic terrorist events have been carried out by right wing extremist groups, coupled with a doubling of such events led by left-wing extremist groups, such as ANTIFA. The lack of planning and bureaucratic delays meant that security at the Capitol was insufficient. The storming of the Capitol resulted in five deaths, members of Congress held in secure locations, and a widespread investigation that has seen many of the perpetrators arrested on charges of sedition. Once the Capitol was cleared and secured, Congress formally certified the results.
Politically, the House of Representatives, in an unusual display of bi-partisanship, impeached President Trump for his role in inciting the violence. A total of 232 House members voted to impeach Trump (including 10 Republicans) and 197 remaining members did not support the article, with four members not voting. Trump is thus the first President to be impeached twice in US History, and the Article of Impeachment will be passed to the Senate on 25 January with the Impeachment Trial set to begin on 8 February.
There is much debate concerning the Constitutional authority of Congress to hold an impeachment trial for a President who has already left office with those in favour citing some historical precedents to do so and those against saying that the Constitution only refers to sitting Presidents. The Senate can only convict if the article receives a super majority of support (i.e. 67 votes) in a Senate split evenly between the two parties. Senator Rand Paul advanced the argument that impeachment of a former President is unconstitutional, but his measure was defeated 55 to 45, a vote that confirms the constitutionality of impeachment, but the paucity of Republican votes suggests that conviction of Trump is unlikely. If the trial results in conviction, the Senate could vote by simple majority (i.e. 51 votes) to ban Trump from running for office in the future.
Against the hopes and claims of the darker conspiracy theorists, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were inaugurated on 20 January in a modified ceremony that included the presence of 25,000 troops, largely deserted streets, a small socially distanced audience, and musical performances from Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Garth Brooks, John Legend, and Bruce Springsteen. It also included former Presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama, as well as representatives from both sides of the partisan divide, including Vice President Mike Pence, but not President Donald Trump.
The inauguration sought to feature enduring themes around American values, healing, and unity, and looking to a future politics that is more inclusive and less divisive. For me, the highlight of the day came from performance poet Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old Black American, whose poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ captured the challenges of America as an ‘unfinished’ grand experiment in self-governance to form ‘a union with purpose’.
For his part, the new President started work immediately after the inauguration ceremony and over the ensuing days with a flurry of Executive Actions that reversed travel bans, the border wall, withdrawal from the World Health organisation, progress on the Keystone Pipeline project, and withdrawal from the Paris Climate accord. He also launched his Covid Strategy, with a basket of measures on vaccine production acceleration, federal logistical coordination, and measures to support the re-opening of schools. Beyond these rapid measures, however, his longer-term goals require significant resource and thus the approval of Congress, the political control over which remains razor thin.
In the end, the inauguration proved that a peaceful transfer of power in the United States is possible, even under significantly challenging conditions, but the road ahead for the Biden-Harris administration is paved with much difficulty. There is division in the Democratic Party over Biden’s centrism and division in the Republican Party over the enduring loyalty to Donald Trump, requiring a deft hand to steward legislation through the political process. In the middle of her much-celebrated poem, Amanda Gorman says, ‘But while democracy can be periodically delayed … it can never be permanently defeated.’ For all our sake, let’s hope she is right.
Dr Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science in the School of Politics and International Relations and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Social Sciences.
i Przeworski, A. (1991) Democracy and the Market, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 19.