It is looking good for Joe Biden. He is racing ahead in the polls as foot-in-mouth Trump slumps under the weight of the pandemic, economic woes, legal problems and a growing credibility gap.
But what would a Biden win mean? In terms of the tone of political conversation it would mean a dramatic change. We would also see some big differences on the domestic political front. In foreign policy, an evolving international situation plus difficult to change actions which Trump has started, means shifts could be less dramatic.
Compared to Trump’s stream of consciousness rants, Biden is practically mute. Throughout his career, he has been known for his gaffes, but nearly half a century in Washington has taught him that there are times when it is best to say nothing, or to leave it civil servants to do the talking. Don’t expect a daily tsunami of tweets or cleverly-worded personal insults.
One of Joe Biden’s biggest tasks would be to close the national divide that a Trump presidency has created. He must find a way to push the hate-mongers and conspiracy theorists back into the woodwork from which they have crawled while at the same time avoiding the trap of forcing them underground.
Gun Control is a key flashpoint between the former vice-president and Trump’s dedicated base. Biden was heavily affected by the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre and is a keen advocate of gun control. Among his past proposals has been a buy-back scheme for owners of assault rifles. And if the owners refuse to sell they will be required to register the weapons under the National Firearms Act. Needless to say, the powerful National Rifle Association opposes his candidacy.
Biden comes from what has been termed the “sensible centre” of the Democratic Party. The problem is that in recent years the party has moved to the left with the rise of figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Biden’s “sensible centre” position is looking more like that of right-wing Democrat. This could create difficulty for him in Congress with issus such as welfare and defence spending and healthcare, even if the Democrats hold onto the House of Representatives and win control of the Senate.
Other big domestic issues for Biden would be abortion and the Supreme Court. A devout Catholic, Joe Biden takes a politically modified stand on the Vatican’s ruling on abortion. He agrees that life begins at conception, but then goes on to say that he would not force his views onto others. As for the Supreme Court, Biden’s election would be an opportunity for 87-year-old liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to slide into a well-deserved retirement. And Biden’s long tenure on the Senate Judiciary Committee means that he would have little trouble pushing through a replacement nominee.
Biden’s biggest impact during his 36-year-long senatorial career was in foreign relations. He spent three decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, eight of them as chairman. One would have to go back 195 years to the administration of John Quincy Adams to find a president with as much foreign affairs experience. It was this experience that was the deciding factor in Barack Obama’s decision to choose Biden as his running mate in 2008.
It is debatable as to whom had greater control over American foreign policy during the Obama years—Biden or Hillary Clinton. Biden oversaw American policy in Iraq and the Middle East; as well as playing a key role in events in the Balkans, Libya and the Ukraine. Biden was an established and respected player on the world stage even before he became vice president. But that does not necessarily mean a Biden victory would result in tectonic shifts in American foreign policy.
The US would almost certainly rejoin the Paris Climate Change Accord along with most of the UN bodies from which Trump has withdrawn. The heavily implied threat to withdraw from NATO would also be dropped, but not the insistence that European alliance members step up their defence spending. America’s unstinting support for Brexit would likely become a thing of the past. Trump viewed a strong and united Europe as a threat to American business. Brexit economically weakens Europe and strengthens America. Biden takes a more holistic view. In his judgment, a strong, stable, united and democratic Europe is a vital component of American and world security. Brexit threatens that.
In the Middle East, Trump has slavishly supported Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden won’t, if only because if he wins the presidency he would quite possibly be entering the White House at the same time as Netanyahu walks into court to face corruption charges. However, Lebanon’s slide into failed state status has complicated matters. It has created a vacuum which Iran-backed Hezbollah will quickly move to fill. This will make it almost impossible for Biden to revive the Iran Nuclear Accord or reduce America’s commitment to Israel.
Asia would remain the major focus of a Biden Administration as China continues to challenge American hegemony in the Eastern Pacific and grow economically, politically and militarily. Donald Trump has turned relations with China into a domestic as well as foreign political issue by successfully branding Beijing as the scapegoat for most of America’s problems. Biden will have a tough time changing that perception—even if he wanted to. However, he is likely to shift the focus of blame away from conspiracy theories to human rights abuses while still concentrating on military and economic issues.
The dark cloud hanging over all of the above is the coronavirus that threatens so many aspects of world security. Hopefully, the pandemic will be over, or at least on the downhill slope, by January 2021. But the aftershocks of Covid-19 will be a problem for Joe Biden—and every other world leader—for years to come.
Tom Arms is a regular contributor