A US presidential election is never inconsequential but this one seemed like a fight for the soul of America. The winner, Joe Biden, is different from his predecessor in every way — in personality, leadership style, vision for civil society, and in the type of relations he seeks with the rest of the world.
Suffering defeat, President Donald Trump falsely challenged the legitimacy of the election result. Even prior to Trump, the US system, with its primaries that fail to represent majority opinion, electoral college that favours small states, and gerrymandering of electoral districts to cement party loyalties, together with the amplifying power of social media, had begun favouring extreme polarised positions over the middle. But Trump’s rejection of his loss and challenge to a peaceful transition of power sully the most important tenet of a democracy. Restoring trust in democratic institutions will be challenging for the Biden presidency, the US and the world.
As the world moves on from the siege of the US Capitol, it wants to understand the focus of Biden’s presidency. Biden takes office amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, struggling economy, constitutional crisis of Trump’s second impeachment and contentious foreign relations with China, Russia and Iran.
During his campaign, Biden laid out the most progressive domestic policy platform in American history. We believe the five key areas in which Biden differs from Trump domestically will be — his response to COVID-19, climate, immigration, taxes and racial equity.
COVID-19: Biden has issued 15 executive orders on COVID-19, including expanding testing capacity, reinstating international travel restrictions, requiring face coverings on planes, trains, airports and in federal buildings, and invoking the Defense Production Act to allow the federal government to directly produce key supplies. He has also pushed an enormous relief package of $1.9 trillion through Congress for COVID-19.
Climate: The president has a fast-paced, ambitious climate strategy, which includes setting a goal to achieve a carbon-free power grid by 2035, creating a cross-border climate adjustment programme, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, and revoking the Keystone Pipeline permit (petroleum pipeline to connect the US and Canada).
Immigration: On immigration, Biden has dramatically distanced himself from his predecessors, including Barack Obama (criticised for record-high deportations). He has fortified the DACA programme, reversed the Trump administration’s extreme immigration enforcement policy, directed the Census Bureau to include non-citizens, reversed Trump’s “Muslim Ban”, terminated the “declaration of emergency” that funded Trump’s border wall (funding approval never passed Congress), and unveiled an immigration bill that would offer a path to US citizenship for almost 11 million people.
Taxes: Biden’s tax plans are a work in progress, but we anticipate them to unapologetically seek to increase the top income tax rate, raise taxes on long-term capital gains, and increase corporate tax rates. He will likely justify these policies with the need to build infrastructure.
Racial Equity: We are already seeing a more compassionate rhetoric from Biden, who earned crucial African-American support in the election. In response to last year’s protests over the death of George Floyd and others, Biden is expected to focus on police reform. He has confirmed his commitment to diversity through his cabinet appointments and is also likely to prioritise diversity in court appointments.
Biden’s international approach, unlike Trump’s, will draw heavily on America’s allies. We provide our assessment of his policies with respect to China, Russia, Iran and India.
China: While Biden will continue an assertive stance against China, his strategy will be to appeal to America’s European and Asian allies to join with the US. Secretary of State Antony Blinken concurred with his predecessor’s assessment of China’s genocide against Uighurs. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen similarly highlighted China’s abusive and unfair trade practices. Biden will also try and limit Chinese advances and spur US advantage in key areas of future supremacy like technology, communications and pharmaceuticals. Nonetheless, Biden might seek collaboration on climate, health and North Korea.
Russia: Trump was deferential to Putin; it is clear Biden will not be. Top administrators under Trump, including Fiona Hill and John Bolton, often used financial sanctions, and issued critical press statements targeted at Russia. Blinken and Undersecretary Victoria Nuland have been hawkish on Russia. In a blunt 2020 op-ed in Foreign Affairs, Nuland accused Russia of violating “arms control treaties, international law, the sovereignty of its neighbours, and the integrity of elections in the United States and Europe.” It is unlikely that he seeks an Obama-style reset with Russia, and relations are likely to be contentious.
Iran: Biden is likely to break with Trump and pursue a multilateral approach with Iran. Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron have said they will cooperate on pursuing the nuclear deal. The US will move slowly in lifting sanctions on Iran until it complies with the nuclear deal. Biden has already ended US support of the Saudi-led offensive against Yemen’s Houthis.
India: Overall, the US relation with India has potential to strengthen, especially if alignment is found on trade and technology standards. On foreign policy, we believe the US will see India as a counterbalance to China, as a part of the Quad, but he may face pressure from the left in the Democratic party on what are seen as human rights abuses in India. Biden’s views on immigration policy will suit India, particularly for tech talent.
Globally, on trade, Biden will be more protectionist. He has already signed an order with bipartisan support directing government procurement of American goods. Biden’s vision is “to implement a worker-centred trade policy,” rather than focus on opening markets for American corporations or securing IP rights.
After addressing the immediate challenges, he will need to begin the process of uniting America. America’s ability to foster democratic values is weakened by the challenge to the US election results. Biden’s style and demeanour are well-suited to calming domestic unrest. The task ahead is daunting. The world, not just America, would like him to succeed.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 11, 2021, under the title “The new America”. With support from Brittany Montgomery, BCG. Marcil is member BCG executive committee, and Sinha is chairman, BCG India. Views are personal