Although Donald Trump had made a name for himself with the book, The Art of the Deal, published in the late 1980s, the skill of political bargaining appears to have eluded him during the four-year tenure at the White House. The outgoing president had remarkable success in presenting himself as an outsider to the political class. His promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington helped him defeat such established political families like the Bushes and Clintons in the 2016 elections. But Trump found it hard to make the transition from campaigning to governing. He could not rise to the challenge of co-opting key sections of the permanent establishment and fashioning a stable political coalition that would help him win the second term. An exaggerated faith in his own “natural genius” saw President Trump open multiple fronts of contestation and alienate powerful economic and political constituencies. That made it easier for the “swamp” to dissipate and eventually defeat the Trump insurrection.
Trump’s successor in waiting, former Vice-President Joe Biden, could not be more different. Biden is a creature of Washington, with 47 years of political experience in the American capital. Biden has never been a crusader for political causes. His defining qualities were ideological flexibility and the capacity to adapt to the changing political circumstances. Working-class roots and folksy Irish ways add to Biden’s image as an affable leader capable of finding political compromises. President Barack Obama, who often seemed too professorial and detached, valued Vice-President Biden’s skills in finding much needed compromises with the recalcitrant Republicans in the Congress. Those skills will now come in handy, as Biden inherits a country that is split down the middle. He is doing the right thing by being gracious and promising to unite the country by reaching out to the Republicans.
Biden’s political malleability was of great use in neutralising the militant progressive factions in the Democratic Party that derailed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign four years ago and were promising to repeat the performance this year. As Biden embraced the progressives to preserve political unity of the party during the campaign, Trump accused him of being a prisoner of the socialist left. Having won the election, Biden has begun to signal that he would govern from the middle. Having promised to be a one-term president, Biden is liberated from the pressures of re-election. That gives him unprecedented leverage to arbitrate between the big money, from Wall Street and Silicon Valley, that has rallied round him, and the traditional base of the Democratic Party — the trade unions and the middle classes. After four years of the Trump disruption, most of America’s allies are pining for an old-style professional politician in the White House. Most of America’s friends are familiar with Biden, who served for many years as the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and want him to succeed. By simply not being Trump, Biden begins with a huge political advantage at home and abroad. How he turns that opportunity into effective policy outcomes remains to be seen.
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