The Observer view on the sniping over Joe Biden’s victory

Observer editorial
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

Now the fog of political war has cleared, it’s plain that Joe Biden scored a truly remarkable victory in the US presidential election. It’s never easy to dislodge a sitting president. Bill Clinton was the last challenger to pull it off, in 1992. When the incumbent is as unscrupulous as Donald Trump, defeating him requires a very special skill set. Yet Biden managed it with votes to spare.

Despite jitters over early, unfavourable results, inaccurate opinion polls and Trump’s premature declaration, Biden won the electoral college by a solid margin and beat his rival by more than 5m votes, 50.9% to 47.3%. He reconquered key midwest states lost in 2016 and, it was confirmed on Friday, “flipped” Georgia and Arizona.

It’s good news that Americans turned out in record numbers for this momentous democratic exercise. Biden won more votes than any previous presidential candidate. It’s good news, too, that despite fears of repeat Russian meddling and Trump’s ridiculous claims of fraud, federal and state oversight officials have unequivocally declared the election free and fair.

Strange, then, that some on the left in America and Britain have been grudging, if not downright critical of a Democratic triumph that owed its success to the broad, inclusive coalition that Biden forged. This odd reluctance stems partly from the sinistral conviction that Biden is doomed to fail. Although he won more than 78m votes, Trump won more than 72m. This is taken as gloomy proof that America is irreparably divided, that Biden’s mission to reunify the country cannot succeed and that in 2024, a sort of Trump-plus candidate – nasty like him, but smarter – will sweep to power. Underlying this analysis is a more fundamental objection: that Biden is not sufficiently radical – a lifelong centrist who cannot deliver the systemic change, ideological and political, deemed necessary to reorder society. This is the view broadly represented by Bernie Sanders, Biden’s vanquished rival, and by new-generation progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

America, or most of it, does not seek a revolution. It seeks a restoration

Proceeding from this premise, it is argued that, if the Democratic party had pledged itself unambiguously to providing universal healthcare, reducing inequality through wealth redistribution and overthrowing neoliberalism and the “donor class”, it would have gained, not lost, seats in Congress – and Biden would have won even more decisively.

His detractors claim Biden offers more of the same old middling Obama agenda. For them, only the iconoclastic “populist left” has a transformative vision; his watchword – consensus – signifies appeasement. Yet it’s precisely because Biden offered a return to the familiar middle ground after Trump’s craziness that people chose him. America, or most of it, does not seek a revolution. It seeks a restoration. Voters want a safe pair of hands, someone they can trust at a time of great anxiety. Biden certainly faces a daunting in-tray: most immediately, the pandemic response, plus the economic recession, racial injustice, an ultra-conservative supreme court threatening health and abortion rights and many international problems, with the climate crisis and China to the fore. It’s true that white working-class alienation and the urban-rural split, which Trump exploited, are prominent among these challenges.

Yet to suggest Biden is incapable of bridging these divides and that his proffered solutions – a stimulus package, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, large-scale public investment and an epic switch to clean energy – will flop because they do not go far enough is unduly pessimistic. It’s akin to saying America is incapable of change. That’s not so, as history shows.

Biden’s critics seem to prefer uncompromising defeat to pragmatic success. By questioning his fitness, they suggest voters are easily fooled, ignorant or don’t know what they want. This is not a good place for a socialist to be. So let’s wholeheartedly applaud Biden’s victory. Trump is beat and there’s a vaccine, too! What’s not to like?