The American public has had its say and for the first time in a generation denied a sitting president a second term.
President Donald Trump’s tenure lasted just four years, but in that time he dragged policy on an array of key issues in a dramatic new direction.
Joe Biden’s victory, confirmed by the Associated Press late morning on Nov. 7, presents an opportunity to reset the White House agenda and put it on a different course.
Three scholars discuss what a Biden presidency may have in store in three key areas: race, the Supreme Court and foreign policy.
Racism, policing and Black Lives Matter protests
Brian Purnell, Bowdoin College
The next four years under a Biden administration will likely see improvements in racial justice. But to many, it will be a low bar to clear: President Donald Trump downplayed racist violence, egged on right-wing extremists and described Black Lives Matter as a “symbol of hate” during his four-year tenure.
Still, Biden is in some ways an unlikely president to advance a progressive racial agenda. In the 1970s, he opposed busing plans and stymied school desegregation efforts in Delaware, his home state. And in the mid-1990s he championed a federal crime bill that made incarceration rates for Black people worse. He bungled the hearings that brought Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court by allowing Republican senators to dismiss Anita Hill’s damning testimony of Thomas’ sexual harassment and by failing to allow other Black women to testify.
But that was then.
During the 2020 campaign, President-elect Biden consistently spoke about problems stemming from systemic racism. Many voters will be hoping that his actions over the next four years must match his campaign words.
One area that the Biden administration will surely address is policing and racial justice. The Justice Department can bring accountability to police reform by returning to practices the Obama administration put in place to monitor and reform police departments, such as the use of consent degrees. More difficult reforms require redressing how mass incarceration caused widespread voter disenfranchisement in Black American and Latino communities.
“My administration will incentivize states to automatically restore voting rights for individuals convicted of felonies once they have served their sentences,” Biden told The Washington Post.
The killing of George Floyd earlier this year reinvigorated talk of addressing systemic racial discrimination through fundamental changes in how police departments hold officers accountable for misconduct and excessive force. It is unclear how far President-elect Biden will walk down this road. But evoking the words of the late civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis, he at least suggested at the Democratic National Convention that America was ready to do the hard work of “rooting out systemic racism.”
Biden can help address how Americans think about and deal with unexamined racial biases through reversing the previous administration’s executive order banning anti-racism training and workshops. In so doing, Biden can build on psychological research on bias to make American workplaces, schools and government agencies equitable, just places.
Making progress fighting systemic racism will be a slow, uphill battle. A more immediate benefit to communities of color could come through Biden’s COVID-19 pandemic response – the Trump administration’s failure to stanch the spread of the coronavirus has led to deaths and economic consequences that have disproportionately fallen on racial and ethnic minorities.
On matters of race relations in the U.S., most Americans would agree that the era of Trump saw the picture worsen. The good news for Biden as president is there is nowhere to go but up.
Morgan Marietta, University of Massachusetts Lowell
Despite the fact that American voters have given Democrats control of the presidency, the conservative Supreme Court will continue to rule on the nature and extent of constitutional rights.
These liberties are considered by the court to be “beyond the reach of majorities,” meaning they are intended to be immune from the changing beliefs of the electorate.
However, appointees of Democrats and Republicans tend to have very different views on which rights the Constitution protects and which are left to majority rule.
The dominant judicial philosophy of the conservative majority – originalism – sees rights as powerful but limited. The protection of rights recognized explicitly by the Constitution, such as the freedoms of religion, speech and press and the freedom to bear arms, will likely grow stronger over the next four years. But the protection of expansive rights that the court has found in the phrase “due process of law” in the 14th Amendment, including privacy or reproductive rights, may well contract.
The Biden administration will probably not agree with the court’s future rulings on voting rights, gay rights, religious rights or the rights of noncitizens. Ditto for any rulings on abortion, guns, the death penalty and immigration. But there is little President-elect Biden can do to control the independent judiciary.
Unhappy with what a strong conservative majority on the court may do – including possibly overturning the Affordable Care Act – many Democrats have advocated radical approaches to altering what the court looks like and how it operates, though Biden himself has not stated a clear position.
Suggested options include term limits, adding a retirement age, stripping the jurisdiction of the court for specific federal legislation, or increasing the size of the court. This strategy is known historically as court packing.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg opposed expanding the court, telling NPR in 2019 that “if anything would make the court look partisan, it would be … one side saying, ‘When we’re in power, we’re going to enlarge the number of judges, so we would have more people who would vote the way we want them to.’”
The Constitution does not establish the number of justices on the court, instead leaving that to Congress. The number has been set at nine since the 1800s, but Congress could pass a law expanding the number of justices to 11 or 13, creating two or four new seats.
However, this requires agreement by both houses of Congress.
The GOP seems likely to maintain a narrow control of the Senate. A 50/50 split is possible, but that won’t be clear until January when Georgia holds two runoff elections. Any of the proposed reforms of the court will be difficult, if not impossible, to pass under a divided Congress.
This leaves the Biden administration hoping for retirements that would gradually shift the ideological balance of the court.
One of the most likely may be Justice Clarence Thomas, who is 72 and the longest-serving member of the current court. Samuel Alito is 70 and Chief Justice John Roberts is 65. In other professions, that may sound like people soon to retire, but at the Supreme Court that is less likely. With the other three conservative justices in their 40s or 50s, the Biden administration may be fully at odds with the court for some time to come.
Neta Crawford, Boston University
President-elect Biden has signaled he will do three things to reset the U.S.‘s foreign policy.
First, Biden will change the tone of U.S. foreign relations. The Democratic Party platform called its section on military foreign policy “renewing American leadership” and emphasized diplomacy as a “tool of first resort.”
Biden seems to sincerely believe in diplomacy and is intent on repairing relations with U.S. allies that have been damaged over the last four years. Conversely, while Trump was, some say, too friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him a “terrific person,” Biden will likely take a harder line with Russia, at least rhetorically.
This change in tone will also likely include rejoining some of the treaties and international agreements that the United States abandoned under the Trump administration. The most important of these include the Paris Climate Agreement, which the U.S. officially withdrew from on Nov. 4, and restoring funding to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
If the U.S. is to extend the New START nuclear weapons treaty, the arms control deal with Russia due to expire in February, the incoming Biden administration would likely have to work with the outgoing administration on an extension. Biden has also signaled a willingness to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal jettisoned by Trump, if and when the Iranians return to the limits on nuclear infrastructure imposed by the agreement.
Second, in contrast to the large increases in military spending under Trump, President-elect Biden may make modest cuts in the U.S. military budget. Although he has said that cuts are not “inevitable” under his presidency, Biden has hinted at a smaller military presence overseas and is likely to change some priorities at the Pentagon by, for instance, emphasizing high-tech weapons. If the Senate – which must ratify any treaties – flips to Democrats’ control, the Biden administration may take more ambitious steps in nuclear arms control by pursuing deeper cuts with Russia and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Third, the Biden administration will likely continue some Bush, Obama and Trump foreign policy priorities. Specifically, while a Biden administration will seek to end the war in Afghanistan, the administration will keep a focus on defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaida. Biden has said that he would reduce the current 5,200 U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 1,500-2,000 troops operating in the region in a counterterrorism role. The Biden administration is likely to continue the massive nuclear weapons modernization and air and naval equipment modernization programs begun under the Obama administration and accelerated and expanded under Trump, if only because they are popular with members of Congress who see the jobs they provide in their states.
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And like the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, the Biden administration will prioritize the economic and military threats it believes are posed by China. But, consistent with its emphasis on diplomacy, the Biden administration will likely also work more to constrain China through diplomatic engagement and by working with U.S. allies in the region.
Brian J Purnell, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History, Bowdoin College; Morgan Marietta, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Neta C. Crawford, Professor of Political Science and Department Chair, Boston University
China’s foreign ministry said on Saturday the United States needed to stop the “unreasonable suppression” of Chinese companies like Huawei.
The Trump administration on Friday moved to block global chip supplies to blacklisted telecoms equipment giant Huawei Technologies, spurring fears of Chinese retaliation and hammering shares of US producers of chipmaking equipment.
China will firmly defend its companies’ legal rights, the foreign ministry said in a statement in response to Reuters’ questions on whether Beijing would take retaliatory measures against the United States.
China's Global Times newspaper on Saturday quoted a source close to the Chinese government as saying that Beijing was ready to take a series of countermeasures against the US, such as putting US companies on an "unreliable entity list" and imposing restrictions on US companies such as Apple Inc, Cisco Systems Inc and Qualcomm Inc.
The newspaper, published by the People's Daily, the official newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party, said the source also mentioned halting the purchase of Boeing Co aeroplanes.
"China will take forceful countermeasures to protect its own legitimate rights" if the US moves forward with the plan to change rules and bar essential suppliers of chips, including Taiwan-based TSMC, from selling chips to Huawei, the Global Times quoted the source as saying.
Tensions between the world's two largest economies have spiked in recent weeks, with officials on both sides suggesting a hard-won deal that defused a bitter 18-month trade war could be abandoned months after it was signed in January.
In addition to the move on Huawei, the US Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which oversees billions in federal retirement dollars, this week also said it would indefinitely delay plans to invest in some Chinese companies that are under scrutiny in Washington.
President Donald Trump said on Friday there was "a very good chance" the United States would strike a deal with China to end their trade war and that he was inclined to extend his March 1 tariff deadline and meet soon with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
U.S. and Chinese negotiators had made progress and will extend this week's round of negotiations by two days through Sunday, Trump told reporters at the White House as he met with his top negotiators and their counterpart, Chinese Vice Premier Liu He.
"I think that we both feel there's a very good chance a deal will happen," Trump said.
Liu agreed there had been "great progress".
"From China, we believe that (it) is very likely that it will happen and we hope that ultimately we'll have a deal. And the Chinese side is ready to make our utmost effort," he said at the White House.
The Republican president said he probably would meet with Xi in March in Florida to decide on the most important terms of a trade deal.
Extending the deadline would put on hold Trump's threatened tariff increase to 25 percent from 10 percent on $200 billion (153 billion pounds) of Chinese imports into the United States. That would prevent a further escalation in a trade war that already has disrupted commerce in goods worth hundreds of billions of dollars, slowed global economic growth and roiled markets.
Optimism that the two sides will find a way to end the trade war lifted stocks, especially technology shares. The S&P 500 stock index reached its highest closing level since Nov. 8. Oil prices rose to their highest since mid-November, with Brent crude reaching a high of $67.73 a barrel.
Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the two sides had reached an agreement on currency. Trump declined to provide details, but U.S. officials long have expressed concerns that China's yuan is undervalued, giving China a trade advantage and partly offsetting U.S. tariffs.
Announcement of a pact aimed at limiting yuan depreciation was putting "the currency cart before the trade horse," but would likely be positive for Asian emerging market currencies, said Alan Ruskin, global head of currency strategy at Deutsche Bank in New York.
"How can you agree to avoid excessive Chinese yuan depreciation or volatility if you have not made an agreement on trade that could have huge FX implications?" Ruskin asked in a note to clients.
In a letter to Trump read aloud by an aide to Liu at the White House, Xi called on negotiators to work hard to strike a deal that benefits both country.
Trump said a deal with China may extend beyond trade to encompass Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp.
The Justice Department has accused Huawei of conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions on Iran and of stealing robotic technology from T-Mobile US Inc.
Chinese peer ZTE was last year prevented from buying essential components from U.S. firms after pleading guilty to similar charges, crippling its operations.
MEMORANDUMS NO MORE
Trump appeared at odds with his top negotiator, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, on the preliminary terms that his team is outlining in memorandums of understanding for a deal with China. Trump said he did not like MOUs because they are short term, and he wanted a long-term deal.
"I don't like MOUs because they don't mean anything," Trump said. "Either you are going to make a deal or you're not."
Lighthizer responded testily that MOUs were binding, but that he would never use the term again.
Reuters reported exclusively on Wednesday that the two sides were drafting the language for six MOUs covering the most difficult issues in the trade talks that would require structural economic change in China.
Negotiators have struggled this week to agree on specific language within those memorandums to address tough U.S. demands, according to sources familiar with the talks. The six memorandums include cyber theft, intellectual property rights, services, agriculture and non-tariff barriers to trade, including subsidies.
An industry source briefed on the talks said both sides have narrowed differences on intellectual property rights, market access and narrowing a nearly $400 billion U.S. trade deficit with China. But bigger differences remain on changes to China's treatment of state-owned enterprises, subsidies, forced technology transfers and cyber theft of U.S. trade secrets.
Lighthizer pushed back when questioned on forced technology transfers, saying the two sides made "a lot of progress" on the issue, but did not elaborate.
The United States has said foreign firms in China are often coerced to transfer their technology to Chinese firms if they want to operate there. China denies this.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Friday urged the U.S. government to ensure the deal was comprehensive and addressed core issues, rather than one based on more Chinese short-term purchases of goods.
China has pledged to increase purchases of agricultural produce, energy, semiconductors and industrial goods to reduce its trade surplus with the United States.
China committed to buying an additional 10 million tonnes of U.S. soybeans on Friday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on Twitter. China bought about 32 million tonnes of U.S. soybeans in 2017. The commitments are a "show of good faith by the Chinese" and "indications of more good news to come," Perdue wrote.
China was the top buyer of U.S. soybeans before the trade war, but Beijing's retaliatory tariffs on U.S. soybeans slashed business that had been worth $12 billion annually.