Donald Trump’s attempt to subvert the US election becomes ever more malign and dangerous. Even if it fails, the president, echoed by his sons and other loyalists, has inflamed people without cause and sullied the grandest office on Earth. Joe Biden now seems on course to win it from him, to the relief of a slight majority of Americans and many of the country’s allies.
After a close election, and four draining years, their satisfaction would be excusable. It must also be tempered. Mr Biden still has his heaviest tests ahead of him.
The most immediate is that Mr Trump remains president for two and a half months at least. He is liable to scorch the earth as he makes his retreat from Washington. Legal challenges may not succeed but could delay clarity and spur unrest. Some tawdry pardons are likely. A firing spree of government officials would weaken the “deep state” on which new administrations at first depend. A rash move in foreign policy could trigger an international crisis.
Even if the outgoing president is sweetly co-operative, the new one will find a nation more beleaguered than it has been since 1945. The coronavirus pandemic is still killing Americans. The economy that it has wounded needs more fiscal relief. Even if a vaccine emerges, the logistical burden of scaling and distributing it will fall in large part on the federal government.
If Mr Biden had a crushing win to his name, and Congress on his side, this would still be a daunting workload. Instead, his mandate will come down to small margins in a few states. The balance of the Senate is still unclear — a Georgia race in January might settle it — but the Democrats can expect either marginal control or none. Even their majority in the House of Representatives is diminished. Immersed in Washington for half a century, Mr Biden will need all the political finesse that his experience implies. It helps that he has bipartisan pedigree: he would rather unite the nation than his party. But even a leader as gifted as his old boss Barack Obama could only do so much in Washington. Inter-party mistrust is decades-entrenched.
It is in the foreign realm that a President Biden would have a freer hand. Under his leadership, the US would probably rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement. The Iran nuclear pact that he helped to shape as Barack Obama’s vice-president could find a second life. He must also distance the US from autocrats and hold old friends, such as the EU and its constituent democracies, much closer.
Even here, though, in his natural habitat of diplomacy, Mr Biden faces a test for the ages. It is clear enough that US-China relations are not going back to the comity of the 1990s, when trade was king. But then nor can the two mightiest countries maintain their current animus, at least not without great cost to both and to the rest of the world. Mr Biden must craft a policy that is vigilant in defence of US interests while avoiding a so-called “second cold war”. It will entail less brute confrontation with China and more alliance-building among nations that feel unnerved by its growing power. Whenever he tries, he will be accused of selling out to Beijing by a Republican party that has been radicalised on the issue by Mr Trump.
There was no landslide, but Mr Biden’s victory, if confirmed, is historic, bucking global trends against political insiders and centre-ground ideas. He will have inflicted a significant setback to modern populism. It is what faces him ahead that will make his achievement so far seem like the easy part.