Joe Biden did not win by as much as I expected. But he has won, and when the votes are counted, he will probably have won by six or seven million votes nationally. He may finish with over 300 Electoral College votes. This was too close for comfort — especially since it looks likely that the Democratic disadvantage in the Electoral College has grown even wider — but a win is a win, and the country really needed this win.
Of course, it feels like Biden really ought to have won, and it shouldn’t have been so close. Donald Trump was never popular. He didn’t win the popular vote in 2016. He didn’t do traditional outreach, pursuing popular initiatives that could win over swing voters and divide the opposition party; instead, he pursued an unpopular agenda, including tax cuts for the rich and a failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He was, personally, a huge prick. He made no particular effort to develop an image as honest, upstanding, or caring. He engaged in personal behavior — and Twitter behavior — that repelled even a significant chunk of his supporters. And when an enormous public health crisis faced the country, he failed to show the barest level of empathy or focus that could have earned him public goodwill — let alone did he manage the crisis with competence.
On the other hand, only four elected incumbent presidents have been defeated for re-election in the last 120 years. Unemployment was below 4 percent through 2018 and 2019, and in 2020, surveys showed that the public continued to give the president credit for his handling of the economy, ascribing the economic pain from the coronavirus to external factors. In September, a Gallup poll found 56 percent of respondents said they were better off than they were four years earlier. Defeating an incumbent president in that environment is a remarkable achievement. And the fact that Democratic candidates for Congress mostly ran behind Joe Biden is further evidence that he outperformed the fundamentals, even as he underperformed the polls.
So when I look at this result, my first thought is, thank god we nominated Joe Biden.
Biden was able to make the election as much as it could be into a referendum on the president’s leadership and character, winning key crossover votes from voters who approved of the president’s handling of the economy but disliked him for other reasons. Turnout was very high, making me very skeptical that a more ideological candidate could have turned out even more liberal voters. So if we had nominated Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders — both of whom wanted an election that was squarely about visions of the economy, the president’s political strong suit — I believe we would have lost. Maybe Amy Klobuchar would have made even greater gains with white voters than Biden did, but I worry she would have done worse at turning out Black voters, and been even more vulnerable than Biden was to Trump’s apparent gains with Black and Latino men. If Biden had won in a blowout, we might have said that any candidate would have won. The unexpected closeness of the election only reinforces for me how we needed the electoral advantages that Biden brought to this race.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve been a big Biden fan all along, including through the primaries. Partly, that was because I believed all along that he could build a bigger, broader coalition than any of the other candidates available, with the highest chance of beating Trump.
But also, I like Biden. I find him to be a warm and empathetic person, which I think is something the country needs right now. I think the fact that he does not send Republicans into a spitting rage is not just a political advantage but something that should make our politics healthier over the next four years. The indications I see are that he will hire a high-quality team that will help him make good policy choices and administer the federal government well through the crises that loom, including the still-very-much-ongoing pandemic. And while I understand the days of Lyndon Johnson are past, I still believe Biden’s facility in negotiating across the aisle — he was the one Obama would send up to Capitol Hill make deals — will be an important asset in the very likely event that he will need to work with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to govern. (Indeed, as I wrote in the magazine last month, Jerome Powell’s success at building bipartisan support for his policies at the Fed through intensive cultivation of personal relationships augurs well for the Biden model of legislating.)
But beyond what the government actually does, I also think it will be healthy for the country that we, for the first time in decades, will have a president that a lot of people don’t feel very strongly about. The high emotional valence around presidents of both parties — and the subsuming of so much of business and culture into political controversies driven by attitudes toward those presidents, especially Trump — has sucked the joy out of a lot of things, made it harder for Americans of different political persuasions to get along, and made people angrier and nastier to no apparent social benefit. I think it will be helpful for more people to be able to see the president as a manager, not as an avatar for a social movement. Without so much emotional investment in a president, people might even realize that more of the keys to their happiness are held within themselves, not by their leaders or their political opponents.
Like a lot of you, the main thing I’m feeling this weekend is relief. I have thought about Donald Trump every day for nearly six years, and I resent his relentless imposition into my consciousness. I am sick of hearing from him, and I am sick of having to care about what he thinks and says and does. I think one reason he won a small but essential chunk of crossover votes from those who voted Republican on the down-ballot is that a lot of people across the political spectrum share that exhaustion. Soon, whether Trump admits that he has lost or not, he won’t be president anymore, and we will all be more or less able to ignore him. You may even be able to ignore the new president, if you wish. Giving so many Americans so much of their mental space back, to be able to focus more on other things again, is an underrated social benefit of this result. For that, I am grateful.