Biden turns the page on a presidency of rancour

The trickling of power from the mightiest person on Earth seems unlikely to abate. Donald Trump will fight to stay in the White House, on spurious grounds, but much of the world is moving on from the US election. Foreign leaders are congratulating the man they refer to as “president-elect” Joe Biden. Most Americans themselves are resuming their lives: neither the street parties nor the pro-Trump rallies are typical.

Republicans can hasten the process, and salvage some honour, by urging Mr Trump to accept defeat. And not just in private. So far, most of the pressure to that end has been coded and covert.

If high principle is not enough to motivate Republicans, the party should heed at least its self-interest. It would be foolish to go into the run-off races that might settle the Senate with a reputation for bucking the voters. By ceding the high ground to Mr Biden, Republicans also risk prolonging what is likely to be the briefest honeymoon of any recent president. The sooner he is universally seen as the new power in the land, the sooner he can be held to account. Challenging the result also obscures the fact that it was better for Republicans than many had expected.

It will be difficult for Mr Biden to transform the US in a tangible sense. But an improvement in tone and ethical conduct is almost as precious as any legislation. Mr Trump deepened and widened America’s partisan rift, though he did not invent it. His successor can start to narrow it again with his conciliatory manner of leadership. Democracy requires the consent of the loser and the magnanimity of the winner. If the first is missing, the second is presently on show from a laudably restrained Mr Biden. He must keep it up even if his party clamours for a more strident government in word and deed.

Just as Americans have some promise of normality at last, so too does the outside world. Mr Trump has disrupted an international order that is imperfect but superior to the known alternatives. Familiar allies and multilateral bodies were scorned: unsavoury leaders were succoured. With few Congressional limits on his foreign actions, Mr Biden can undo this element of Trumpism in short order. Again, gestures and rhetoric matter. At least for four years, democracies would have a friend in the White House again.

You would not know from the jubilantly beeping horns in Washington but, upon its announcement 18 months ago, Mr Biden’s presidential candidacy drew groans from Democrats. The likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren wowed the left far more, while even moderates had hoped for a fresher face. In retrospect, though, he was the most fitting choice for the times. Across half a century in public life, Mr Biden has been two things: bipartisan (to a fault, say Democrats to his left) and committed to the post-1945 international system. Both of these causes are in dire need of shoring-up. Neither an ideological firebrand nor a neophyte in foreign affairs would have been ideal for the role.

That he was elected with an ethnic-minority woman is also striking in the year of the George Floyd killing. Kamala Harris will be of more than symbolic value — 78 this month, Mr Biden will have to delegate to her and others — but the symbolism should not be minimised. Redressing America’s inequities, without entering the terrain of the “defund the police” left, is still another gauntlet awaiting the new administration. The troubles dogging the US do not stop with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic shock that it has inflicted. For the first time in a while, though, they are up against a sincere and well-intentioned president.

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