The rollercoaster that is the 2020 US elections continues to twist and turn. Even before the “October surprise” of President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis, the polls were not looking good for him. Now Trump is sidelined from campaigning in-person, behind in the race for the US presidency while the clock ticks away. That doesn’t mean a Trump loss is a foregone conclusion… but it does mean the time has come to assess how a potential Joe Biden government would differ on policy from a second Trump administration. The answer will surprise you.
Start with foreign affairs, where Trump has prompted countless frenzied headlines in recent years. Pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Walking away from the Iran nuclear deal. Abandoning the World Health Organization during a global pandemic. Sowing doubts about US commitments to NATO. An attempted rapprochement with North Korea. Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Starting a tech cold war with China. And too many trade threats to count, aimed at allies and foes alike.
But for all the short-term upheaval these moves created, Trump has failed to fundamentally change the world’s geopolitical trajectory these last four years (not yet, anyway). The US has abandoned Paris, WHO and the Iran nuclear deal in theory, but nothing that can’t be undone by a President Biden once in office. For all the verbal sniping, the US has remained part of NATO. North Korea poses the same threat as it did before Trump took office, in spite of recent summitry. And when it comes to China, both parties were fretting plenty about China’s geopolitical rise even before Trump took office. Furthermore, the foreign policy goals Trump most genuinely wanted to achieve – pulling US troops out of war zones and establishing warmer US ties with Russia – were met with such fierce internal opposition in the US that not much progress has been made towards either.
Which means that, in effect, a Biden presidency won’t be all that different on foreign policy than what came before. On the surface, Biden would rejoin Paris, WHO and the Iran nuclear deal, even if some more negotiations will be required; NATO allies (to say nothing of traditional US partners) will also be reassured by the return of a US president that doesn’t go out of their way to destabilize historical alliances. But on the more substantive developments, the Biden team will quietly accept the contours of the new Middle East that was formed under Trump (indeed, the normalization of relations between the UAE-Bahrain-Israel is one of the world’s most underappreciated stories at the moment). The US under Biden will continue its hard line against China as well given the bipartisan momentum for it. But even here, the change in rhetoric (if not necessarily policy) under a possible President Biden will prove critical – engaging constructively with other countries, whether friend or foe, limits the possibility of disputes spinning out of control.
US domestic policy will change more substantially with a Biden win, and much of that has to do with the immediate threat posed by Covid-19. Compared to the Trump team, a Biden administration is poised to work with the US scientific community to contain the pandemic rather than actively work against them. Depending on whether the Democrats are also able to capture a Senate majority, much more government stimulus under Biden is likely as well. Four years of a Trump presidency has also resulted in a Democratic base that has drifted much further to the left, taking the traditionally centrist Biden with them – if Democrats gain control of the Senate, expect to also see much higher taxes on corporates and the top 1% as the Trump tax cuts get rolled back, a move made even easier by pandemic bailouts that make federal oversight and intervention much less controversial. Even if the Democrats don’t capture the Senate, a President Biden would introduce substantial changes through regulatory policy, particularly on the climate and environment front.
Of course, amending regulatory policy doesn’t exactly scream “transformational change,” which may disappoint those expecting a brand-new world should Biden emerge victorious from elections on November 3. But a Biden presidency will serve as a reminder that even for a superpower like the United States, real political change still starts at home.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.” His Twitter handle is @ianbremmer and he is on Facebook as Ian Bremmer.