Joe Biden is loved for his decency, for his moral compass. Here is a man who used the Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s words during his campaign as balm for a bruised country: “Once in a lifetime, the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme”. Mr Biden is a man who suffered – like many Americans in this Covid period – excruciating personal losses. He grieved, but he did not break.
Many people love that Mr Biden is a veteran politician who knows the White House and Congress. He can make bipartisan deals; he can concede – but also smooth rather than inflame. He’s a deal-maker. He will need this skill. If the Republicans keep the Senate, Mitch McConnell, the Majority leader, can and will make his life hell.
Mr Biden is a pragmatic centrist. He’s not unlike Lyndon B Johnson, the 36th US President, renowned for twisting arms with a wide smile when he wanted to get something done. He’s likable: an average guy, who one childhood friend recalled could strike up a conversation with everyone and anyone.
For the first time in four years, many Americans have hope. There are ambitious plans already being discussed in Mr Biden’s teams and a diverse Cabinet being drawn up. There’s talk of ending the Muslim travel ban imposed by Donald Trump. There’ s talk of restarting the Paris Climate Agreement.
That’s part of the euphoria we are all feeling with the win. But the flip side is this: what Mr Biden will inherit is terrifying. The total of coronavirus cases in the US surpassed 10 million on Sunday. Experts say the virus is spreading out of control and could grow worse before the President elect takes office. The magnitude of Mr Biden’s task is vast.
Then there is the damage that can be done even before he enters the White House.
To start, Mr Trump remains in control of the pandemic – which he doesn’t even believe in – for the next 72 days. He is at war with his coronavirus advisors, including Dr Anthony S Fauci. Ahead are the Thanksgiving holidays, when traditionally Americans gather their tribes, the Christmas holidays and ending of college semesters. All mean close proximity of families gatherings indoors, and a potential surge of the virus.
Dr Ashish K Jha from Brown University told National Public Radio that all Mr Biden can do during this potentially catastrophic period is wield “moral and social power”. Dr Jha predicted that by the time Mr Trump leaves office, 100,000 more people could be dead.
If he wants to, Mr Trump could use his Executive Orders to roll back regulations. He could pardon his cronies: Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn.
There is the risk of civil unrest could occur if the militias, the White Supremacists, the armed factions are so inclined. There are 71 million people who voted for Mr Trump and are disappointed by the Biden win. Mr Trump could invoke their support.
There are historical examples of past fiascos; but none seems as potentially dangerous as this one. In 1801, John Adams, the second President of the US and another sore loser, refused to hand over office to his rival, Thomas Jefferson.
Adams refused to attend the event to see Jefferson sworn in. Adams appointed dozens of last-minute judges, including a Chief Justice, before Jefferson arrived. Remember Amy Coney Barrett?
Adams refused to leave until his former White House staff literally moved the office from around him – taking his belongings away and cutting their communication with Adams.
In November, 1932, at the height of The Great Depression when millions of Americans were out of work and struggling to feed their families, Herbert Hoover lost to a Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The banking system was on the verge of complete collapse. Hoover, a Republican, opposed federal assistance and refused to intervene even as the Federal Reserve begged him to declare a bank holiday. Hoover kept repeating that the economy would recover at any moment. “The Depression is over!” he said, blaming the economic crisis on FDR: a bit like Trump’s belief that the virus is “turning a corner.”
But these are all worse-case scenarios; my conjecture. One hopes there will be a peaceful transition, that Mr Trump will come to his senses. If he follows protocol, shakes Mr Biden’s hand, declares his loss, we have a chance.
If all goes well, what should happen, from now until January 20, is the standard transition: the Secret Service divides its attention between the incumbent and the incoming President, and the CIA begins briefing both. White House staff prepare to re-do the house, and by mid-day on January 20, Mr Trump’s belongings should be gone. Dr Jill Biden replaces Melania Trump. The power organs – the Pentagon, the CIA, FBI and the Attorney General – cut communication with Mr Trump. Finally, Air Force One and the Beast automobile will salute Mr Trump for the last time.
But Mr Trump’s reign in the White House was never marked by tradition. And while the euphoria of Mr Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s rousing speeches from a Wilmington Delaware drive-in cinema calmed an anxious nation, there is still an angry man looming in the background.
And for the next 72 days, that man, Donald J Trump, is still the Commander in Chief.
Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and a columnist for The National