NEWS
07/11/2020 16:31 GMT | Updated 07/11/2020 16:38 GMT

US Election: Here's What Happens Now Joe Biden Has Won

These are the priorities for the 46th US president – and the hurdles he'll have to overcome.

Following a fraught, drawn-out voting process, Joe Biden is projected to be the 46th president of the United States.

After four years of Republican rule under Donald Trump, Democrats are celebrating – with many hailing a return to political “normality” following a presidential term of chaos. 

But Trump has suggested for months that this would be no ordinary transfer of power, and even attempted to falsely declare his own victory on election night.

When that didn’t go to plan, thousands of his dedicated supporters demanded that polling stations stop counting votes and spread baseless conspiracy theories about electoral fraud – paving the way for legal battles over the results. 

But now Biden looks to have won, here’s what we know about what happens next.

Could Trump still sue his way to the White House? 

Pool via Getty Images
Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

In short, it looks unlikely. To successfully sue, there needs to be proof of a wrongdoing.

While Trump (and his supporters) are trying their hardest to allege that legitimate harm has been done to their campaign by issues with the voting system, there’s not actually any proof that this is currently the case. 

Christopher Anderson, professor of politics and policy at the London School of Economics, told HuffPost UK: “The thing to remember here is that this is really 50 separate state-wide elections, and they happen to 50 different sets of legal rules which are set by 50 different state legislatures. 

“He [Trump] would have to show that those rules are being violated in a very specific way that cause his campaign harm, and that’s a really high hurdle. There’s very, very little historical evidence of fraudulent activity in US elections. 

“He’d have to go to state courts to redress that grievance, but the chances of that are really, really low. I don’t know what his claims would be – I know he’s started to make claims but I don’t know if they’d be successful as previously people have sued for similar things and have been denied.” 

Trump can request recounts if he thinks that something is wrong with the way in which votes were tallied. Each state has a different threshold for doing this, but the campaign has to bear the cost for each recount. 

When it comes to petitioning the Supreme Court, as Trump has previously indicated he could do, Anderson said it wasn’t clear that there were any fundamental constitutional issues with the electoral process that could allow him to do so.

As state law presides over each state’s election, they would take the final decision on any legal battle brought by Trump’s team. The Supreme Court only deals with federal law, but there’s no evidence that any federal laws have been broken during the election, meaning a legitimate petition to the Supreme Court is extremely unlikely. 

When does Biden become president? 

PAUL J. RICHARDS via Getty Images
Joe Biden and Barack Obama at Donald Trump's inauguration in January 2017. 

Unlike in the UK, where a new parliament (and prime minister) settle in almost immediately, the US waits months before its newly-elected president takes office. 

The inauguration date is set for Wednesday, January 20, and whatever happens, Anderson says, this won’t change. 

“Inauguration can’t be delayed, it will happen. Someone will become president on January 20,” Anderson said. 

After votes have been counted, the secretary of state for each state certifies the election result. This can be disputed by a campaign who may, for example, ask for a recount, but these are usually carried out pretty quickly and in December the electoral college meet to technically vote on the new president. 

Anderson explained that there could be a scenario where a Republican secretary of state refuses to certify an election result, which would mean the electoral college members from that state could not attend the December meeting – but that has never happened before. 

“If you really want to get into shenanigans then there could be these sorts of avenues, but I just don’t think these really apply right now,” Anderson said. 

He added: “Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, they’re all Democratic secretaries of state so I just don’t see that happening.

“What else could he do? Well he could start a war, that might shake things up a bit. He can try to put people into high positions that might be more difficult to dislodge. 

“There isn’t a whole lot he can do. He doesn’t have a whole lot of power, as it turns out.” 

What could Trump do between now and January?

SAUL LOEB via Getty Images
Trump could reallocate limited funds to build part of his long-promised wall along the Mexican border. But Biden could undo it. 

With the prospect of a months-long gap between the election result and inauguration, it’s easy to see why people could fear Trump’s last few months as president. 

Famously averse to being seen as a “loser”, concerns have cropped up that Trump could put in place destructive policies that would have serious ramifications for years to come. 

In reality, however, Trump has little power to achieve anything at all during his last months in power. With the House of Representatives (the lower chamber of the national government) held by the Democrats, it’s extremely unlikely that any of his more drastic policies could actually be voted through.

He could impose a number of executive orders but, as Anderson explains, the scope of these tends to be limited, extremely technical in nature and, crucially,  tied to legislation that has already been passed. 

For example, Trump could reallocate limited funds from the defence budget and instruct military engineers to build part of his long-promised wall along the Mexican border. This could, however, be immediately undone by Biden as soon as he takes office in January – long before any money could actually be spent on the wall. 

Anderson said: “There’s really very little damage he could do now, and any orders he does make could be undone as soon as the new president comes into office.”

He could refuse to concede, Anderson said, “in a symbolic but also politically meaningful way” by not recognising the result of the election.

That won’t stop him from being legally ejected from office on January 20, but he could signal to his energised supporters that he has not accepted the result of the election. 

“It’s real tinpot dictator stuff, but he might be tempted to do that,” Anderson said. “In part because it’s his brand, but it also depends on what his post-office ambitions are. It might make a really big statement for him to say he’ll vacate the premises but he doesn’t recognise the result of the election and it’s unlawful. 

“There’s a small but hardcore portion of supporters who would applaud him for that.” 

What are Biden’s priorities? 

Coronavirus

Set out as “Joe’s vision” on his official campaign website, Biden has an extensive list of campaigning issues he hopes to tackle as president. 

They encompass a wide range of topics, with plans to “restore American leadership abroad”, “tackle the climate emergency”, “support our veterans” and “improve racial economic equity” all appearing on the site. 

But, as could probably be expected at this time in world events, Covid-19 dominates his three top priorities. 

The first is to beat the virus itself by “listening to the science” and restore trust in the government’s leadership (words that will sound familiar in the UK).

What that means practically is implementing a seven-point plan to tackle the virus, which has already killed more than 230,000 people in the US. The steps include fixing the country’s test and trace system (again, familiar), fixing PPE issues, creating clear and evidence-based guidelines for the country to follow, planning for the distribution of treatments and vaccines, protecting vulnerable citizens, rebuilding systems to cope with pandemic threats and implementing mask mandates. 

Economy

Biden’s second stated priority is rebuilding the economy “for working families” – not just undoing the damage of Covid-19 but withdrawing economic policies put in place by the Trump administration, which Biden’s team say “rewarded wealth over work and corporations over working families”. 

Obamacare

Thirdly, Biden wants to return to what Obama started with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – often referred to as Obamacare – giving Americans greater access to healthcare and simplifying the nation’s notoriously complex and costly existing system.

This doesn’t mean the US switching to an NHS model overnight. But Biden says he wants every citizen to have access to affordable health insurance, including public options like Medicare, and increasing tax credits. 

Can he actually achieve them with a Republican Senate? 

The Washington Post via Getty Images
Joe Biden addresses supporters. 

A Democrat president is by no means a guarantee that progressive policies will suddenly start being pushed through the US political system. 

While Biden won the presidential victory, it is likely that the senate – the upper chamber of Congress – will remain Republican.

Any new legislation has to pass through the House of Representatives (currently a Democrat majority), and then the Senate before it becomes law, making radical changes to the status quo almost entirely out of reach. 

With Covid-19 wreaking havoc across the US, Anderson explained that Biden’s first moves would be to address the virus and introduce policies that could help bring it under control. In these exceptional circumstances, it’s likely that senators would widely approve Covid-specific policies in order to tackle the virus head-on. 

Beyond coronavirus, however, the picture looks less hopeful, with major changes to the healthcare system or environmental policy unlikely. 

Anderson said: “It’s tough – these critical issues is where I think we’re going to get really stuck. The only way you’re going to get green legislation through a Republican senate is really serious incentives for businesses such as tax breaks for innovative companies, and so on.”

But Biden does have experience on his side. He was the sixth-youngest senator ever to be elected at the age of 30 in 1973, and he remained in office for well over three decades until 2009, when he became Obama’s vice-president. 

Because of his long career, Anderson explained, Biden has an in-depth knowledge of how the Senate operates politically, and has established relationships with senators on both sides.

While it’s extremely unlikely he’ll be able to push any truly radical policies through the Senate or, for that matter, approve anyone particularly radical to his cabinet, he may be able to sway some senators in his direction on more centrist policies or appointments. 

He also has the power to undo Trump’s executive orders – reentering the Paris Agreement, for example – and rejoin global organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Whatever he does, however, it’s not going to dramatically overhaul the deep-set issues entrenched in society.

Anderson said: “It’s a strange moment in American history. On the surface it will go back to a kind of normalcy in American politics, but beneath that none of this will resolve the deep tensions and fissures in American society. 

“There are two visions of America coexisting side-by-side, and nothing about a Biden presidency right now promises to change that because they exist as a result of much deeper underlying structural issues.”