When Joe Biden takes the oath of office on January 20, 2021, becoming the 46th president of the United States, he will do so having won more votes than anyone who has ever run for the nation's highest office. He will also end up beating his opponent by a solid margin in the Electoral College and by several million votes in the electorate at large. (Biden already leads by over four million votes with several million more remaining to be counted.) And of course Biden will also have defeated and dispatched the uniquely polarizing and poisonous figure of Donald Trump, depriving him of a second term.
All are enormous achievements. And having accomplished them, the incoming president has every right to feel immense satisfaction — not least because he may well have been the only Democrat capable of pulling it off.
The reality is that many more Americans wanted to get rid of Trump than favored re-electing him — but the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party is also intensely unpopular, in its own way as polarizing and poisonous as Trump himself. This means that to beat Trump, the Democratic candidate needed to mobilize progressives while not scaring off more centrist members of the party (many of whom live in the electorally crucial rustbelt states of the Midwest), as well as attract a good number of independents and disaffected suburban Republicans.
That was an extremely tall order, the equivalent of dancing on a political tightrope. But Biden managed it. Trump, the perfect foil for a Democrat, certainly helped — as did the pandemic, which simultaneously highlighted the president's distinctive incapacity to handle a genuine crisis and wrecked the economy, depriving the incumbent of his strongest case for re-election. All of that boosted Biden, with the personal aversion to Trump among so many Americans serving as rocket fuel, driving turnout way up for the Democrats.
But that wasn't the whole story of the election. The death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer set off waves of protest that frequently gave way to looting and rioting that ebbed and flowed for weeks and then months through the late spring and summer, with occasional flare-ups returning in the fall. And in response, the progressive left did what it does, with some activists cheering on or justifying the violence and mayhem, others making loopy policy proposals, and still others insisting that Democrats should make fairly radical institutional changes to disempower Republicans at the first available opportunity.
This created an awkward but very predictable problem for the Biden campaign. For the most part, the candidate and his staff handled it deftly, keeping distance between the former vice president and the left's most extreme actions and ideas while continuing to call for justice and express solidarity with peaceful demonstrations against police brutality.
All told, it worked. Biden walked the tightrope. He won. But the outbursts emanating from progressives did wonders for Get Out the Vote efforts among conservatives and right-leaning independents, driving turnout on the Republican side higher, too. Not as high as among Democrats. But high enough to counter the rising blue wave with a sizable red one.
The real effect of that counter-wave was felt down ballot, where Trump's fate wasn't at stake. Democrats failed to take control of the Senate, almost certainly dooming the party's hopes of enacting a progressive agenda. In the House, its majority actually shrank, thwarting ambitions for an expansion of the Democratic ranks. And in statehouses, things worked out even worse.
All of which points to Biden's achievement. Where Democrats crashed into a Republican wall at every other level of government, in the presidential race he unambiguously prevailed.
That wasn't all about wanting to get rid of Trump. It was also about Biden being just the right kind of Democrat to neutralize the party's bad press and image across wide swaths of the country. The combination of his age, experience, decency, ideological moderation, proximity to a still-popular former president, ties to the Black community, and backward-looking message of civic healing turned him into something approaching that imaginary construct of opinion pollsters: the “generic Democrat” who has all of the positive attributes of a member of the party along with none of the negatives.
No other Democrat on offing could have played that role. The Republican barrage would have reduced the progressives (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren) to rubble, while the more moderate alternatives to Biden suffered either from a fatal lack of experience (Pete Buttigieg) or an equally debilitating absence of charisma (Amy Klobuchar).
When all the presidential votes are finally counted and the precise extent of Biden's victory is fully known, his achievement is likely to look pretty impressive. It may also end up being the Democratic Party's electoral high-water mark for some time to come. Without a generic Democrat and Donald Trump's unique awfulness to bring the party together, cover over its conflicts, and conceal its most unappealing proposals, matching the results of November 2020 could prove to be quite a challenge.
So if you're pleased with Trump's defeat, take a moment to appreciate the utterly essential contribution of the man who made it happen: President-elect Joe Biden.