Many observers, especially those outside the United States, are laboring under the misconception that the upcoming presidential election is hotly contested. The only thing “hot” about this election is the rhetoric preceding it that has been peppered by unprecedentedly intemperate remarks. Given the polling figures and the issues that are likely to decide the election the result is almost certain.
Almost all the recent polls show that the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has a double digit lead over President Trump and that the gap is widening. Moreover, Biden is leading in most of the battle ground states including several that Trump won in 2016. The causes for President Trump’s lackluster performance are not difficult to decipher. A major reason is the administration’s gross mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. In popular perception the President is held responsible for this shortfall because of his continuous denial about the serious threat posed by Covid-19 until it was too late. That he engaged in this denial despite the advice of a galaxy of medical professionals of the highest quality has led many to blame him directly for the death of over 200,000 Americans.
To make matters worse, the President’s cavalier attitude towards wearing masks, which he often derided, and social distancing made him appear both callous and reckless. His insistence on holding public events where people were largely without masks and sat or stood cheek by jowl added to his image of recklessness and bravado. His often-derisory comments that Biden’s insistence on wearing a mask was a sign of cowardice turned the mask into a political symbol with Trump’s supporters discarding masks to show their commitment to the President and his party. This, observers believe, contributed to the spread of the corona virus.
In an unprecedented political statement the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine lambasted the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and called on Americans to vote President Donald Trump out of office next month. It stated categorically “We should not abet [the current administration] and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.”
President Trump’s insensitive remarks about racial discrimination, has alienated a substantial portion of the electorate, including those Republicans who are economically conservative but socially progressive. His less than sympathetic reactions to police killings of African-Americans, as exemplified by the George Floyd case, and his refusal to condemn white supremacist groups – have left the impression that he is indifferent to the plight of ethnic and racial minorities. In contrast, Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate sends the clear message that he is not only aware of the importance of African-American and Asian votes but is genuinely committed to promoting racial and gender equality in the United States.
Furthermore, the economic policies of the Trump administration, especially the tax cuts on high-income groups, have shown a distinct bias in favor of the rich and the powerful. The skewed nature of the American economy has been clearly on display during the months of the pandemic when the stock market has been flourishing while the US suffers from its biggest economic contraction ever recorded and the highest unemployment rate in more than 80 years.
Earlier bipartisan attempts at providing impetus to the economy and relief to the unemployed had softened the pandemic’s blow somewhat. But, these efforts have stalled as the country has come close to elections and the next stimulus and relief package has become a part of election politicking. The Republicans, and especially the President, are widely seen as hindering the Democratic controlled House of Representatives’ effort to extend the relief package. Economic policy in these distressing times has thus become hostage to electoral politics for which the President and his party are held primarily responsible.
The combination of these factors isclearly reflected in the polls thatindicate that barring some last minute surprise Joe Biden’s victory is almost preordained. It is important for Indian policy makers to begin assessing the implications of the projected American election results from the perspective of New Delhi’s interests. The basic point for them to consider is that the major difference between the Trump and Biden administrations will be based on the fact that while the Trump administration believes primarily in the transactional nature of foreign policy a Biden administration is likely to stress a degree of commitment to values and principles that the US purportedly holds dear. Its decisions will not be made solely on the basis of strategic and economic calculations in total isolation from these intangible factors.
This means that values like human rights, equal treatment of people of all faiths, emphasis on the freedom of press and opinion, and aversion to draconian laws that have the potential of being used to suppress dissent will also be factored to some extent into the making of American foreign policy. Therefore, New Delhi will have to give serious thought that its domestic policies, which already face strong criticism in the American press, especially in prestigious newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post that support Biden, do not appear to run radically counter to liberal values.
This does not mean that strategic considerations, such as common concerns regarding Chinese attempts to project power abroad, or economic factors, such as those related to trade and FDI, will not carry weight in a Biden administration’s calculations. But, they will be tempered by considerations relating to liberal democratic values and principles.
Secondly, unlike the Trump administration, which is in essence a one-man show as all the President’s aides literally serve at his pleasure, a Biden administration will work on a much more collective decision making model. Kamala Harris has a much stronger personality and is much more outspoken than Vice President Pence. She is ideologically to the left of Biden and given her background her commitment to assuring equality of genders, ethnicities, and religious communities is much greater than that of Joe Biden. Considering the fact that she is part Indian her influence on the new administration’s India policy will be considerable if not decisive.
Biden’s transition team includes Gautam Raghavan, chief of staff to Representative Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a severe critic of the Modi government’s domestic policies. Elizabeth Warren, another center-left figure, is likely to be appointed Treasury Secretary and Susan Rice, who was Obama’s national security adviser and made Biden's short list for vice president, is the front runner for the position of Secretary of State. Many of these people are strong personalities with independent views on world affairs. Therefore, the Indian interlocutors will have to carefully build rapport individually with all the important figures in the Biden administration.
It is much simpler to deal with the Trump administration in which the views of only one person matters and decisions are often made at the whims of the president and his like or dislike for foreign leaders. His excellent rapport with Prime Minister Modi has made things much easier for New Delhi. This will no longer be the case if a Biden administration comes to power in Washington. New Delhi must come to terms with the fact that if Biden comes to power it will be a very different ball game and India’s political elite will have to adjust to this fact very quickly.
(The author is a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University. Views expressed are personal)