It is an awkward fact that Joe Biden owes much, if not all, of his poll lead to Donald Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. It would be good to say that America had soured on Mr Trump after having weighed his overall record since 2017: the Ukraine pay-for-play schemes that resulted in his impeachment last year; the wrecking ball Mr Trump has taken to US alliances; his stoking of white nationalist militias; his withdrawal from the Paris accord on climate change; his corrupt misuse of the presidential pardon; and his self-harming trade war with China. Yet until early spring, Mr Trump’s chances of being re-elected were close to even. This was mostly because the US economy was in reasonable shape, which coronavirus then destroyed. Even today, and in spite of Mr Trump’s refusal to agree a federal plan to flatten the infection curve, most Americans still trust him more on the economy.
Should Mr Biden win next week, he would be wise to acknowledge that the frustrations that propelled Mr Trump to the presidency have not vanished. Should Mr Trump scrape through to a second term, he should remember his own vows to focus on the forgotten American. America’s middle class remains beleaguered. Distrust of institutions hovers at all-time highs. The ingredients for another populist backlash — more menacing still than Mr Trump’s — are still in place.
Mr Trump’s disregard for science during this pandemic tops the charge sheet against him. Even today, three weeks after having been hospitalised, the president holds unmasked rallies in which he dismisses Covid-19 as an exaggerated threat. The infection curves tell the opposite story. If Americans wore masks, some community spread and deaths could be prevented. Yet Mr Trump still mocks social distancing. By election day, almost a quarter of a million Americans will have died. This is the greatest failure in US governance since at least the Vietnam war.
Mr Biden has made it clear he will appoint experienced people who will draw up a plan to flatten the curve. In today’s America, the promise of managerial competence is revolutionary. Nothing else Mr Biden aims to do would be possible until the pandemic is under control. Even then, the complexities of how to distribute and price what are likely to be competing vaccines in 2021 would tax the capacity of the best-intentioned administration. America’s first priority is to elect a president who takes that job seriously.
Although he is a centrist, Mr Biden’s economic plans are to the left of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — the last two Democratic presidents. That is partly circumstantial. Covid-19 has exposed the raw deficiencies in US capitalism. They include a deteriorating infrastructure, weak social protections, poor skills training, and near historic levels of inequality. The price tag for Mr Biden’s plans are high. But the cost of inaction is higher. Independent economic models show they would result in markedly higher growth than a continuation of Trumpenomics, which consists of more tax cuts and little else. Jay Powell, the Trump-appointed head of the US Federal Reserve, is calling for fiscal stimulus on a similar scale to Mr Biden.
Mr Biden’s foreign policy appeal is a more conservative one — to do no harm. Undoing Mr Trump’s actions, such as withdrawal from the World Health Organization, the Paris accord, and the Iran nuclear deal, would be relatively simple. So too would improving relations with America’s allies. But if Mr Biden were elected president, he would find a different world to the one he left as vice-president. He cannot just set the clock back to 2016. Tackling China will be much harder. The worst that can be said is that he is unlikely to make as many unforced errors as Mr Trump. China’s power has extended considerably over the past four years. Ending America First, as Mr Biden promises, is a precondition for a more effective US-China policy.
America’s rivalry with China is not just about trade or technology. It is also ideological. Mr Trump’s attack on the fairness of America’s voting system is a windfall to China. If the leader of the world’s largest democracy thinks the system is corrupt, as Mr Trump repeatedly claims, all Beijing need do is amplify the message. There is no basis to Mr Trump’s claim that postal balloting is fraudulent. Roughly 60m Americans have already mailed their votes. In some swing states, such as Florida, they can be counted as soon as they arrive. But in others, such as Pennsylvania, that process can only begin after polling stations have closed.
Trump vs Biden: who is leading the 2020 election polls?
Use the FT’s interactive calculator to see which states matter most in winning the presidency
Therein lies a deep threat to US democracy. Mr Trump has made it clear he will contest postal ballot counting that stretches on after polling day. Under the skewed US electoral college, that means Mr Trump could lose the popular vote by millions yet use his office’s legal muscle to game the system. US constitutional law is distressingly fungible on which body would ultimately settle a dispute between competing slates of electors. In practice, the sitting president has vastly more levers at his disposal than his opponent. There is also the question of whether a strongly conservative 6-3 Supreme Court — bolstered by Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation this week — would intervene to halt voting, as it did in Florida in 2000.
It is possible Mr Biden’s popular margin next week will be so wide that Mr Trump would be unable to carry out his threats. Failing that, US democracy confronts an acute stress test. As Americans weigh their vote, they should recognise that more than pandemic management is at stake next week. The system itself is on the ballot. America’s voters face a momentous enough choice as it is. A constitutional crisis triggered by a spurious attempt to stop America’s votes from being counted would only benefit those who wish ill of US democracy.
In the countdown to the 2020 election, stay on top of the big campaign issues with our newsletter on US power and politics with columnists Rana Foroohar and Edward Luce. Sign up here
Get alerts on US presidential election 2020 when a new story is published