Politics & Society

The 535 | December 2020

Quarterly Newsletter on the U.S. Congress

With the highest voter participation rate since 1900 and the most votes ever cast in a U.S. election, incumbent President Donald Trump lost the November 3rd election to former Vice President Joe Biden.


The Presidency

With the highest voter participation rate since 1900 and the most votes ever cast in a U.S. election, incumbent President Donald Trump lost the November 3rd election to former Vice President Joe Biden. Results trickled in, largely as a result of historic levels of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic. President Trump, despite warnings from within his own party, lambasted mail-in voting throughout the campaign cycle, leading mail-in ballots to skew significantly toward Democrats (despite the fact that Trump and his own family voted by mail). In ensuing weeks, the Trump campaign and its ever-thinning pool of advisors, engaged in what opponents deemed “hail Mary” legal options. As The New York Times notes, "Over 30 Trump Campaign Lawsuits Have Failed. Some Rulings Are Scathing." By mid-December, the Trump campaign had won only one of forty cases related to the election.

On December 14, the Electoral College voted to certify President-elect Biden’s 306 votes over Trump’s 232 votes. Biden ultimately secured more than 81 million votes over Trump’s roughly 74 million votes. The total percentage count puts Biden at 51.3% of the vote, versus Trump’s 47%.

For a refresher on U.S. presidential elections and how they work, see our short explainer video here.

The U.S. Senate

As of mid-December, Republicans have 50 seats in the Senate, versus Democrats’ 46 seats, although two independent Senators, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine caucus with Democrats. This leaves the current breakdown at 50 to 48, but all eyes are on Georgia, where tight Senate races triggered automatic recount races. Both Republicans on the ballot are incumbents. Republican Senator David Perdue is being challenged by Democrat Jon Ossoff. Senator Kelly Loeffler was appointed in 2019 to fill a vacancy left by Senator Johnny Isakson, who retired due to health concerns. Both Perdue and Loeffler have been lambasted in the press for perceived insider trading during their tenures as elected officials, including claims that Loeffler capitalized on classified pandemic knowledge to make personal financial gains. Canvassers, organizers, and other political operatives from both parties have flooded into Georgia in hopes of securing a senate majority for their own party in what is shaping up to be one of the most expensive elections in U.S. history. Some estimates anticipate that an astonishing $1 billion will be spent between November 3rd and January 5. For a deeper dive, read Vox’s 9 questions about the Georgia Senate runoffs you were too embarrassed to ask.

The House of Representatives

Heading into the election, it was widely assumed that Democrats would hold onto their majority in the House and perhaps even increase their numbers. However, Democrats suffered surprising losses in several states, losing 12 seats overall. These losses all but guarantee an expensive and costly bid to retain their majority in 2022 midterm elections. These surprise election results have led to serious infighting among Democrats. Centrists, led by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, blame leftist “Justice Democrats” like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for what centrists believe is harmful rhetoric, including what former President Obama deemed “snappy” slogans (such as “defund the police”). For their part, Justice Democrats point out that all losses were sustained in races in which candidates refused to endorse left-leaning policies, such as the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. Overall, this post-election disagreement encapsulates some of the most fundamental fissures within the Democratic Party.

State Legislatures

Democrats were seriously defeated by Republicans in 2020 state races. Politico called Democrats’ performance in state races “abysmal” and said that Republican victories would give them the advantage of determining “the balance of power for the next decade.”

As Chris Jankowski, who ran the REDMAP for Redistricting Majority Project, said in our election documentary Uncivil War, there is a long-standing perception that state legislatures represent the “junior varsity” team. However, is has become increasingly clear in recent years that state legislatures hold a tool of enormous power over American democracy: the ability to draw district lines. Gerrymandering, which refers to the carving up of districts based on U.S. Census data, allows for individual parties to game the system so that their candidates win districts with favorable makeups. For more on gerrymandering and how it can lead to minority rule, see our short animation, What Is Gerrymandering?

U.S. Institutions

Despite the increasingly decisive popular vote count favoring Joe Biden, Trump repeatedly hoped to intervene to secure final support from the Electoral College. He and his attorney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, embarked on a scattershot legal campaign to interfere with election results in key swing states, including Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and elsewhere.

The Trump Campaign’s efforts to discredit election integrity and even overturn results ultimately failed, leading many experts and pundits in Washington to declare that “the U.S. institutions held.” For those who seem to have forgotten, it is hardly reassuring to be discussing to which degree democratic institutions survived an all-out attack.

Talk around town in D.C. has largely focused on how well institutions held. After all, despite being packed with Republican-appointed judges, the courts nonetheless ruled to support free and fair election principles. However, a much more worthwhile question to ask is: what can be done in the next four years to strengthen U.S. institutions so that a test of this nature—and the real possibility of institutional failure—becomes significantly less likely to succeed?

Key Players and Cabinet Picks

So far, Biden’s cabinet picks have, overall, been palatable to Republicans and moderate Democrats, but much less so for progressives. As of mid-December, key appointments include the following people.

Antony Blinken, Secretary of the U.S. Department of State Tony Blinken served as Deputy Secretary of State, the country’s second highest ranking diplomat, during the Obama Administration, following an otherwise prolific foreign affairs career spanning Capitol Hill, the White House, and the State Department. In addition to his role as Deputy Secretary of State during the Obama years, he also served as Principal Deputy National Security Advisor to Obama and as National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden during Obama’s first term. Blinken has expressed a strong desire to return to traditional foreign policy and has indicated he will work hard to restore the United States’ leadership role in international institutions, ranging from NATO to the United Nations.

Janet Yellen, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury During the Obama Administration, Janet Yellen served as Chair of the Federal Reserve, making history as the first woman to hold that position. She would again make history as the first female Treasury Secretary. Yellen is regarded as a rare win across the aisle, including Republicans and progressives. Prior to the Obama Administration, Yellen was a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley for 40 years and held many high-profile economic jobs, including serving as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton.

Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has had a prolific career in national intelligence in D.C., including serving as Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency during Obama’s second term. Following her time at CIA, she also served as Assistant to the President and Principal Deputy National Security Advisor. If confirmed, Haines will make history as the first female DNI. Progressives have expressed reticence about Haines and other likely security appointees, such as Michele Flournoy, for what progressives believe was their complicity in Obama’s extrajudicial drone warfare in the Middle East.

First 100 Days

As detailed on Biden’s transition website, the incoming administration has four key priority areas: addressing the pandemic, economic recovery, racial inequality, and climate change mitigation. The Biden transition team has pledged to deploy a force of 100,000 people to combat the virus and establish funds to help state and local governments avoid steep budget pitfalls. However, the scope of pandemic-related funds, whether on vaccine deployment or economic stimulus money, will depend on how well the two parties can work together in Congress.

Another key issue area for the Biden team will be combating climate change. As a candidate, Biden did not endorse the Green New Deal, but he has pledged to make far-reaching investments in infrastructure, power, buildings, and agriculture and conservation. He has also pledged to reenter the Paris Climate Accord in his first 100 days as president. Of 197 countries, only 7, including conflict-ridden countries such as Yemen and South Sudan, have not signed the agreement.

Depending on the results of the Georgia Senate runoff elections, it is possible that many Biden policy plays will have to be accomplished via executive order. Whether those executive orders will hold up in a judicial system steeped in Trump appointees remains to be seen. Should Democrats take back the Senate in January, their trifecta would significantly increase the probability of achieving ambitious policy goals on health care, racial justice, climate change, and labor rights.

Transatlantic Relations

Biden is likely to undo many of the Trump Administration’s policy plays that weakened cooperation in international organizations. For example, the Biden Administration has indicated it will immediately rejoin the World Health Organization. In November, the Trump Administration and USTR Ambassador Lighthizer upset the WTO DG candidacy race by saying, at the last minute, that the U.S. would not support the WTO nominee, despite the fact she holds an American passport. There have been mounting fears that the Trump Administration would deal what could become a fatal blow to the WTO by withdrawing. The WTO dispute settlement body has been a persistent problem within global affairs since the Obama Administration. While the Biden Administration is unlikely to stand in the way of meaningful dialogue, like the Trump Administration did, it remains to be seen how flexible they can and will be on WTO reform.

For a quick overview of what makes the EU and U.S. the world’s best friends anyway, check out our short animation on the history of the transatlantic relationship.


Emily Benson

Manager, Transatlantic Legislative Relations
Bertelsmann Foundation