Mainstream media, political cognoscenti and pollsters have again shown themselves well wide of the mark in predicting the outcome of a US national election. As in 2016, the consensus forecast had President Donald Trump losing badly and opposition Democrats gaining firm control of Congress.
But days after the polls closed, Americans are still waiting to see if challenger Joe Biden was successful in his bid to unseat Trump and whether Republicans had retained their majority in the US Senate, while Democrats still control the House of Representatives.
If he wins, Biden wants to advance a massive $2 trillion federal climate plan and related actions over his initial four-year term that aim to set the US on course towards a green, sustainable economy culminating in net-zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 2050. That is consistent with the 197-nation Paris Agreement which the US formally left on Wednesday but would rejoin under Biden.
Trump, in turn, who has called climate change a hoax, would continue policies that prioritise fossil fuels over renewables
His political fate will be decided by about 600,000 uncounted ballots in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania – a fraction of the record 141 million cast nationwide. Biden will probably post narrow wins in several of those states, punching his ticket to the White House.
Biden's 'Build Back Better' plan would set the country’s first-ever, clean energy mandate for grid electricity, making it carbon-free by 2035
Trump is unlikely to leave quietly. His campaign has already launched legal challenges to ballot counting in battleground states that potentially could end up in the US Supreme Court. To fire up his supporters, he raised the possibility of fraud in final ballots being counted, asserting that “if you count illegal and late votes, they can steal the election from us!”
With the presidency hanging in the balance, the prospect of a drawn-out legal fight with Trump throwing mud and questioning electoral process transparency in the run-up to Biden’s potential inauguration on 20 January, is hardly what political experts forecast would happen.
Rather than a far-reaching political realignment that Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama engineered to gain power, Biden, if he wins, would do so with a weak electoral mandate. He could also be the first president in 32 years to enter office without control of Congress by his party.
His strategy to make the election a referendum on the mercurial and polarising Trump and his administration’s uneven handling of the Covid-19 health crisis will apparently be vindicated - but not by much.
Biden’s relentless focus on Trump’s excesses and personality and pandemic fallout largely overshadowed his limited efforts to sell voters on a handful of concrete ideas and policies from a campaign platform largely drafted by progressive elements of his party. An exception was clean energy and climate change.
His Build Back Better plan would also set the country’s first-ever, clean energy mandate for grid electricity, making it carbon-free by 2035, and create a domestic supply chain to drive development of battery energy storage, further renewables generation and to electrify the US light-duty vehicle fleet over time.
Two other headline promises were to eliminate or reduce the multiple fossil-fuel subsidies while extending those for solar and wind, and to reverse Trump’s executive and regulatory actions that enabled higher GHGs, such as rolling back Obama-era rules on vehicle emission standards.
If the Senate remains in Republican control, Biden will have to temper his ambitions as a divided Congress would need to legislate to make a net-zero emissions target and grid clean-energy standards legally binding.
All this said, the mainstream media might be wrong about something else: Biden may achieve more than many are already speculating could occur. Biden would be among the most experienced politicians to enter the White House and unlike Obama and Trump, he is on good terms with Republican congressional leaders after 36 years in the Senate and eight more as vice president.
A pragmatist, not a dreamer or idealogue, he fully understands the new political equation in Congress and what will be possible. He will likely seek to fulfill half to 75% of his clean energy and climate ambitions. His party’s green activists will complain but successful presidents understand negotiations with Congress are about achieving what is possible.
Biden also wants to change the corrosive political dynamic and tone in Washington, DC, a tall order but one that the nation’s president plays a large role in helping set. Such an approach would likely win support from most Americans looking for national leadership to further address Covid’s economic and health impacts.
If Biden does prove popular with average Americans that would give him some political capital and leverage with Republicans over time as the country looks ahead to 2022 elections.
Lastly, he would take office with all key Democratic and Republican governors and US senators that back federal policy action on climate change and accelerating the transition to clean energy having won reelection. Those are good allies to have if he intends to firmly press ahead on climate change.