Joe Biden spent his first full day as US president-elect determined to hit the ground running, as he faces one of the most daunting challenges of any new occupant of the White House.
The Democrat, who defeated Donald Trump to win election as the 46th president, immediately began work on what is likely to be a turbulent transition as he confronts the fast-spreading coronavirus, high unemployment, systemic racism, the climate crisis and a bitterly divided nation.
Yet even as the silent machinery of a transfer of power kicked inexorably into gear, Trump still refused to concede defeat, insisting he would press ahead with legal challenges from Monday. There is no evidence of widespread election irregularities. On Sunday, the former president George W Bush joined those recognising Biden as the winner.
Biden, a 77-year-old former US senator from Delaware who was vice-president to Barack Obama, was declared the victor of a closely fought and divisive pandemic-era election on Saturday morning, triggering euphoria in major cities as people honked car horns, danced in the streets and turned Trump’s TV catchphrase against him: “You’re fired!”
It was also hailed by observers around the world as a return to political orthodoxy after the disruptive experiment represented by aggressive “America first” nationalism and administrative chaos during Trump’s four-year presidency.
In an outdoor victory speech to hundreds of supporters in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden struck a starkly different note, stating: “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify.”
He added: “This is the time to heal in America.”
The vice-president-elect, the California senator Kamala Harris, wore a white suit and blouse, symbolising the women’s suffrage movement, and praised Biden’s “audacity” for choosing a woman as running mate.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” she said.
Biden listed goals including building prosperity, securing healthcare, achieving racial justice and saving the climate. But he said his first priority would be controlling Covid-19 with a plan “built on a bedrock of science … to turn this pandemic around”.
Even as the nation was gripped by the election, the virus soared to record highs with an average of more than 100,000 cases a day. On Monday Biden will announce his own Covid-19 taskforce, which will be co-chaired by the former surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy and the former food and drug administration commissioner Dr David Kessler. The taskforce will be responsible for executing Biden’s plans for tackling the pandemic, which include doubling the number of drive-through testing sites, establishing a US public health job corps to mobilize 100,000 Americans on contact tracing; and ramping up production of masks, face shields and other PPE.
Biden’s transition effort now also has a website, BuildBackBetter.com, and a Twitter account, @Transition46. But it is unclear what, if any, cooperation he can expect from the outgoing Trump administration.
The US General Services Administration, which oversees federal property, has not certified the winner yet. The Trump appointee who runs the agency, has not given the go-ahead for the transition to begin. A GSA spokeswoman gave Reuters no timetable for the decision.
Biden is planning a wave of executive orders soon after taking office on 20 January. He will repeal a ban on travellers from several Muslim-majority nations, rejoin the Paris climate accord, reverse Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization and strengthen a programme protecting from deportation immigrants brought to the US illegally as children, the Washington Post reported.
But beyond the quick wins, Biden faces a rough ride. Although the White House was won, unexpected losses in the House of Representatives and Senate inflamed long-simmering tensions within the Democratic party.
Moderates have lashed out at progressives members for embracing “socialism” and supporting calls to “defund the police”, which Republicans weaponised against vulnerable Democrats in swing states and districts. Progressives argue Democrats depend on their base every election cycle but then cater to the interests of white moderate voters.
In an interview with the New York Times, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who identifies as a democratic socialist, said Democrats must realise that “their base is not the enemy”.
She said: “If the party believes after 94% of Detroit went to Biden, after Black organizers just doubled and tripled turnout down in Georgia, after so many people organized Philadelphia, the signal from the Democratic party is the John Kasichs won us this election? I mean, I can’t even describe how dangerous that is.”
Ocasio-Cortez was referring to the former Republican governor of Ohio, John Kasich, who endorsed Biden and said this week that the president-elect and Democratic leaders must make “clear to the far-left that they almost cost him this election”.
Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged the “very deep divisions within the party” but argued that there were better ways to deflect Republican attacks than catering to the centre.
“The question that we have,” she said, “is ‘How can we build a more effective Democratic operation that is stronger and more resilient to Republican attacks?’”
The debate has been particularly searing in the House, where Democrats will keep their majority despite losing ground in districts that helped them sweep to power two years ago.
Asked about calls from activists to “defund the police”, South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black official in Congress, said he believes the slogan – not the cause – cost Democrats seats in parts of Florida and in South Carolina.
“I’ve always said that these headlines can kill a political effort. We are all about making headway,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press. “And I just hope that going forward we will think about each one of these congressional districts and let people represent their districts.”
Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield told NBC progressives would not be disappointed by a Biden administration. She pointed to Biden’s climate plan, which drew the support of youth activists such as the Sunrise Movement.
Depending on two runoff elections in Georgia, Biden may be faced with a Republican-controlled Senate hostile to his governing agenda. But Bedingfield insisted, as Biden had days earlier, that the American people gave him a “mandate for action” on the coronavirus, the economy, climate and racial justice.
“This is what the American people voted for,” she said. “This is what they want to see. And so I think for members, for Republican members of the Senate, they’re going to feel that pressure too.”
Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic candidate for Georgia governor who has been praised for her efforts to register and mobilise voters in the state where Biden now narrowly leads, said Democrats can “absolutely” win both runoffs in January.
“I want to push back against this anachronistic notion that we can’t win in Georgia,” she told CNN, crediting the work of grassroots organizers who have been registering voters and mobilizing communities for the last decade.
Biden went to church in Wilmington on Sunday. Trump played golf on his course in Sterling, Virginia, his motorcade met by a pedestrians holding “Biden-Harris” and “Trump 2020” signs. He continued to tweet conspiracy theories about electoral fraud, which were labelled by Twitter as disputed.
Media reports suggested that pressure is growing on a president known to hate losing more than anything to nonetheless concede the election, with his wife, Melania, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, said to be among those advising him to go gracefully.
Republicans were divided, some voicing full-throated support for Trump’s defiance, many remaining silent and failing to congratulate Biden, some acknowledging the inevitable. On Sunday Bush broke a prolonged silence by issuing a statement that referred to Biden as the “president-elect”.
“I extended my warm congratulations and thanked him for the patriotic message he delivered last night,” the 43rd president said. “Though we have political differences, I know Joe Biden to be a good man, who has won his opportunity to lead and unify our country. The president-elect reiterated that while he ran as a Democrat, he will govern for all Americans.”
Bush also congratulated Trump on his “extraordinary political achievement” of gaining more than 70m votes and commented: “President Trump has the right to request recounts and pursue legal challenges, and any unresolved issues will be properly adjudicated. The American people can have confidence that this election was fundamentally fair, its integrity will be upheld, and its outcome is clear.”
The sentiment was echoed by Roy Blunt, a Republican senator for Missouri, who told ABC’s This Week: “It’s time for the president’s lawyers to present the facts and then it’s time for those facts to speak for themselves.”
Mitt Romney, a senator for Utah who quickly conceded defeat to Obama in the 2012 presidential election, told CNN he understood why Trump wants to continue fighting.
“I do believe, however, that it’s destructive to the cause of democracy to suggest widespread fraud or corruption,” he said. “There’s just no evidence of that at this stage.”
Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch also showed signs of turning against Trump. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote: “Mr Trump hates to lose, and no doubt he will fight to the end. But if defeat comes, he will serve himself and his country best by honoring America’s democratic traditions and leaving office with dignity.”
Murdoch’s New York Post ran the headline: “It’s Joe time.”
Even outside the White House, Trump could cast a long shadow over a Biden administration, wielding Twitter as a cudgel and still able to mobilise crowds. The president’s total of more than 70m votes was the highest for any candidate apart from Biden himself.
Bookmakers are already offering odds on Trump running again in 2024.