US president-elect Joe Biden vowed to set America on a new course on Saturday after emerging victorious from a drawn-out vote count, while Donald Trump reaffirmed his promise to challenge the result of the poll in court.
Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris, who is set to become the first woman to occupy the office, gave their victory speeches on Saturday evening, offering a message of unity for the country after a closely fought election race that underlined the deep divisions in American society.
“It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again and to make progress. We have to stop treating our opponents, as our enemies. They are not our enemies, they’re Americans,” Biden told the crowd in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.
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“I sought this office to restore the soul of America, to rebuild the backbone of this nation, the middle class, and to make America respected around the world again,” said Biden, who will take over the presidency in January after nearly four decades as a US senator, and eight years in the White House as vice-president to Barack Obama.
His victory speech was a crescendo to a tumultuous election cycle, fought amid the Covid-19 pandemic – the disease has killed more Americans than any other nationality – and a period of mass protest over systemic racial injustice in the country.
In her speech, Harris, who is the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, gave a nod to women of all races who had paved the way for her historic victory, not least “the black women who are too often overlooked but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy”.
“What a testament it is to Joe’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in this country and select a woman as his vice-president,” she said of her running mate.
The Democratic campaign was projected to have clinched the needed votes for victory at midday on Saturday, when networks one by one projected Biden the winner of Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes.
That pushed him above the 270 electoral votes needed to secure the presidency, even as counting continued in the other battleground states of Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina. Nevada was called for Biden soon after.
Supporters of the Biden-Harris partnership celebrated across the country, including in front of the White House, where some held placards inscribed with Trump’s own catchphrase from his days as a reality television star: “You’re fired”.
But the president has yet to concede defeat, which would initiate a government transition process considered one of the hallmarks of American democracy. His campaign has questioned the integrity of the election and is mounting legal challenges to contest the win.
Trump was at his Virginia golf course when the networks’ calls for Biden came in. He had earlier sent a tweet claiming he had “won the election, by a lot”. He made no comment after Biden’s victory speech.
In a statement released by his campaign team on Saturday, Trump called the election “far from over”, saying the “ultimate victor” may be decided through recounts or legal challenges.
His campaign team has issued a call for American citizens to report instances of voter fraud and suppression.
“We all know why Joe Biden is rushing to falsely pose as the winner, and why his media allies are trying so hard to help him: they don’t want the truth to be exposed,” Trump said in remarks posted on his campaign website.
They would begin “prosecuting” their case in court on Monday, he said.
In the past few days, Trump’s campaign has initiated at least four lawsuits alleging voter fraud in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada. Most were promptly dismissed by judges and the president has offered no evidence to support his allegations.
Officials in Georgia said on Friday that a recount was likely due to the small margins involved. According to Associated Press, Biden led the state by just over 10,000 votes as of Sunday morning.
While there is not a unified voice of support among Republican lawmakers for Trump’s claims, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said he backed the president’s right to go to court “if he has clear evidence of widespread misconduct or irregularities” in voting.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said on Friday that every legal vote should be counted and illegally submitted ballots should not.
The election has been a tense one for supporters on both sides, with early vote counts, as predicted, favouring the president in a number of battleground states, but then shifting as a historic number of postal ballots came in and tipped the scales for Biden. The postal option was offered by states as a safety measure amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As Biden gained, Trump dialled up the unsubstantiated claims he had been making throughout his campaign that the election was riddled with fraud, and that postal votes in particular were vulnerable to “corruption”.
State officials have consistently spoken of a smooth voting process.
The election saw a record high voter turnout for both candidates, with Biden receiving 75,198,127 votes, or 51 per cent of the popular vote, to Trump’s 70,804,457, or 48 per cent, as of Sunday morning.
Even with a projected winner and a new president-elect, vote tabulation in all 50 states and Washington will continue until all results are formally certified.
Legal experts have expressed reservations about the impact of the Trump campaign’s legal challenges.
Martha Kropf, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said that while recounts and audits were normal, there was little chance the lawsuits would alter the results in Trump’s favour.
“For most of the places where they are, the number of votes that would be affected by the lawsuits are too small to make a difference,” she said.
While Trump has yet to concede defeat, several world leaders wasted no time in offering their congratulations to Biden and Harris.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he looked forward to “working closely together on our shared priorities, from climate change to trade and security”.
Canada’s Justin Trudeau sent out a statement emphasising “shared geography, common interests, deep personal connections, and strong economic ties” and “work to advance peace and inclusion, economic prosperity, and climate action around the world”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron also expressed their best wishes to the successful pair, while Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen referenced a message sent to her by Biden on her re-election victory in January, saying it was her “turn to extend congratulations”.
“I look [forward] to working together to further our friendship, & contributions to [international] society,” she said.
Taiwan will be one of many foreign policy challenges the Biden administration will have to tackle as it navigates a significant deterioration in US-China ties in recent years, not least over Washington’s relationship with the self-ruled island that Beijing considers part of its territory.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed his hope of working closely with the United States on China.
“After the election, we will approach the elected government and make specific proposals on how we can close the transatlantic ranks: in dealing with actors like China, in climate protection, in the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic,” he said on Twitter.
Biden is expected to steer the United States back towards its role as an international leader, reversing the Trump administration’s “America first” stance that strained traditional US alliances.
While analysts say they doubt tensions with China will immediately de-escalate, some expect to see an increase in dialogue and engagement on strategic issues like climate change.
“I would expect many of Biden’s policies to bear some resemblance to the Trump administration, e.g. wariness of the national security risks of Chinese tech, but shrouded in far more diplomatic negotiation,” said Sarah Kreps, a senior foreign policy fellow at Brookings, a Washington-based think tank.
Randall Kroszner, an economics professor at University of Chicago, pointed to how American concerns about China are shared by both political parties.
“Biden would likely continue to pressure China for reforms that would open markets and provide a stronger legal framework for foreign firms operating in China,” he said.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University of China, said Biden and his advisers already had an understanding of the changes to the relationship between Washington and Beijing that had happened alongside China’s rise.
“It is true that many of Biden’s advisers have dealt with the Chinese before, so it will be relatively easy for them to communicate with each other,” he said.
“However, whether any consensus or agreement can be reached after communication is completely another matter.”
But addressing the Covid-19 pandemic would be Biden’s first priority, he said on Saturday, and his administration would base its plans on a “bedrock of science”.
Although he will not be sworn into office until January 20, the president-elect could set up a Covid-19 task force as early as Monday – before he names his senior White House staff and cabinet members – signalling the importance he attaches to dealing with the health crisis.
“We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality, and relish our lives’ most precious moments until we get it under control,” he said.
Additional reporting Cissy Zhou, Mark Magnier, Jacob Fromer, Robert Delaney and Stuart Lau
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