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The Work Begins Now

I had quite the shock last week. After eight months of what I thought were MBA courses at NYU Stern, I discovered I’ve actually been attending online classes with Stern Lawn N’ Landscaping, the only place in Wausau, Wis., worth calling if your home needs more curb appeal. While the employees have surprisingly deep knowledge of forecasting models and the Cobb-Douglas function — I mean, how else would it have taken me this long to notice? — it is clear I’ve been made a fool.

That tuition better cover a whole lot of lawn care.

Luckily, I learned last Saturday that I was in good company, though I use the term “good” loosely. The Trump campaign’s much ballyhooed press conference at “The Four Seasons” was quickly revealed to be less a hotel that evokes thoughts of luxury than a landscaping company situated near an adult toy store and a crematorium that evokes thoughts of Jimmy Hoffa’s final resting place. These hallowed grounds on the outskirts of Philadelphia are where America witnessed one of the most tumultuous Presidencies in history arriving at its denouement. As a nation watched, stifling chuckles under its collective breath, I assume most of us were thinking, “This is not what I imagined on Tuesday when I looked toward the future.”

Photo credit: John Minchillo/Associated Press

There is something sad about such an eventful administration ending with a whimper in an industrial parking lot, but one could just as easily argue that the full-throated commitment to the bit by Trump’s team (“We meant to hold it here, we swear!”) was admirable. After all, upon recognizing their mistake, they could have hastily rescheduled for a location longer on gravitas and shorter on fertilizer. Instead, while Donald Trump spent the morning duffing it on one of his biweekly golf outings, surrogates followed through on their own swings. With inspired defiance, Rudy Giuliani loudly declared media organizations don’t decide elections, which, to be fair, is true, and that courts decide elections, which, to be fair, is ideally not true.

But, amusing as this episode was — and if you’re a human being it was very amusing — there are bigger stories to focus on than incompetent political advance work. The election of Joe Biden as 46th President of the United States is a transitional event with few equals in American peacetime. Only three incumbents in the previous century lost a reelection bid, but even that description falls short. This was a crossroads at which America decided what it wants for its future and what relationship it wants with the rest of the world.

Biden had long been expected to easily win the popular vote – or, as it’s known in virtually every other democratic country, “the vote” – but his victory is a nation signaling its preference for competence, a reinforcement of governing norms, and above all, decency. The innate character of the candidates was clear. Their respective grasps of the responsibility of the office was distinct. The difference in their individual track records in terms of effectiveness was stark. No longer a revolutionary outsider, Trump, while still wildly popular among his base, could not rally the same coalition that delivered him the Presidency four years ago. An electorate weary from so much sturm und drang, made its buyer’s remorse clear.

However, while the Presidency is the ultimate prize, the enduring legacy of this election, rather than a shift toward the better angels of our nature, might well prove to be Kamala Harris’ election to the office of Vice President. Her victory represents an overdue promise of this nation too long unfulfilled. Harris acknowledged as much in Wilmington, Del., Saturday night, delivering her speech in an outfit that paid unmistakable homage to the giants upon whose shoulders she now stands.

Who knew wearing white after Labor Day could look so good?

In the meantime, Trump has broken with tradition by refusing to concede a race that is plainly lost. Instead, the soon-to-be-former President has opted to file numerous unsuccessful lawsuits while he rearranges deck chairs on the Titanic. To fund his legal efforts, Trump’s campaign has sent e-mails literally every hour trying to raise cash, along with the fine print stating at least 50% of donations will go towards paying down campaign debt. For insight into the overarching legal strategy, one need look no further than Trump’s election night declaration that he would go directly to the Supreme Court, a thing people can’t actually do, which you’d think someone might know after four years running the federal government.

This performative stubbornness has paved the way for an exit nearly as graceless as Giuliani’s landscaping infomercial. That stubbornness is also liable to cause very real damage if it significantly delays a smooth transition. While enablers like Mitch McConnell and Mike Pompeo darken their stains on American democracy, a refusal by Trump and most of the GOP to play ball is depriving the Biden administration of resources and information needed to ensure there are no bumps in the road this January.

All of that is to say that while millions across the country celebrated once news networks finally called Biden’s victory, the time for catharsis is already over. The current administration’s actions have made the impending challenges clear, and an underwhelming performance by Democrats in congressional races has laid out a rocky road.

It is very likely a pair of January runoffs for each of Georgia’s senate seats will determine whether Biden can implement the progressive agenda demanded by his party’s left flank. Those races hold the key to liberal dreams like Puerto Rican and D.C. statehood or universal healthcare. Canceled student debt, a restructured tax code, and meaningful climate change legislation may fall victim to an opposition senate. Comprehensive immigration reform or a remade judiciary could also drift to the wayside. The stakes are astronomical, and the spending those stakes inspire is already flowing into the Peach State.

Beyond the Georgia runoffs, there is no shortage of challenges that await the next President. Biden and Harris may not find the solutions that quell the pandemic, restore economic stability to the middle class, or bring needed reinforcement of America’s foreign ties. 

But that glass-half-empty scenario is unlikely. Nearly every administration has achievements and failures. With so many issues and goals on its docket, this one has the potential to be transformative. But before any legislation has passed, Biden and Harris have already left their mark. The impact of a woman being elected to the highest levels of the executive branch cannot be overstated. That it is a black woman acknowledges a constituency that has so often been the backbone of the Democratic electorate. That it is an Indian woman acknowledges the unmistakable role immigrants play in the continued evolution of our national fabric.

This is a vision of the future you can’t achieve with claims of voter fraud delivered at a seldom-visited strip mall in industrial Philadelphia. The outgoing administration, with perhaps its last campaign press event, gave us a final reminder of its obstinance, its incompetence, and its disinterest in moving this nation forward.

The Trump Presidency was incapable of delivering the righteous future this republic deserves. Whether or not the Biden administration will steer us toward that future remains to be seen. But it has given us reason to once again believe this is, as Harris put it, “a country of possibilities,” and it has provided us with the event we may look back at with our daughters and say, “Yes. That was the moment.”

This election was a reminder that a diverse America writes its own story, and that the work of achieving a future with a more perfect union is good trouble no matter how arduous. The future, of course, by definition is never actually here. But sometimes it feels awfully close.

Photo credit: https://www.nbcnews.com/video/highlights-from-biden-and-harris-victory-speeches-95528517514

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