Joe Biden has been elected the 46th US president, signalling a return to political norms in America after four years of raucous populism and administrative turmoil under Donald Trump.
Thousands of Americans took to the streets, cheering, banging pots and pans and honking car horns to celebrate the outcome after four anxious days of waiting for votes to be counted. Trump was at his golf course in Virginia when the result was announced and refused to concede.
Biden claimed the victory in the state where he was born, Pennsylvania, whose 20 electoral college votes put him over the threshold of 270. He had more than 74m votes in total, higher than any other presidential candidate in history.
The former senator and vice-president said he was “honored and humbled” by the people’s verdict. “With the campaign over, it’s time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation,” he said in a statement. “It’s time for America to unite. And to heal.
“We are the United States of America. And there’s nothing we can’t do, if we do it together.”
Biden was due to address the nation from Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday evening.
From Atlanta to New York, from Philadelphia to Washington, there were spontaneous explosions of joy. A crowd gathered on Black Lives Matter Plaza outside the White House, cheering and holding balloons depicting Trump’s face and hair. One person brandished a sign that, quoting Trump on his reality TV show The Apprentice, proclaimed: “You’re fired!”
In Times Square, New York, people danced, whooped and punched the air at the realisation Trump would be consigned to the history books as an impeached one-term president.
Biden’s triumph is likely to be welcomed by international allies as a course correction after 2016, when a shock election result represented a leap into the political unknown, rattling the consensus on immigration, trade and the global order.
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, tweeted his congratulations to Biden and said he looked forward to working with him.
Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, France, tweeted: “Welcome back America!”
Trump, a property tycoon and reality TV star, was the first president without prior political or military experience. Even as the incumbent, he continued to portray himself as the disrupter and outsider who once boasted: “I alone can fix it.”
Biden, by contrast, sealed the presidency 48 years to the day after winning election to the Senate at the age of 29. He served for eight years as Barack Obama’s right-hand man and, turning 78 later this month, will be the oldest president in US history.
His running mate, Kamala Harris, is set to become the first woman of colour to serve as vice-president – another pendulum swing 12 years after Obama became the first Black commander-in-chief. Harris tweeted footage of herself wearing sunglasses and jogging gear in park, speaking to Biden by phone: “We did it, we did it, Joe. You’re gong to be the next president of the Untied States!” She laughed elatedly.
Hillary Clinton, the former senator and secretary of state who lost her bid to become the first female president in 2016, tweeted: “It’s a history-making ticket, a repudiation of Trump, and a new page for America.”
Biden, whose life has been scarred by tragedy, made empathy, decency and democracy central to his candidacy in an election he characterised as a battle for the soul of America. He called for voters to reject Trump’s chaotic management style, cascade of lies, incendiary racism and bungled response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 235,000 in the US.
The nation had to wait longer than in any presidential election since 2000 to learn the outcome, with vote counting slowed by a massive turnout and record number of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic.
On Saturday, Trump continued to wage a months-long campaign to undermine the integrity of the democratic process, tweeting claims of fraud without proof while his campaign filed lawsuits legal experts said had little or no merit. He showed no sign of conceding defeat – a move that has no constitutional or legal relevance.
In a statement, Trump declared that “this election is far from over” and added: “Beginning Monday, our campaign will start prosecuting our case in court to ensure election laws are fully upheld and the rightful winner is seated.
“… I will not rest until the American people have the honest vote count they deserve and that democracy demands.”
The mood at the White House, which had been secured by high barrier walls, was said to be oscillating between despair and defiance. “They know he’s lost, but no one seems willing to tell King Lear or Mad King George that they’ve lost the empire,” an unnamed Republican source told the Washington Post.
The president received short shrift from Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, who said on Friday Trump should “put his big-boy pants on” and bow to the inevitable.
Trump’s authoritarian-like stand against democracy exposed fractures on his own side. Armed supporters in Phoenix and Detroit have insisted the election was being stolen and planned dozens of rallies under the banner “Stop the Steal” on Saturday. Election officials say there has been no evidence of fraud.
Some Republicans backed Trump’s false claims of irregularities while others moved to distance themselves. Trump’s two oldest sons, Donald Jr and Eric, used Twitter to assail Republicans for not doing more to fight their father’s cause.
Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican national committee, tweeted in response to the result: “In order for Americans to have confidence in our elections, we need time to let the canvassing and certification process take place, along with any investigations of irregularities or fraud play out.”
But Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland and a potential candidate for the presidential nomination in 2024, said this week there was “no defence” for Trump’s comments “undermining our democratic process. America is counting the votes, and we must respect the results as we always have before.”
There were also signs that Rupert Murdoch could be turning against Trump. The editorial board of the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal wrote: “Trump’s legacy will be diminished greatly if his final act is a bitter refusal to accept a legitimate defeat. Republican officials will turn away, and eventually so will the American public that wants to see the election resolved.”
Both sides had framed the 2020 election as one of the most crucial in American history, as important as votes during the civil war in the 1860s and the great depression in the 1930s. The process went smoothly despite the pandemic and fears of foreign interference, producing the highest turnout in more than 100 years.
Biden mounted unsuccessful bids for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and 2008 and seemed destined to fail again in this year’s primaries after heavy defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire. But after a solid win in South Carolina, the party rallied around him, including those seeking a more leftwing agenda.
His victory over Trump was driven by strong support from groups including women, African Americans, white voters with college degrees and city residents. He was more than 4m votes ahead of Trump in the nationwide popular count.
As president, Biden’s honeymoon will be short. He inherits a nation in crisis as Covid-19 hits record highs, the economy struggles and unrest over racism and police brutality continues. He also faces a deeply polarised Washington where Republicans seem likely to retain the Senate and the ability to block his most ambitions plans.
Obama, congratulating his former vice-president, said: “We’re fortunate that Joe’s got what it takes to be president and already carries himself that way. Because when he walks into the White House in January, he’ll face a series of extraordinary challenges no incoming president ever has – a raging pandemic, an unequal economy and justice system, a democracy at risk, and a climate in peril.”
Biden has said his first priority will be developing a plan to contain and recover from the pandemic and, unlike Trump, to heed the advice of public health experts and scientists. He has also has pledged to restore competency to the White House after Trump praised authoritarian foreign leaders, offered encouragement to white supremacists and refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
But for now, millions of supporters felt a simple sense of relief that Trump would not be able to continue his emotionally and morally exhausting war on institutions, and truth, for a second term. Some recalled the words of President Gerald Ford after the resignation of Richard Nixon amid the Watergate scandal: “Our long national nightmare is over.”
Bob Shrum, who was an adviser to Al Gore and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, said he hoped the Trump administration would “be seen an aberration in the American journey, as an attempt to go backwards, which at least in terms of the supreme court he will have achieved. It diminished America’s standing in the world, which will take time to repair.
“I think it shocked the world that the United States could elect someone like that.”