Guest blog: A narrow Biden win is just what the doctor ordered

By Business & Finance
10 November 2020

Marc Coleman, founder of Octavian Research, examines what a Biden win means for Irish interests

A month ago, I wrote that American public opinion on the Presidential Election is much more evenly divided than either the polls suggested at the time, or acknowledged by Irish commentators.

I suggested further that more diversity in commentary of public opinion would help combat ‘fake news’ and create a sense that both sides of contentious issues are represented fairly in debate. Whether accurately or note, that sense does not seem to exist in the US. To some, the closeness of Tuesday’s US vote was a “shock”. Not to this analyst.

Suspecting for some time that polling sampling techniques were not capturing significant shifts in public opinion, in 2015 I bet on the possibility of a Brexit vote in the referendum the following year when in Ibec. I set up what was Ireland (and even Europe’s) first ever Working Group on Brexit (specifically focused on financial services).

Last July, in the Sunday Independent, I predicted the impact the housing crisis would have on the then forthcoming Irish general election.

Despite many polls suggesting a conclusive win for Joe Biden, I feared that the result might be a lot closer. Last February’s election in Ireland – an election in which 1.3 million voters did not engage and in which support for the two largest parties fell below 50 per cent for the first time in history – proved how wrong prevailing narratives can sometimes be. And that Ireland is no longer immune from alienation.

Balancing a narrow Republican majority in the US Senate and Democrat majority in the House of Representatives, Biden’s win will prevent (hopefully) the sort of triumphalism that would deepen already deep divisions in America.

Voter alienation has sadly been intensified by COVID-19. For that precise reason, both aspects of a narrow Biden win could be a highly positive development: It is positive that Biden has won and it is positive that his win is narrow. That applies for the business community and for the US and Ireland.

Balancing a narrow Republican majority in the US Senate and Democrat majority in the House of Representatives, Biden’s win will prevent (hopefully) the sort of triumphalism that would deepen already deep divisions in America.

Some of us can remember – fondly – when Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan would, like two Irish political fixers, back slap each other and cut deals that gave America one of its best decades. That was before the deep divisions began towards the end of the 1990s and 2000s, divisions that worsened during the Global Financial Crisis and reached fever pitch recently.

By denying either party a decisive victory, American voters could be demanding a restoration of the traditions of bipartisanship around the centre of American politics. A Trump win would have exacerbated deep divisions. A strong Biden win, and win in the Senate, could have triggered triumphalism and demands for partisan politics. But a narrow Biden win could be just what the doctor ordered to bring America back to the centre.

Personable and likeable, Biden is respected by many Republicans if not for his vigour and intellect, then at least for the fairness he demonstrated in many contentious issues over five decades. Far from being the liability that Trump claimed it was, Biden’s cautious career over the last 47 years gives him a unique oversight and ability to heal.

And as he is the first Irish-American President since Ronald Reagan (Bill Clinton was spiritually, but perhaps not biologically, in that category), Biden’s inevitable visit to his ancestor’s home regions of Mayo and Louth may have more than a nostalgic significance.

This is because America needs now to re-engage with the world after four years of disengagement.

And here is where Ireland can help.

America’s need could be Ireland’s opportunity

Leaving aside Biden’s undisputed Irish roots and the strong ties between the Democratic party and Ireland (the Republican party having totally failed to cultivate relationships here), there is another reason why US and Irish co-operation can become stronger than ever before.

To the same extent that Ireland needed American investment in its economy in the previous (and current) decades, the US now needs Ireland’s considerable diplomatic soft power across the globe. With a seat on the UN Security Council, a powerful EU Commissioner, the ECB Chief Economist, the Presidency of the Eurogroup and relationships of high esteem and friendship in all parts of the globe, Ireland can be invaluable in helping American re-engagement with the rest of the planet. But we must manage political relationships internally with the US as carefully as we manage diplomatic relations.

A narrow Biden win could be just what the doctor ordered to bring America back to the centre.

Even if the Republican party is remiss in not having developed its relationship with the country, Ireland, Irish business and Irish commentators nonetheless need to rebalance their commentary on the US in terms of Democrat and Republican. Republican views are unpopular in Ireland. This is partly if not dominantly because they are underrepresented in Ireland’s generally centre-left/liberal-leaning commentariat. It would be a mistake for Irish business leaders to apply these narratives to their engagements with American business. Certainly, the heart of big tech leans strongly towards the Democratic party, a factor evident in the corporate culture of many multinationals here.

But in other sectors – and in America’s vast consumer markets for Irish exports – support for Trump and Biden is evenly balanced. Assuming that your US business partners share your outlook on their country’s politics could be a costly mistake. Far from moving away from Republican values, the election shows us that Republican and Democratic views are becoming more entrenched.

Even Democratic politicians, particularly in today’s America, will be loath to associate with foreign business or political leaders or commentators who dish the other side. Democrats may be Democrats and Republicans may be Republicans, but they are all Americans. It is important not to forget that. A final reason for caution is this. At the time of writing there remains an outside chance that Trump could still win. Or that a protracted count could lead to a negative, rather than positive, implication of a narrow win: Legal and possible civic discord stretching into 2021, one in which overly partisan positions by outsiders will be remembered.

Ireland’s neutrality and even-handedness in world affairs – an asset cultivated to their great credit by our diplomats, Team Ireland, Taoisigh and Foreign Affairs Ministers – is our towering strength.

Just as between our trade partners, that common sense and balance will increasingly need to be applied to political alignments in divided nations like the US and UK. Or as the radical US wit and political activist William S Burroughs put it: Never get involved in in a boy-girl fight, even when you are sure who is in the right.

Marc Coleman is founder of Octavian Research, an economic research publication and public affairs consultancy that wrote the world’s first researched strategy response to the COVID-19 crisis (download ), and currently produces the world’s first weekly Covid-19 specific economic and business client research note (now in its 32nd edition). He works with leading clients across industry, financial services and government agencies to produce policy influencing research and publications. He has authored five influential books on the current and previous recoveries and worked as an economist with the European Central Bank, Department of Finance, as Economics Editor of the Irish Times and Newstalk 106fm, and as a Sunday Independent columnist. He is a leading speaker, event host and policy analyst and a champion of Foreign language use in business under the Department of Education and Skills “Languages Connect” initiative.