Washington | America's 46th President-elect, Joe Biden, has promised to restore a spirit of national unity and get straight to work on the country's COVID-19, economic and culture crises after claiming a historic win over Donald Trump, who was on Sunday still refusing to concede defeat.
As Democrats across America's biggest cities danced in the streets to celebrate Mr Biden's win, confirmed on Saturday (Sunday AEDT) after four tense days of counting, the former vice-president, in a late-night speech, repudiated Mr Trump's infamous 2017 "American carnage" inauguration address.
Mr Biden pledged to end the country's "grim era of demonisation".
"Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses," the President-elect said in his victory speech near his home in Wilmington, Delaware, flanked by Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris.
"And what presidents say in this battle matters. It's time for our better angels to prevail."
Buoyed by a record turnout, and a lead of more than 4 million in the popular vote, Mr Biden's team moved to assert its hold on the country's presidency. Mr Trump, who learnt of the media's declaration of the Biden victory while golfing on his Virginia estate, persisted with his claims that the result was still not conclusive because of outstanding legal action.
According to the latest count from The Associated Press, Mr Biden can claim the presidency after amassing 290 electoral college votes, 20 more than needed. The tally includes 20 votes from Pennsylvania, where Mr Trump's team has launched a welter of lawsuits, and six from Nevada. Georgia, with 16 votes, and North Carolina, with 15, remain in play, and the former favours Mr Biden.
The President-elect said that on Monday (Tuesday AEDT) he would announce a COVID-19 taskforce, effectively establishing a parallel administration and doing so, unusually, before announcing any of his cabinet picks.
The team of "leading scientists and experts" would develop an "action blueprint" to start on January 20, inauguration day, he said. More than 120,000 cases of the illness were detected on Friday, with experts warning the daily count would surge to more than 200,000 before the end of the year.
While Mr Biden faces an uphill battle rebuilding America's shattered political landscape, he vowed to restore the country's standing as a "beacon to the world".
Mr Biden's win elevates to America's most venerated public office a 77-year-old moderate, and in Ms Harris, the country's first woman, and person of colour, to the vice-presidency.
"A testament it is to Joe's character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country and select a woman as his Vice-President," she said in her speech introducing Mr Biden on Saturday night.
Though she was the first woman to hold that office, she said: "I will not be the last".
As images of delirious crowds flooded television screens, some of the Republican Party's toughest warriors called for unity and wished the new administration well.
Karl Rove, the former deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, applauded both speeches.
"You couldn't help but be touched by that moment when she talked about [how] her mere simple presence on that stage, with new responsibilities coming her way, was something young women and young girls could look up to and see that the promise of the country was available to them," he said on Fox TV.
Leaders from around the world, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, also weighed in with congratulatory messages.
"The United States is one of the world's greatest democracies, alongside Australia and many others, and democracy is proven, not just in the times of still waters, but when the waters can get a bit choppy," he said from Kirribilli House.
"And of course we have seen that in recent times in the United States. But democracy is the process they have always stood by to resolve such differences."
Mr Morrison's predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, was more direct. He said it would be a "relief" to have a "return to normal transmission" with Mr Biden.
Mr Trump's defeat became reality shortly before 11.30am, Washington time on Saturday (3.30am Sunday AEDT) after US TV networks and The Associated Press declared Mr Biden the winner in Pennsylvania and Nevada, two of the closest and most crucial states.
The result makes Mr Trump the first incumbent to lose after only one presidential term since George H.W. Bush in 1992 and only the sixth in US history. He is also the first to be impeached and subsequently thrown out of office.
His refusal to accept the result is another historic first, undermining one of the fundamental and enduring traditions of any serious democracy and one that is normally recognised by all sides – a gracious and timely concession.
Instead, a petulant Mr Trump claimed the election was "far from over" and accused Mr Biden, assisted by the media, of rushing to "falsely pose as the winner".
"Joe Biden has not been certified as the winner of any states, let alone any of the highly contested states headed for mandatory recounts, or states where our campaign has valid and legitimate legal challenges that could determine the ultimate victor," he said in a statement.
Despite Mr Trump's churlishness, much of America was in no mood to listen any more.
News of his demise was greeted within moments by spontaneous cheering and car honking on streets across America.
Huge crowds formed and celebrated well into the night, setting off fireworks and dancing in major cities including New York and Washington, where tens of thousands thronged Black Lives Matter Plaza outside the White House and dozens of blocks nearby.
Even before the party-like atmosphere spread, raw emotions spilled. TV pundits on at least two networks burst into tears as the final vote declarations were made.
"It's a vindication for a lot of people who have really suffered," said Van Jones, a prominent lawyer and political commentator on CNN, as he choked back sobs. "This is a big deal for us just to be able to get some peace and have a chance for a reset.
"And the character of the country matters and being a good man matters."
The final call was made after an agonising count had Mr Biden claw back Mr Trump's early election-day lead in two key swing states – Georgia and Pennsylvania – and expand his lead in Nevada.
Mr Biden won 74.9 million votes nationally, an American record for any presidential candidate, ahead of Mr Trump who holds second place in the all-time tally with more than 70.6 million votes.
Having sought America's ultimate political prize for half a century, Mr Biden's triumph is due in large part to Mr Trump's deep unpopularity across large swaths of the country. The President went through the entirety of his four tumultuous years in office with one of the lowest approval records of any president since World War II.
Politically wounded by his flawed handling of the COVID-19 outbreak – which he breezily dismissed in the early days of February and March as temporary and insignificant – Mr Trump's loss came despite an economy that has rebounded spectacularly after collapsing after the March shutdowns.
"The White House could've used COVID as an opportunity to unite a nation in crisis and address the pandemic with the urgency it needed," said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, on Saturday.
"Instead, they repeatedly played it down. Americans disagreed with that assessment."
In his speech to the nation on Saturday, Mr Biden outlined his mandate.
"I believe it is this: Americans have called upon us to march to the forces of decency, fairness, to march to the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time," he said.
"The battle to control the virus. The battle to build prosperity, the battle to secure your family's healthcare.
"The battle to achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country. And the battle to save our planet by getting the climate under control.
"The battle of restoring decency, defending democracy and give everybody in this country a fair shot. That is all they are asking for, a fair shot. Folks, our work begins with getting COVID under control."
Mr Biden also offered an olive branch to the tens of millions of Americans who did not vote for him.
"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," he said.
"We have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies, they are Americans."
Mr Biden's campaign was the most expensive in presidential history but still fell short of delivering Democrats a landslide that would have decisively flipped the Senate majority into the party's hands.
Two run-off Senate elections in Georgia will now determine the Senate majority in January, leaving the country on a knife-edge over how much power Mr Biden will be able to yield on thorny issues such as climate change policy, health, tax and infrastructure.