The Battle for the Soul of Our Nation Begins

 

Vice President Joe Biden visit to Israel March 2016
Former Vice President Joe Biden takes office today, becoming President of the United States. The nation has yet to experience what this new administration will bring. Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem via Creative Commons

Photo caption: Former Vice President Joe Biden takes office today, becoming President of the United States. The nation has yet to experience what this new administration will bring.

The countdown has ended. Today, January 20, 2021, marks the beginning of the Biden presidency. Let’s look at Biden’s plans to get an idea of what this administration has in store for the nation. First, the topic that dominated in 2020: COVID-19. Biden’s plan for addressing the pandemic includes increasing the availability of free testing, making care for COVID-19 patients more affordable, distributing necessary supplies to the states, and providing economic aid to struggling workers, families, and small businesses. 

Biden has also hinted at a promise for a nationwide mask mandate. To be clear, this would be outside of the President’s constitutional authority. “Biden has acknowledged that he lacks the constitutional authority to issue a nationwide mask mandate, as that power is reserved to the states,” says Carver Oblander, Franklin High School Constitutional Law coach. “He has proposed personally asking all 50 governors to institute their own mandates, and then appealing directly to mayors in any states where that fails.” Oblander points out that Biden could also work with Congress to pass legislation that includes an economic incentive for states to issue mask mandates. This practice is known as cooperative federalism, where the national government influences state laws by offering conditional funding. 

An issue as pressing as the pandemic, if not more so, is climate change. Throughout his campaign, Biden made bold guarantees about climate change. The Biden-Harris website says that the new administration’s plan for climate change includes the promise of a fully carbon-neutral economy by 2050. This would require revolutionizing the entire economy to be clean energy based. Biden would need to collaborate extensively with both Congress and state governments in this scenario. There is likely to be resistance towards such revolutionizing economic policies coming from both members of Congress and state governors. 

What about immigration? It will likely be a similar situation, requiring congressional action. “Most likely, we will see changes made primarily through executive actions,” says Oblander, “such as raising refugee quotas, restoring access to the asylum process, protecting Dreamers and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) recipients, ending efforts to build border walls, and reversing the public charge rule.”

Finally, what are Biden’s plans to address racial inequity within the United States? Oblander sees this as an area where Biden will likely struggle. Apart from the fact that, like with everything else, he will have to rely on Congress, his political history on the matter of race is controversial. “His credibility on this issue is weak, given his past record as a Senator in championing some of the very policies now under renewed criticism and his fond memories of working with segregationist Senators,” says Oblander. 

Despite this, Biden plans to address racial inequity by working with Congress to pass legislation in the economy and criminal justice system. Some of his plans include ensuring equal pay, reforming opportunity zones, and creating a national police oversight commission. 

In terms of Biden’s nominations for cabinet positions, most of his choices are fairly unsurprising. Merrick Garland, whose nomination for the Supreme Court under the Obama administration was blocked by Mitch McConnell, was chosen for Attorney General. Biden picked former competitor Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation, who will be the first person to serve a cabinet position who is out as a member of the LGBTQ community. Similarly, Biden’s pick for Secretary of Treasury, Janet Yellen, will be the first woman to head that department. 

Another prominent choice is Representative Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, who will be the first Native American to hold a cabinet position. Her department includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Given the painful history of the federal government’s relationship with Indigenous Americans, the role of the Interior department in that history, and the Trump administration’s recent hostility [towards] tribal lands, this hopefully represents a new direction in how the federal government respects Indigenous Americans and their ancestral lands,” says Oblander. 

Finally, a more controversial choice is Tom Vilsack to head the United States Department of Agriculture. Vilsack’s pro-corporate policies are a turn off for progressives and the majority of rural America. Returning to Vilsack, who also served as the USDA head during the Obama years, is in many ways a reflection of Biden’s moderacy. 

As we move forward as a nation under this new administration, Americans should keep their expectations reasonable. Most of the changes Biden has proposed will not come in the first few weeks, possibly never at all. However, with Democratic control of Congress for at least the next two years, progressive legislation is not off the table. It is possible Americans will see some of Biden’s campaign promises manifest. 

What Americans can expect to happen immediately is that Biden will undo some of Trump’s actions. Oblander thinks this could include rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and World Health Organization, revoking the Muslim ban, and reinstating DACA.

2020 was a turbulent year, and 2021 is off to a turbulent start. We are at a turning point in our democracy, and we will see together what the Biden administration has in store for the nation and the world.

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