It is a job that is always daunting. But President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris begin their term in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, sharp economic downturn, civil unrest and in the aftermath of the violent siege on the U.S. Capitol.
We asked some of our Pomona College professors about what lies ahead for the administration—the challenges and opportunities it will face and how they anticipate the Biden administration will address them. Below find six of our resident experts’ careful analysis and insightful forecasting on the issues this administration is tasked to tackle.
Economics Professor Fernando Lozano
On the economy, income inequality and discrimination in labor markets:
“On January 14, then President-elect Biden released a $1.9 trillion proposal for his stimulus package to restart the economy. This proposal signals what his priorities will be and what we can expect from his administration. There are many things to like in the package: a $15 minimum wage, expanded child credits and enhanced SNAP benefits. Clearly, there is an emphasis on supporting those who are more vulnerable in the economy and reducing income inequality.
Yet, income inequality is only the symptom of a long-term process that has diminished workers' bargaining power in the economy. Mainly: increased industry concentration and decreased unionization rates. Since the pandemic started, more than 200,000 small firms have closed, accelerating a longer industry concentration trend. In addition, while in 1980, one in five workers used to be unionized, only one in 10 workers is now unionized.
President Biden's other priority should be to decrease discrimination in the labor markets: gender discrimination and racial discrimination. One crucial step on gender discrimination would be to institute universal parental leave. On racial discrimination, crucially, to create an infrastructure to decrease wealth inequality like Senator Cory Booker's proposal for baby bonds or universal government-financed asset-building accounts. Finally, and crucial for California, it is essential to roll back the limits to immigration instituted by the Trump administration, and most important, regularize millions of us who currently are undocumented.”
Sociology Professor Colin Beck
On right-wing domestic terrorism:
“One of the biggest challenges the Biden administration will face is the threat of right-wing domestic terrorism. The threat of international Islamist terrorism has faded, right about on schedule ([political scientist] David Rapoport predicted the wave would end by the mid-2020s), but domestic threats remain. In fact, right-wing terrorism has been the primary domestic threat facing the country since at least the early 1990s, even before the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.
This threat, while known, has always been underplayed. For instance, before September 11th, one of the largest joint terrorism task forces (local multi-agency partnerships) was based in the Pacific Northwest to investigate radical environmentalists. And the FBI testified to Congress in the early 2000s and labeled ecoterrorism the number one domestic terrorist threat. Notably, unlike right-wing groups, eco-terrorists have not killed anyone even preferring arson and vandalism as a primary tactic. The point is that the threat of right-wing groups, which have consistently advocated violence against the federal government, has been consistently downplayed.
The Biden administration will have to reinvigorate the investigation and mitigation of the right-wing domestic terrorist threat. As we have seen in the last couple weeks, it will have to do so in a highly charged atmosphere that equates violence to patriotism. Crucial to this effort will be avoiding the mistakes of the past. Heavy-handed approaches, such as Ruby Ridge, tends to create more anger. And when terrorist groups face repression, they splinter and radicalize and tend to create more violence. This is the short term, however. Such groups also tend to burn themselves out, if in a violent fashion.
The best approach would be a straightforward law enforcement model on one hand (investigation and prosecution by civilian authorities, preferably local) combined with new policy approaches that take the steam out of grievances (such as, attempts at lessening inequality, quickly ending the pandemic). If the Biden administration were able to outmaneuver the radical right and its political allies policy-wise, then the movement could be severed from its strongest national allies. The impeachment and disqualification of Trump would only help in this endeavor.”
Politics Professor Amanda Hollis-Brusky
On the Supreme Court:
“For the past four years, the Trump administration and former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have kept a laser focus on populating the federal judiciary with hundreds of young, conservative judges groomed by the Federalist Society network. Most importantly, Trump’s three Supreme Court appointments have tilted the balance of power on the high court 6-3 in the conservatives’ favor for the foreseeable future.
What Trump accomplished in four years would take Democratic presidents two to three decades to undo. That is why Democrats and liberal activists are agitating for the Biden administration to “pack the court” or, more palatably, to implement “court reform” measures that would limit the tenure or power of the current judges and justices or add new seats to the Supreme Court and lower courts for Biden and the Democratic Senate to fill (or both). Now that Democrats have control of the Senate, the prospects of passing such measures have gone up. Biden has publicly committed only to a courts commission to study the issue of court reform, so I wouldn’t expect swift and rapid changes to the federal courts. But I do expect something to happen before the 2022 midterms while Democrats still have unified government.”
Environmental Analysis and History Professor Char Miller
On environmental policy:
“The political environment—fraught and fractured—undoubtedly will shape what the Biden administration hopes to achieve with the environment, natural and human and the interplay between them. There are two goals, I suspect: to repair as quickly as possible the previous administration’s ravaging of long-established domestic environmental law and policy, and to swiftly push forward a set of proactive, collaborative, and international climate-change initiatives. Neither is going to be easy to accomplish in one or even two terms.
That said, the new administration has tapped some heavy hitters to fill key positions in the departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency, people who have dedicated their lives to public service and have the requisite expertise to rebuild our national responsibility to create a clean, safe and just environment for all. The same holds true for the new administration’s climate team: As excruciating as it will be to try to win back whatever goodwill remains for the U.S., I am hopeful that they these individuals have the diplomatic chops to reengage with the world.
To ‘build back better,’ though, will require a rigorous commitment to combatting systemic injustices—environmental and social—that are scored into the very landscapes that sustain us. Protecting Minnesota’s Boundary Waters from toxic mining will be more straightforward than ratcheting down fossil-fuel emissions that have such a deleterious and disproportionate impact on the public health of BIPOC [black, Indigenous and people of color] communities. How well and how fast the new administration responds to these disparate challenges, and how readily Congress is to fund the Biden initiatives, will tell us a great deal about our future resilience as a people and a place.”
Politics Professor Mietek Boduszynski
On foreign policy:
“The Biden-Harris administration will face a myriad of foreign policy challenges on day one. Great power competition with Russia and China, nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, climate change, and conflicts in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Venezuela are among the problems that President Biden will deal with from the moment he steps in the Oval Office. While it is tempting to think that many or all have to do with undoing damage done by four years of Trump, some foreign policy challenges—think North Korea’s long-range missile tests, which it is likely to launch to ‘test’ the new administration—have confronted multiple presidents. However, Trump’s ‘America First’ approach left the U.S. severely hampered in addressing many global challenges because it alienated U.S. allies. One of President Biden’s strengths in this regard is his pledge to restore trust in those alliances, which the U.S. badly needs to deal with pressing issues such as climate change.
The Biden-Harris administration also comes in strong on foreign policy because it has nominated an experienced team of professionals who know the issues. While in the long run it would also be beneficial to bring in some new people with fresh ideas—many of the current appointees are familiar faces from the Obama administration—in the near-term he inherits a country in crisis, and the need to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and other domestic matters means that there is value in having proven individuals who President Biden knows and trusts in top national security positions.
One area of interest to me and many of my Pomona students is the state of democracy and human rights in the world, which has deteriorated substantially in the last four years. Trump is at least partly responsible because he surrendered any pretense of U.S. leadership over these issues, raising human rights only when it was politically expedient. In other cases, he either stayed silent or openly sided with autocrats. Would Mohamed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia have ordered the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi if he did not think the White House 'had his back'?
But U.S. presidents have always faced the dilemma of how to confront autocratic allies such as Saudi Arabia, where the U.S., has interests that are in tension with the promotion of human rights and democracy. President Obama was also often reluctant to impose meaningful costs on autocrats in countries where the U.S. has security interests and relationships. Biden has signaled that he will take a different approach to such countries, and there is bipartisan support in Congress to do just that. It remains to be seen how and whether he does so.”
Professor of Latin American Studies, History and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies Miguel Tinker Salas
On immigration reform:
“The Biden administration has signaled that it plans to make immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship a central issue, sending an actual proposal to Congress in the first days of his administration. While the Obama administration also made immigration a priority, it never sent an actual bill to Congress where the matter ever advanced.
For his part, the president can address certain immigration matters by executive action, including reinstating DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], TPS (Temporary Protective Status) and removing the ban on visitors from predominately Muslim countries. He can also order Homeland Security to reunite families and children that were separated by the previous administration and stop the senseless wall that has seriously damaged the environment along the border. He can reinstate U.S. asylum policies and end the Secure Third Country program that places the burden on Mexico and Central America to receive those seeking asylum in the United States. While important, these actions will remain largely symbolic if a comprehensive immigration bill with a pathway to citizenship is not approved. There is past precedent for such a bill. In 1986, under then President Reagan, Congress passed IRCA, the Immigration Reform and Control Act that allowed millions to become citizens.
Some Republicans in the Senate have already expressed opposition to the Biden immigration plan. Beyond the matters he can address through executive action, the real test for Biden will be how much political capital he will expend to ensure passage of a comprehensive immigration bill and address the plight of close to 12 million people in the United States. This was a central promise of his campaign, and now he must deliver.”