Biden Administration: the First Steps in Domestic and Foreign Policy

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By Bonnie James

Domestic Policy: A Dedication to the Common Good

The President wasted no time in getting to work. Focusing primarily on domestic issues, especially those related to the pandemic, Biden, seated at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, on Jan. 20, began signing Executive Orders, Memoranda, and Proclamations that would launch the recovery program, and overhaul criminal justice, immigration, labor policy, and more, reversing the most egregious among former President Trump’s policies. Among these measures are:

Health Care and the Battle vs Covid-19

The President laid out a comprehensive program for defeating the pandemic and announced the establishment of a Covid-19 response coordinator who will report directly to the president. Biden also announced that the world-renowned epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci will stay on as his Chief Medical Advisor and work with his Covid response team. Biden’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain worked closely with Fauci during the Ebola outbreak when Klain was tasked with coordinating the Obama administration’s response to the crisis.

In addition, Biden will strengthen the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare); accelerate the production of supplies needed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, including the vaccines and personal protective equipment, and has tasked the incoming Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, a former schoolteacher, to work with elementary and secondary schools on how to reopen and stay open.

Biden also addressed the necessity for ensuring the safety of workers during the pandemic by announcing that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will issue guidelines on COVID-19 for workplaces.

He mandated mask-wearing on transportation modes overseen by the federal government, and for international travelers to the U.S. to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test before traveling.

He called for acceleration of the production of mitigation treatments for the coronavirus and expansion of access to therapies.

Science

Biden has made clear that his presidency will return to a policy of respect for truth and science; he will establish a President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Eric Lander, a pioneer in mapping the human genome, is slated to become director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy,

Criminal Justice

The confirmation of the President’s nominee for Attorney General Merrick Garland (who will lead the Justice Department) has been stymied in the Senate by Trump sycophant Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The impasse was broken on Feb. 3, when the new Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and now Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reached a deal on the organization of the Senate. So, Garland should be confirmed soon.

The President has called for the phase-out of private prisons and committed to reducing the number of those incarcerated; root out discrimination by race, gender, and income in the criminal justice system; and to eliminate the death penalty.

Immigration

Heading up immigration policy will be the Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, who was deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security during Obama’s second term, and before that, he was Obama’s director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2009 to 2013. If confirmed, Mayorkas would be the first immigrant and Latino to hold the position. Among his first priorities will be to find ways to reunite with their parents the more than 600 children who were separated at the border, under Trump’s anti-immigration policy. Biden will also reverse Trump’s ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries; reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children; and end construction of Trump’s ludicrous wall at the Texas-Mexico border.

Economy/Jobs

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the first woman to hold that office, and the former chair of the Federal Reserve, has made clear her agreement with President Biden that, to meet the urgent needs of the U.S. population after one full year of pandemic and economic distress, it is time to “go big.” She has expressed her full support for Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package. According to Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Janet Yellen has absolutely shown a willingness to challenge corporate power and not be intimidated by big banks,” he said. “That is a key ingredient as you rebuild our economy.”

The new administration will scale up investment in US companies, and close loopholes that allow corporations to offshore production and jobs. Biden will also extend the pause on student loan payments, impose nationwide restrictions on home evictions and foreclosures, and direct agencies to mitigate racial bias in federal housing policies.

Biden has a long track record of pro-labor policies, and has spoken of his longstanding ties with the labor movement, support for the right to organize, and his intention to enact a sweeping pro-labor agenda; he has pledged to restore collective bargaining power for federal employees, and to move as quickly as possible to achieve a $15 minimum wage for federal workers. His nominee for Labor Secretary Marty Walsh fits right in with that outlook; the two-term mayor of Boston is the former head of the Laborers’ Union and the Boston Building Trades Council. Walsh’s nomination was hailed by progressive Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who called him “a champion for America’s labor unions and a fierce fighter for working families.”

The best way to rebuild the US economy, is to follow through on the president’s stated commitment to “go big” on infrastructure: high-speed rail, broadband, and nuclear power are among the most important areas for immediate attention. On top of that, the country’s roads, bridges, tunnels, mass transit systems, are all outdated, crumbling, and in urgent need of repair or replacement. The most promising proposal to address this is for a National Infrastructure Bank that would immediately direct $4 trillion into infrastructure development, providing million of new, high-paying jobs at a time when they have never been need more than they are now.

Foreign Policy: Diplomacy Is Back

Pompeo’s Landmines

With Biden now at the helm of foreign policy, the US will once again take leadership in a multi-polar world, in which diplomacy, partnership with our traditional allies, and recognition that the US needs Europe, Japan, and its Western Hemisphere allies to solve the most challenging issues facing all nations today, above all, the global pandemic and the threat of a new worldwide financial/economic crisis.

His foreign policy team, led by Antony Blinken at State and Gen. Lloyd Austin at Defense, are well-suited for their posts. As former Deputy Secretary State and Deputy National Security Advisor, Blinkin advised then-Vice President Biden on national security, and earlier, worked with Biden when he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Austin, the first African-American to hold this position, was head of US Central Command. Biden announced that Austin will head up a Global Posture Reivew of US forces to be aligned with foreign policy and national security priorities. At the same time, the President has halted planned troop withdrawals from Germany.

The first thing Biden’s foreign policy team will have to deal with is the scorched-earth policy of the previous administration, up to the very last days of Trump’s failed presidency. Notably: Secretary of State Pompeo’s last-minute fling around the globe to scatter potential political and military landmines from Cuba and Venezuela to Iran and China/Taiwan. And while President Biden’s announcement of a shift in US-Saudi policy—ending the supply of of weapons to the Kingdom, is welcome, much more needs to be done to reverse the worst humanitarian crisis in decades visited upon the tiny nation of Yemen. Pompeo’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization vastly complicates things. These festering wounds will take time and careful, long-term diplomatic resolve to cure.

On Feb. 4, Biden made his first foray into foreign policy as President with a carefully orchestrated appearance at the State Department to give his maiden speech on the topic. Introduced by his newly confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a longtime political ally and associate of the President, Biden quickly got to the point : “America is back. Diplomacy is back.” Highlights of the brief address include, in addition to the shift in Saudi-Yemen relations:

Russia: The most important takeaway from the speech, as well as previous statements, is that the US is prepared to keep open a dialogue with Russia, while at the same time declaring that it will no longer “roll over” in the face of Russian aggression. The two countries have approved the five-year extension of New START, the one remaining nuclear arms treaty between them. President Trump had imposed unacceptable conditions on renewal of the treaty, which was set to expire on Feb. 4. In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 26, Biden also raised US concerns over alleged Russian interference with US elections, cybersecurity threats, and the poisoning and jailing of dissident Aleksey Navalny. In his speech, he called for Navalny’s release from prison.

China: Biden called for American leadership to meet what he termed “advancing authoritarianism,” such as China’s ambition to rival the US. But, he said, “we are ready to work with Beijing” when it’s in our interest to do so.

Iran: The president has made clear that he intends to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) enacted in 2015, which Trump had withdrawn from two years ago, and, even as a lame duck, moved to increase sanctions against Tehran. Reinstatement of the agreement would take place once Iran returned to full compliance. The appointment of Rob Malley as special envoy for Iran is promising; he played a pivotal role in negotiating the JCPOA, working closely with Blinken in the Obama administration. Malley was fiercely critical of Trump’s Iran policy, as having sabotaged the significant progress that had been made in reducing Iran’s nuclear buildup under the JCPOA. Under Trump, “Iran’s nuclear program grew, increasingly unconstrained by the JCPOA. Tehran has more accurate ballistic missiles than ever before and more of them. The regional picture grew more, not less, fraught,” he wrote in the Atlantic.

Israel/Palestine: US Deputy Ambassador to the UN Richard Mills announced that the Biden Administration would restore diplomatic relations and financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, which had been cut off in 2018 by Trump Pompeo. At a special session of the UNSC on the Middle East, Mills announced: “The Biden Administration will restore credible US engagement with Palestinians as well as Israelis.” Biden has stated that restore US assistance programs that support economic development and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people and to take steps to re-open diplomatic missions that were closed by the last US administration.

In another definitive break with Trump, Biden has issued an Executive Order to raise the number of refugees allowed to enter the US each year to 125,000 beginning fiscal year 2022. Trump had reduced that number to an historically low of 15,000 in 2020.

He has also announced that the US will rejoin the World Health Organization, which Trump had walked out of in the face of a global pandemic which has now felled more than 2 million people worldwide.

Leesburg, Virginia, Feb. 5, 2021 

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