Beyond 2020: What Lies Ahead for the Biden-Harris Administration


December 21, 2020

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic and widespread civil unrest, a record number of Americans voted in the 2020 United States presidential election. As the new Biden-Harris administration looks beyond the election, what can we expect?

Pardee RAND dean Susan Marquis moderated an online discussion featuring journalist (and Pardee RAND Board member) Soledad O'Brien and professors Debra Knopman and Howard Shatz on December 10. The webinar panel explored the challenges and opportunities ahead on issues from energy and climate change to economic policy and COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.

The dean began by asking Shatz whether he expects any structural changes in the way the executive branch operates. Shatz responded that we may, eventually, but the way the administration functions will depend on the personnel who are appointed and confirmed.

Knopman was then asked about potential changes to the way Congress operates.

"I can say categorically that Congress will be one of the last places on Earth to see significant change in the way it operates, let alone be innovative," she replied, "But having said that, I think it's fair to expect there's going to be much more coordination between the House majority, albeit slim majority, and the White House."

She added that, while much depends on the outcome of the elections for Georgia's two U.S. Senate seats, "in any event, it's going to still be a very, very difficult place to do business."

Marquis followed up with a question about how congressional legislation — or lack thereof — affects the ability of state and local governments to work, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There's going to be a tremendous competition for which public services are going to be delivered and which are going to be severely curtailed.”

—Debra Knopman

"Of course, state and local governments don't have the luxury that the federal government has of deficit spending," Knopman replied. "They have to balance their budgets. So without federal aid, many of them are going to be operating with far less. ... There's going to be a tremendous competition for which public services are going to be delivered and which are going to be severely curtailed."

Marquis turned to O'Brien to address recent and potential future changes in the "fourth branch" of government, the media.

"In the last four years, certainly journalists have struggled with how to cover Donald Trump, but there's even been challenges pre-dating that," she replied. She pointed to the emergence of talking-head punditry and partisan experts replacing newsroom spending on actual reporting, and the growth of social media as a competitor to television media.

Describing the tendency of channels to welcome talking heads with large social media followings, she added, "I think you're going to see more of that, just because that financial model has worked out pretty well."

When asked about the fate of investigative journalism, O'Brien acknowledged that it has increased, particularly in the area of "data journalism." But she said it's a mixed bag: "I think some of the best reporting has actually been not in a beat, but in the sort of investigative space at the same exact time that local media is really dying on the vine in a lot of ways."

Continuing on the media focus, a webinar attendee asked whether the Biden administration would resume daily press briefings.

"I think that's one of the things that the Biden administration will do to show that, look, it's all back on track," O'Brien replied, but she noted that the media has to address the issue of norms and expectations with regard to who it invites as experts.

"The whole entire standards and practices division of a newsroom was created for this," she lamented. "And now there's no consequence. It literally does not matter."

Asked by Marquis whether norms should be codifieed, Shatz replied, "It's very hard to codify norms. It's like creating a contract. You can't put everything in a contract. You can't codify all norms. On the other side is, who adjudicates those norms? ... Do I think that the media, that mainstream media or the print media is fair? If I don't think they're fair, then I'm not going to believe in the norms that they're adjudicating."

Switching gears, Marquis asked Knopman about issues the Biden administration is signalling as being important.

“[The media] just haven't been in communities, or we have covered communities from a point of view that really hasn't particularly served the community.”

—Soledad O'Brien

"Infrastructure is very definitely front and center," Knopman replied, adding that "wasn't just highways and bridges and water systems, but also included rural broadband and improved... public school buildings."

She added that the challenge of climate change, which the Biden administration is prioritizing, also relates to infrastructure: "a transformation of our energy system, our transportation systems."

Concerning the creation of a new cabinet-level position for climate, Knopman explained, "Climate does not fit neatly into a federal department, it cuts across virtually every department, including the Defense Department. The Defense Department may be one of the most important in terms of leading the way in federal procurement and in introducing resilience measures for its installations and the like."

Knopman added that the cabinet position will also represent a central point of contact internationally as well, such as with the Paris Climate Accords. Before shifting the talk to international relations, however, Marquis asked Shatz about business and the economics of COVID-19.

He replied that "the implications are actually quite negative," particularly the near-bifurcation of the labor market between those individuals and businesses that can do their work remotely and those that cannot. "It's those people, generally small businesses, that are really getting hurt," he said. "And we knew early on that they would get hurt." He then described the legislation that has attempted to help and what further aid may be needed in the future.

Marquis commented, "A confounding aspect of talking about small businesses is that there are some common concerns, there are some common issues, but a lot of what's going on with small business is really determined at the local level."

In turning to O'Brien, Marquis noted, "Where we're really struggling to provide information and to get new voices into this debate, and new ideas for solving these problems, is more at the local and community level. ... Can you talk about what have we been missing?"

O'Brien admitted that, in some ways, the media had lost its credibility "because we just haven't been in communities or we have covered communities from a point of view that really hasn't particularly served the community."

She described the role of organizations like RAND as "convenors" to let people talk about issues and engage in dialog, but she emphasized the importance of sharing those conversations in a way that reaches the right audiences. "We're constantly trying to figure out how do you serve up information and content ... in a way that's going to appeal to the people who you need to want to read it and listen to it and hear it."

Finally turning to international affairs, Marquis asked Shatz about the Biden administration's priorities and asked Knopma about the Paris Climate Accords.

Shatz said one process difference will likely be the administration's increased coordination with the European Union, and some different emphases will include migration, the Iran nuclear agreement, and China.

“We really want to do business with China because there are huge benefits, but there are also some security threats, how do we balance those?”

—Howard Shatz

"President Biden is going to have to figure out what to do with that long array of policies" that the Trump administration implemented toward China, Shatz said. "One point about China, which makes this even more difficult, is that China is growing right now. ... We really want to do business with China because there are huge benefits, but there are also some security threats, how do we balance those?"

Marquis segued the issue of trade with China toward that of supply chains, particularly related to state and local government supplies of personal protective equipment for front-line workers.

Knopman agreed and added, "There's a supply chain connection in the infrastructure area because something like 30 percent of our construction materials currently come from China, or have been coming from China."

She added, "The just-in-time mentality, which very much dominated the last 10 or 15 years of our economic expansion, has proved to have real fragility to it," such that state and local governments may want to reconsider their processes moving forward.

Marquis closed with a question for O'Brien concerning whether and how the media might help encourage greater unity in the coming years.

O'Brien suggested the media should try to avoid framing issues as left-versus-right, especially when many issues affect both sides equally. She also encouraged an emphasis on "solutions journalism" that highlights local responses to common challenges and suggests how these solutions might be implemented elsewhere. Finally, although less a suggestion for the media, she recommended that organizations like RAND examine how they can distill their messages for the traditional and new platforms, to reach larger audiences where they are.

— Monica Hertzman