U.S. election results appear to show a clear victory for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in both the Electoral College and the popular vote, despite the Trump administration’s refusal thus far to concede or loosen its grip on U.S. federal authority. Yet planning for a peaceful transition of power in the American democratic tradition is already underway, with the United States and the world facing numerous problems—a global pandemic, the climate crisis, economic and political instability—that require urgent and effective policy responses. In response, 14 HKS faculty members have penned short essays for us describing the “one thing” they would do first in a post-Trump political landscape and why. 

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The one thing I would do first to fix U.S. foreign policy 

Stephen Walt.On his first day as president, Joe Biden should announce that the United States will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. He should do this first for three reasons.

For starters, climate change poses the greatest long-term threat to humanity’s future. Failure to address it is already causing considerable harm to many people, and the damage will only increase the longer we delay. The United States cannot be on the wrong side of this issue.

Second, rejoining Paris tells America’s allies and friends that responsible officials with a respect for science are back in charge and eager to cooperate to address this common danger.  

Lastly, this step will also send a powerful signal to China. It underscores the need for Washington and Beijing to cooperate on issues where their interests overlap, even as Sino-American rivalry heats up. Showing that the United States is willing to work together to address climate change can keep channels of constructive dialogue open and lower the risk of war.

There are plenty of other steps that Biden should take to improve America’s international standing—ending the “forever wars,” pressing Europe to take responsibility for its own defense, negotiating new multilateral arrangements on trade, digital technology, migration and global health, shoring up U.S. alliances in Asia, rebuilding our diplomatic capacity, and bringing new voices into the foreign policy establishment—but rejoining Paris is the place to start.

Stephen M. Walt is Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs.


The first thing I would do to restore science to its rightful place in public policy

Sheila JasanoffIn his 2009 inaugural address, President Barack Obama promised to restore science to its rightful place. Today, after four exhausting years of post-truth politics, it seems even more urgent for President-elect Joe Biden to make and keep the same promise. But how? The first thing I would do is abolish the increasingly politicized office of the science advisor to the president and replace it with a more intellectually diverse and socially inclusive President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in Society.

Why? On Saturday, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris spoke in front of screens announcing “The People Have Chosen Science.” If almost 50 percent of the American people voted for President Trump even in the midst of a raging pandemic, one must ask why the winning margin for science was so thin. The answer is that the vote for Trump was not a vote against science. It signaled a massive breakdown of trust in expertise.

Science is not a spectator sport. It cannot be allowed to lose in any modern democracy. But to restore science to its rightful place, the voters who turned away need to be persuaded that good science is the people’s servant, not their enemy. Many have called for a more independent role for science advice, with less opportunity for political influence. But history shows that science fares best in this nation when it is responsive to people’s skepticism, not insulated from it. A presidential council of science in society would help rebuild trust. It would ensure that science advice is not just technically sound but answerable to the rough and tumble demands of democracy.

Sheila Jasanoff is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies.

The one thing I would do first to deepen democracy

Archon FungThough we are still immersed in a turbulent post-election process, we may emerge in several weeks with a new Biden-Harris administration. The votes have been counted, no credible evidence of significant voter fraud has emerged, and the probability of a recount changing the outcome even in one state, much less the national outcome, is vanishingly small. Yet President Trump is still claiming without evidence that he secured more votes due to massive voter fraud, and his legal teams have filed many complaints. At this writing, very few Republican officials have acknowledged Biden’s victory and, according to one post-election survey, 70 percent of Republican voters do not think the election was free and fair, with many believing there was widespread voter fraud.

A new Biden-Harris administration will be sorely tempted to move past the chaos of this election in order to attend to the enormous policy challenges of the pandemic, economic suffering, climate change, and racial injustice. As important as those challenges are, this election has demonstrated that the foundations of our democracy have eroded to the brink of collapse. Therefore, the very first priority for all Americans and especially for the incoming Biden administration should be to sanctify the democratic principle that American citizens should pick their political leaders, and not the other way around.

A President Biden should consecrate that principle by vigorously pursuing crucial elements of House Resolution 1, called the “For the People Act,” which would expand voting rights by promoting automatic voter registration, early voting, online registration, make Election Day a federal holiday, promote disclosure in campaign spending, and create non-partisan commissions for redistricting in federal elections. Absent Democratic control of the Senate, the prospects for turning H.R. 1 into law are remote. Yet more important than enactment will be to have a highly visible, fact-based, public debate about its merits and difficulties. That debate would educate Americans about the importance of the democratic principle that they should pick their leaders and enable them to hold the leaders who support and oppose the principle accountable. 

But legislation is not enough. The democratic principle should transcend petty partisanship and flow through the hearts of all Americans and their political leaders. President-Elect Biden should therefore convene a prominent National Commission to Strengthen Democracy to document the many ways in which the democratic principle is routinely violated in our politics and devise measures to advance the principle. 

Because public distrust of political leaders and elites is running at record levels, this commission should model democratic values by putting citizens in charge. The commissioners should be “ordinary” citizens, not political leaders, like a large jury. We have many models of citizen commissions, such as redistricting bodies in California and Michigan as well as recent constitutional revision processes in Iceland and Ireland. These citizens should be supported by the full resources of the federal government—including many experts and politicians—in their fact-finding and recommendation-drafting processes. In our environment of hyper-partisanship, citizens should take the reins of advancing the democratic principle because, as this election has shown, the matter is too important to be left to politicians.

Archon Fung is Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government.


The one thing I would do first to fix public safety and more

Sandra Susan Smith.President-elect Biden recently announced the following top priorities for his new administration: fighting COVID-19, racial equity, climate change, and economic recovery. While it is difficult to imagine what policy initiative might allow the incoming president to tackle all four of these important issues simultaneously (not that this is his goal), there is one thing that the President-elect can immediately do to begin addressing two of these concerns: significantly reduce the number of prisoners in federal facilities now.

In the U.S. carceral system, only in jails have we seen COVID-19-related declines worthy of mention. A number of county facilities across the country reduced their jail populations by anywhere from 7 percent to half; on average, reductions have been on the order of 30 percent. They did so primarily by substantially reducing the number of arrests that result in jail admissions or by releasing individuals with pre-existing conditions that make them most vulnerable to severe symptoms and death by the virus. Some did both. Most of these declines, however, occurred between March and May, fairly early in the pandemic. Few have been released since.

More individuals can and should be released from jails and prisons now, but state and federal prisons have done almost nothing to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread by releasing prisoners. Their reductions have been on the order of about 5 percent. New Jersey and California, two states that have made considerable progress decarcerating over the past 15-20 years, in general, are currently engaged in such serious efforts. The Federal Bureau of Prisons could do the same, releasing those who no longer pose any real threat to society, including the elderly, many individuals with pre-existing conditions, many of those being held for nonviolent offenses, immigrants imprisoned for “illegal reentry” offenses, and most individuals who have already served 20 years or more of their sentences. Given what we know about effective sentencing practices abroad and given what we have learned from decarceration efforts here at home, there really is no compelling reason not to do so.

By significantly reducing the numbers of inmates being held in federal prisons, the Biden administration can send a strong signal to the nation about the president-elect’s commitment to fighting COVID-19; to racial equity, since significant declines in prison populations will likely disproportionately benefit Black and Latino inmates; and, if framed correctly, to sentencing reform. Win. Win. Win.

Sandra Susan Smith is Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice and the faculty director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management.


The one thing I would do first to help regions left behind

Gordon Hanson.America is a land of stark differences in economic opportunity. Some communities project success. Two-parent families predominate, children attend good schools, residents enjoy good health, new businesses are common, and many adults earn comfortable incomes. In other communities, economic forces—including globalization, technological change, and severe recession—have eliminated many middle-class jobs and left a tragic reality of despair. Unstable families, poorly performing schools, high rates of morbidity and substance abuse, and the absence of work and business formation are alarmingly common. 

Research shows that standard approaches to local economic development, which emphasize tax breaks to attract large companies, do not close regional gaps in economic opportunity. What can be done to help regions that have been left behind economically? The most pressing problem in distressed communities is joblessness. Low employment rates mean that many working-age adults are seeing their skills deteriorate, relying on family members or government transfers for their livelihood, and making only modest contributions to local demand for goods and services. 

To promote employment creation in regions in which joblessness has become endemic, existing tax breaks could be repurposed. They could be used to provide seed capital to new or expanding businesses, wage subsidies for employing low-wage workers, and student-debt relief to newly hired college graduates, all on the condition that investment and employment occur in communities in which employment rates are low. New job creation would restore the dignity of work and help reverse the social dislocation that thrives in its absence.

Gordon Hanson is Peter Wertheim Professor in Urban Policy.

The one thing I would do first to put trade policy back on track

Dani Rodrik.Donald Trump has wreaked havoc on the world trade regime by waging an unnecessary trade war with China and making it impossible for the World Trade Organization to function. The challenge President-elect Joe Biden faces is to reach a settlement with China while establishing a new multilateral trade order that is more compatible with domestic social and economic needs.

The quid pro quo with China must recognize that each nation is entitled to its own economic model. The United States should not demand that China alter its industrial and state enterprise policies, except where they constitute clear beggar-thy-neighbor policies. China’s economic policies have not only engineered history’s most impressive poverty reduction, they have also helped create a larger domestic market for Western firms by spurring economic growth. In return, China will have to understand that U.S. trade policies will prioritize the health of local communities, good jobs, national security, and human rights before market access by Chinese firms.

The WTO and the patchwork of regional trade agreements that govern world trade need a serious re-examination. They have gone too far by putting global corporations in the driving seat while failing to address the difficulties posed by new areas such as digital trade. The Biden administration will have to step back from the gung-ho globalization of previous Democratic administrations, but it will need to do so in a way that recognizes all nations’ legitimate needs for policy space and regulatory diversity.

Dani Rodrik is Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy.

The first thing I would do to renew public trust in news media

Nancy Gibbs.Like much of what we value most, trust is much easier to lose than to earn, and a great deal has been lost during these last four years. But the decline in trust in news media began well before 2016, and a change in the White House is not enough to reverse the damage. As long as millions of people occupy an alternative universe of non-facts, progress on pressing national problems will be hard if not impossible. 

This trust needs to be grounded in our many local communities. So even as we map how misinformation shapes that alternative universe, it is vital that we rebuild a robust, relevant local news ecosystem. The pandemic has been cataclysmic for local newspapers, slicing ad revenue 42% in the second quarter; for local TV, 24%. Owners have cut staff and reduced frequency in those places that didn’t shut down altogether. We know what happens when local news disappears: community bonds weaken, fewer people run for office, corruption grows, partisan outrage merchants fill the void and misinformation thrives. Addressing this challenge will be a central research focus at the Shorenstein Center as we approach 2021, fueled by the conviction, as Arthur Miller put it, that “a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.” And at this fateful moment, we have a lot to talk about.

Nancy Gibbs is Lombard Director of the Shorenstein Center and Visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of the Practice of Press, Politics and Public Policy.

The first thing I would do to engage with allies, competitors, and adversaries

Wendy Sherman.On Saturday evening, as President-elect Joe Biden delivered his acceptance speech, he set the frame for his approach to allies and adversaries alike. Biden said, “Tonight, the whole world is watching America. I believe, at our best, America is a beacon for the globe. And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
His remarks were about his vision for America, the example that included what we must do to gain control of the pandemic, restore our economy, deal with climate change, and address racial injustice. Of course, the president-elect included some immediate specifics, including standing up a COVID-19 Task Force, to make real his plan to control the virus; a commitment to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement; and a commitment not to withdraw from the World Health Organization. The president-elect understands that many issues cross boundaries and international cooperation is key.  In his remarks announcing his COVID-19 Task Force he affirmed the need to work with allies and partners throughout the world to end the pandemic for all. President-elect Biden is working hard to fill not only the most senior national security and foreign policy roles but to populate our embassies and our agencies to reach out to do the crucial work of diplomacy, development, defense, and intelligence.
The president-elect and vice president-elect understand that if we cannot build our country back better, we will not be able to work productively with our allies, let alone compete with, challenge, confront, and even occasionally cooperate with competitors and adversaries. 

Wendy Sherman is director of the Center for Public Leadership and professor of the practice of public leadership.


What I would do first to address the COVID economic crisis

Jason Furman.President Biden will take office with a virus raging and an economy in deep recessionary conditions. The economic pain could outlast the virus itself, making a plan to both minimize the current shock and address persistent vulnerabilities essential. The first thing President Biden should do is push a five-step economic approach to address this situation, while being willing to compromise where necessary to get it done.

First, address the virus itself. No economic policies can rebuild an economy and society at the mercy of a raging virus. More funding is needed for testing, vaccine distribution, and other purposes, funding that will have a higher bang-for-the-buck than any other economic policy approach.

Second, immediate relief and response. Hopefully the current Congress and President Trump will come to an agreement so that additional unemployment insurance and assistance to states and schools does not have to wait any longer. If they do not, it should be President Biden’s first order of business. Ideally assistance would be conditioned on the unemployment rate itself and scale up or down automatically as warranted by economic circumstances.

Third, rebuild the economy. Job losses are likely to persist for years, especially for people who cannot get their old jobs back. President Biden and both parties in Congress are interested in infrastructure, a big plan would always have been welcome but especially so now.

Fourth, fill holes in the social safety net. The United States needs to make health coverage more generous, fix the unemployment insurance system, and establish paid leave and sick leave—where the United States is alone among advanced economies in not having any nationwide programs. President Biden may not be able to get all of this done in his first two years, but he should build a strong case for the future.

Finally, strengthen the global economy. There is no economic recovery in the United States without a stronger and more robust global economy. The United States needs to restore its role as a leading economy in crafting a coordinated global response to both economic stimulus and also debt relief for poor countries.

Jason Furman is professor of the practice of economic policy.


The one thing I would do first to control disinformation

Joan Donovan.Right now, we are witnessing one of the most wide-ranging disinformation campaigns about voter fraud and election integrity in the history of the United States. Allegations of bogus mail-in ballots traverses every online space and echoes across mainstream news. However, this time Trump’s inability to set the media agenda just hits differently. Some outlets, like CNN and The New York Times, are covering it as a wild conspiracy theory. Others, like Fox News are channeling their opinion pages and pundits to discuss it, while refusing to broach the issue in their straight news. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are labelling content related to these claims, while also removing content calling for violence and civil war. These are all efforts to quell disinformation in this time of political and economic uncertainty.
If I could do one thing to control disinformation, it would be to increase the visibility and distribution of objective, accurate, and factual information. The truth is boring, stale, and disinterested, whereas disinformation is scandalous, outrageous, and at times, information warfare. Because social media is designed to redistribute content that mimics these emotionally charged features of disinformation, the truth is continuously at a disadvantage. Furthermore, because knowledge takes time to generate, disinformation careens like a train rolling off the tracks when pushed by newsworthy individuals such as political elites, celebrities, and online influencers. The time has come to redesign social media so that a few well-resourced powerful groups cannot leverage the speed and scale of social media to misinform the public.

Joan Donovan leads The Technology and Social Change Project and is an adjunct lecturer in public policy.

The first thing I would do to save cities

Stephen Goldsmith.The first thing I would advise President Biden to do to bolster cities is extend his message of unity in a way that encourages progress across racial, class, and geographic lines.

The tangible expression of this hope would be to deliver relief from the crushing revenue burdens brought on by the pandemic in a fashion that supports broad reforms. These reforms should reflect what we’ve learned about what works in terms of mixed use, comprehensive, community-involved actions. Only concentrated action will produce hope in communities where the effects of poverty and neglect throttles opportunity. These actions should include addressing broadband access, vacant housing remediation, and creating safe places to play. 

But, small and isolated projects will not be sufficient. Federal support to mitigate the loss of revenue caused by the pandemic should be dispensed in a manner that helps cities prepare for the future and doesn’t just serve to replace depressed local tax revenues. The funds that followed the Great Recession of 2008 helped fill city coffers in the short term but did little to help cities restructure government. We have seen from COVID-19 reactions that cities need to accelerate their digital transformations and implement agile, data-informed responses to everything from the future of roads and sidewalks to how workforce development can unlock opportunity for millions more Americans.

We know what works to address many of the harms caused by geographical and racial inequities of the past. Funding should now support cities while driving change.

Stephen Goldsmith is Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy.

The one thing I would do first to create an effective China policy

Tony Saich.The most important geopolitical challenge for the new administration remains how to deal with a rising China. There is bipartisan agreement about the challenge, but there is no consensus about how to respond effectively (containment, confrontation, cooperation, or a combination of approaches). China is not going away, so an effective approach will develop policies to coexist while promoting American interests. U.S.-China business and financial ties are deep and will not end, and key global challenges require collaboration, whether one likes it or not. Thus, while some decoupling will take place, extensive decoupling is not feasible.

As China will only undertake actions that promote its own national interests, direct influence will be limited. Two general principles for action should be undertaken. First, as opposed to simply banning activities or Chinese products, the emphasis should be on reciprocity. For example, rather than only banning Chinese apps, we should make sure that non-Chinese apps can operate within China. Google as a search engine is far superior to Baidu, a Chinese search engine, for example. Second, actions should be taken in concert with other nations as this is what China fears most. Coalitions of the willing and aggrieved must be built to pressure China.

To rectify the lack of trust, the administration should work together on managing the provision of new global public goods where the international framework is not fixed. Many challenges trouble the global commons (climate change, oceans), global engagement (natural disasters, fighting infectious diseases, peacekeeping), and global regulation (cyber, financial transactions) that require cooperation. This opens a small space for cooperation, but both countries will be guided by their own clashing national interests.

Anthony Saich is director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs.

The one thing I would do first to restore the primacy of human rights

Kathryn Sikkink.The Trump administration has so eroded the will and the ability of the United States to work on behalf of human rights in the world that the first challenge the new Biden administration will face is to reconstruct U.S. soft power.  

The absence of American leadership in this area has had its consequences. As the Trump administration embraced foreign authoritarians who abused the rights of their citizens, it helped erode democracy both abroad and at home. By ignoring or joining forces with countries trying to undermine or misuse global human rights institutions like the UN Human Rights Council or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Trump’s foreign policy distanced us from our traditional allies and gave comfort to our opponents.

But this is not the time for an ambitious new global initiative on human rights. Rather we need a two-pronged strategy to rebuild U.S. soft power on human rights in the world.  The first and most important task we face is to address our human rights crisis within, including racialized police violence, economic inequality, voter suppression, and cruel border and immigration policies. At the same time as we turn to getting our own human rights house in order, there is much a Biden administration State Department can do to revitalize U.S. human rights policy and begin to put the weight of the U.S. government back behind our democratic allies and movements for democracy around the world, and continue the hard and often behind-the-scenes role of opposing human rights violations wherever they occur.

Kathryn Sikkink is Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy.

The one thing I would do first to restore functional transatlantic ties with NATO and the EU

Cathryn Cluver Ashbrook.In short: Meet and connect early and often. The last four years have left allies and partners in NATO and the European Union questioning the reliability of American commitment to the alliance itself and to the shared values of the liberal world order, of which the United States was the chief architect.  
European countries, particularly Germany and France, see their political and economic advancement linked to stable, predictable partnerships embedded in the multilateral system. External challengers—China and Russia—have ramped up their capacities to further divide European partners internally and weaken the transatlantic bond through cyberattacks, interference in democratic processes, economic overreach (in China’s case), and by creating volatility in Europe’s direct neighborhood (Russia). Transnational threats—climate change, pandemics, offensive cyberattacks—can only be fully met with transatlantic cohesion. Further, the democratic strength on which NATO was built is weakening from the inside as Turkey and Eastern European neighbors are swaying into autocracy. A revived U.S. commitment to democracy that regains its resilience and strength through this election will give new legitimacy to NATO partners looking to curtail democratic backsliding in the alliance. But after the damage of the Trump years, active, humble, and substantive outreach to Europe will be required. New and decayed channels will need to be energized.

Summitry might equal political pageantry, but it serves an important signaling function to European and U.S. electorates. An early trip to European capitals—Berlin, Paris, and Brussels—would begin to reset the tone, underlining the message that the United States is willing to listen and commit. Urgent issues should include integrated pandemic defense as part of inclusive security, economic and digital issues in the pandemic recession (including approving the new WTO leadership), reining in Chinese economic and political influence, and progress on aligning EU and U.S. climate plans and UN commitments toward the Paris Agreement. A new Digital Council, a renewed multi-level effort around the NATO 2030 strategy, frequent exchanges between Congress and parliamentary working groups with European and Member State parliamentarians via Zoom—all avenues of communication must be activated early and in coordination. The joint challenges ahead are too serious not to be met with clear-eyed, renewed vitality in the West. 

Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook is executive director of The Future of Diplomacy Project and The Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship.

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