While legal challenges still cloud the official result of the 2020 presidential elections and President Donald Trump and many Republican Party leaders refuse to concede to President-elect Joseph Biden, many are already looking to the policy priorities of a new administration. Following four years during which the United States made an about-face on most matters of policy, nearly a year of a pandemic that has upended the country’s economy, months of protests over racial injustice, and a presidency that’s shattered virtually all norms, what should—and what could—be done? In a virtual seminar on Thursday hosted by Dean Douglas Elmendorf, Harvard Kennedy School brought together some of its experts in areas ranging from international diplomacy to economic policy to criminal justice to offer advice to a Biden administration.


Put the economy on a better path forward for growth

Jason Furman.“The COVID pandemic is the worst shock to the U.S. economy in my lifetime, probably in a century,” said Jason Furman, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama. Given this stark reality, Furman said relief cannot wait for a new administration in January and he urged President Trump and the current Congress to take action on a new relief package immediately.  

But if the current administration does nothing, he said, “then job one for President Biden will be economic relief and fiscal stimulus, both to protect families from the downturn in the economy and also to put the economy on a better path forward for growth, [with] a combination of transfers like unemployment insurance and additional funding for states. And of course, containing the virus – which is the most important thing we can do for our economy, our society, and our lives.”

Furman added that even if the economy fully recovers from COVID-19 damage, deep structural problems will still need to be addressed such as income inequality, withdrawal of men aged 25 to 54 from the workplace, and a plateauing of women workers. While some of these ills can be addressed through executive orders, most will require legislation. Furman suggested these priorities:

  • Invest in children, which bring the highest rate of return.

  • Invest in infrastructure, and especially green infrastructure.
  • Create openness, in immigration and trade.
  • Redress our overall fiscal system, with higher taxes on high-income households and tax reform.

Finally, Furman said none of these solutions would be immediate. “You need to get a start on solving them, but also build the case for the bigger solution that you'll need to continue the growth and follow through with that.”

Jason Furman is Professor of the Practice of Economic Policy.


Foreign policy is going to have to begin at home

Nicholas Burns.“Foreign policy is going to have to begin at home,” said Nicholas Burns, who served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO and the State Department’s highest ranking foreign service officer. Burns was pointing to the enormous challenges the United States faces domestically, including the pandemic, the deep economic recession, and what he described as the country’s “leadership crisis.”

But he said that the United States would re-engage with the world, following the unilateral approach of the Trump administration. This will include repairing the country’s alliances. “The big power differential between the United States and Russia is the fact that Russia has no allies in the world and the United States has Canada and 28 European allies,” Burns argued. 

The new administration will need to return to its traditional leadership role in NATO as well as in Asia, where it should look to cultivate its bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia and seek to draw closer to India in order to limit China's military ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.

“I think almost everybody, including leaders in both of our political parties, would agree that the greatest challenge we're going to face overseas in the next decade in addition to climate change will be an ever-more assertive China, and we need to get the balance right,” Burns said, including cooperation where possible, such as issues like climate change and a solution to the pandemic. 
Finally, Burns argued for America to embrace once again the ideals that made it such as important global power. “We need to return the leadership of the democratic world,” he said. The administration has been largely silent on human rights abuses around the world, as well as to the question of legal immigration and admission of refugees. “We have to find our voice,” he concluded.

Nicholas Burns is Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations.


Reduce the number of inmates in federal prisons

Sandra Susan Smith.To address COVID-19 as well as racial and economic inequality, Sandra Susan Smith said the incoming Biden administration should “significantly reduce the number of inmates in federal prisons.” To explain why, she described the case of Patrick Jones, a 49-year-old Texas man, who was 13 years into a 27-year sentence for possession of 23 grams of crack and 21 grams of powder cocaine when he died from COVID-19 in federal prison earlier this year, one month after his petition to have his sentence reduced has been denied. Smith, who directs the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School, said Jones was the first federal prisoner to die in the pandemic.

Smith said Jones’ story was emblematic of a system where sentencing is punitive, and where justice seems to have turned away from the principles of citizenship and social justice. “These principles should be a part of any deliberation to establish fair and just penal policies and practices,” Smith said. “For the past 50 years however, they've largely been ignored. And so it is with these principles in mind that I argue that Biden's term should start by significantly reducing the number of inmates in federal prisons.” 

The immediate reasons are as practical as they are moral, she argued. Prisons account for almost all the top cluster of COVID-19 in the country, and the rate of cases reported by state and federal prisons is more than four times greater that of the general population. Jones is just one of roughly 175,000 inmates to contract the virus—more than 1,300 have died.

“The Biden administration can send a strong message, a strong signal to the nation, about the president-elect’s commitment to fighting against COVID-19, fighting for racial equity, and fighting for more just policies in the criminal legal realm,” Smith said.

Sandra Susan Smith is Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice.


Juliette Kayyem, Doug Elmendorf, Nicholas Burns, Jason Furman, Sandra Susan Smith, Joseph Aldy, Wendy Sherman
Juliette Kayyem, Doug Elmendorf, Nicholas Burns, Jason Furman, Sandra Susan Smith, Joseph Aldy, Wendy Sherman


Stop the harm

Juliette Kayyem.Juliette Kayyem, who served in the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama, said that in addressing domestic security issues, President-elect Biden will inherit some messiness and ugliness, so there is going to be a bit of undoing.” She pointed to the Muslim ban and the separation of children at the border as well as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “My first point is to stop the harm,” Kayyem said.

She also said the next administration should   right-size the Homeland Security Department, which is now designed around the Trump administration’s singular focus on border enforcement.  “Immigration is much more than border enforcement,” she said. “We need an agency that is focused on essentially defense and on response capabilities. That’s the right-sizing that you'll see.” Third, she cited a need to stop amplifying hate. “Without the encouragement of senior levels of the administration, we can turn a corner.  It doesn't mean people all of a sudden will become nice. It means it becomes shameful again to incite such things. If start to see shaming happen again, hate crimes can become something that is manageable. That's what a country like ours should do.” 

On COVID-19, she echoed other speakers on the urgency and scale of the challenge: “We are not in recovery,” she stated flatly. “We have 11 states that are over a 15% hospitalization of COVID. Someone like me starts to worry when your hospitalization bed rate is at 5%.”

“There is a role for the bully pulpit to try to get masking, tell us not to get together at Thanksgiving or Christmas,” she said.  “It is something Biden is doing even now, since the election.  We’ve already seen two red states move to a mask mandate.”

“I think quick testing will come on board to get our schools back open,” Kayyem added, “and there’s the invocation of the defense production act to make sure our supply chain holds together in terms of the needs of our hospitals and for vaccine distribution. But he will inherit an emergency crisis like no other.”

Juliette Kayyem is Belfer Senior Lecturer in International Security.


The approach necessary to address climate change

Joseph AldyJoseph Aldy suggested three tracks of policy actions the Biden administration should follow to take on climate change.  

“The first thing the White House can implement immediately is organization in the White House process. That's through a national climate council or a task force of all the cabinet agencies. It would drive action and ensure accountability for delivering on the president's goals. This includes executive orders that guide agencies especially in reversing the regulatory agenda of the past couple of years.”

Second, “the White House can contract agencies to pursue new climate change regulations and roll back Trump era rules.” Third, the administration needs to work with the states, with business leaders, and most importantly with Congress. “The climate payoffs could be quite considerable, and I think are going to be really critical for delivering on the president-elect’s climate agenda. This could include extensive clean energy and climate resilient infrastructure investments and a covert economic recovery.”

Aldy, who served as special assistant to the president for energy and environment under President Obama, had one specific recommendation for the president-elect: a carbon price benchmark. “A carbon price benchmark of $50 per ton would reflect the benefits of reducing carbon dioxide pollution. The carbon price benchmark would enable more ambitious regulations by monetizing their client benefits. And that would signal a renewed commitment, working with partners around the world and establishing our expectation that they would reciprocate by accounting for their emission’s global impact, as laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. … By establishing a proper price benchmark, President Biden would initiate the ambitious, whole government and whole of economy approach that’s necessary to address climate change.”

Joseph Aldy is Professor of the Practice of Public Policy.


We have to be about the power of our example

Wendy Sherman.“We are in an entirely different world than when President Trump became president of the United States,” said Wendy Sherman,  “and not just because of his administration and his actions, but because of things that have occurred in the world.” From the pandemic to the rapid rise of technology to economic inequality to climate change, Sherman argued, the country and the world face a challenge of leadership far different from that of 2016.

While encouraged by this election’s near-record turnout, and by the leadership exhibited at the individual and community level, she said more was needed. Civil society, public institutions, government, business must all be engaged. “We will not get to the public good that each of our speakers have discussed, without each of those parts of our society coming together,” Sherman said. And as an international leader, the United States has to be more than just the most powerful military, the largest economy, and the most famous democracy. “We have to be about the power of our example,” she said. 

She called on everyone to give the new administration “space and time” to stand up their government and put their plans into operation, and for all to remember “that the responsibility is not just theirs—it is each of ours.”

Wendy Sherman is Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership; Director, Center for Public Leadership.


Work hard for their success

Douglas Elmendorf.In opening the discussion, Douglas Elmendorf said the election was historic on several fronts, not least the record-setting turnout and the milestones of electing the first woman as vice president as well as the first African American and South Asian American woman. 

He recalled the example set in the transition from former President George H.W. Bush to President Clinton, with Bush telling his successor that “your success now is our success. I’m rooting hard for you.” 

Elmendorf said: “I encourage us all to follow George H.W. Bush’s example and work hard for the success of the new president and vice president.”

Douglas Elmendorf is Dean and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy.

Policy Advice for the Biden-Harris Administration

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A girl looks at screens in New York's Times Square after news organizations announced that Democratic candidate Joe Biden would be the next president of the United States on November 7, 2020.
Photo by Pablo Monsalve/VIEWpress/Getty Images

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