You are here: American University College of Arts & Sciences News What Will the World Look Like in a Biden-Harris Administration?

Contact Us

Battelle-Tompkins, Room 200 on a map

CAS Dean's Office 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20016-8012 United States

Back to top

Government & Politics

What Will the World Look Like in a Biden-Harris Administration?

College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Weigh In

By  | 

With former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. projected to be the winner of the 2020 presidential election, thoughts have turned to what a Biden-Harris administration could mean for our nation. We asked faculty members to share their predictions for the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic, science, the environment, race and racial health inequities, the arts, immigration, the Arab World, the US military, and more. (Please note that all thoughts and opinions belong solely to each author.)

The COVID-19 Pandemic

Melissa Hawkins, Director of AU’s Public Health Scholars Program

The pandemic response will be the top priority of the new administration. We’ll see a change in tone and a coordinated federal response to the pandemic, both in the short and long term. Biden and Harris have already released a detailed pandemic plan and several polices they plan to implement once they take office. This week Biden announced his COVID-19 advisory board with 13 public health officials, doctors, and current and former government officials.

Beginning in January, I think we’ll see: 1) a massive ramp up in testing capacity, including drive-through diagnostic testing sites with rapid results; 2) an investment in a Public Health Job Corps team to assist with local contact tracing and community-based efforts to protect at-risk populations, including a call for nationwide mask mandate; 3) an increase in production of personal protective equipment (PPE) to assist states, and; 4) support for the CDC to issue clear guidance on how to navigate the pandemic going forward. Biden has also pledged to invest in manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to ensure equitable access.

I also think we’ll see the Biden administration double down on investments in the ACA by expanding premium subsidies and creating a public option health insurance program available to individuals of any age. He will rejoin the World Health Organization, and in order to prepare for future pandemics, he will reinstate the National Security Council for Global Health Security and Biodefense.

All of these efforts share the long-term goal of rebuilding trust from general public in science and to repair damage from misinformation, which will take time.

Race and Health Inequities

Jessica Owens-Young, Assistant Professor of Health Studies

Under a Biden-Harris administration, I anticipate more robust conversations and action on a few areas that would affect health and racial health inequities. First, I think the administration is going to shift the narrative of the coronavirus pandemic. They have already begun to do so by announcing and working with their COVID-19 Task Force. I think this team is going to lay a strong foundation to the promotion of more evidence- and science-based practices coupled with social policies that can help support people such as income and housing protections.

Relatedly, I think the Biden-Harris administration will reverse executive orders that are harmful to the environment and seriously consider policy actions to address climate change, beginning with rejoining the Paris Agreement and rescinding executive orders that removed environmental protections, such as limitations on greenhouse gas emissions. Too many Black and Indigenous communities are at greater risk of being exposed to toxic air and water, so addressing climate change and environmental racism may be a priority in this administration.

I also anticipate policies targeting economic inequality and supporting economic growth, both of which impact health outcomes. I do think that this administration will tackle student debt and develop policies to lessen the burden of student loans, perhaps even forgiving at least some portion of federal student loans. From a health perspective, this is important because economic factors influence health and student loan debt can limit health-promoting economic behaviors, like investing in retirement and homeownership. Overall, I can imagine a Biden-Harris administration promoting a more holistic approach to social and economic conditions, which will have a positive impact on health.

The Arts

Ximena Varela, Director of American University’s Arts Management Program

“The future of who we are lies in the arts. It is the expression of our soul.”
President-elect Joe Biden

During his tenure, President Trump oscillated between ignoring the arts and culture sector, or enacting policies that gutted and decimated its few support structures and safety nets. Starting in 2017, President Trump proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), in a move that would have effectively destroyed major sources of national, regional, and local funding for the arts. And throughout his presidency, Trump engaged in a relentless battle against most of the entertainment industry. With creative industries contributing to $877 billion to the economy every year (with over 5 million people employed), lack of support for the arts translates into lack of support for a substantial part of local and regional economies.

What can we expect from a Biden-Harris administration? Unlike President Obama, President Biden has not articulated an explicit platform for the arts. However, we can look to the records of both President Biden and Vice President Harris for an answer.

Biden was the co-sponsor of the bill creating the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and one of the original co-sponsors to establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian. His negotiation of the 2009 stimulus bill included $50 million for arts and culture, which was lifesaving for many organizations. And he has consistently voted against the elimination of the NEA, or reduction of its funding, since 1991. Biden’s efforts have not gone unrecognized. In the 2020 election, then-candidate Biden received the endorsement of the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), only the second time it had endorsed a candidate in its history, because “Biden understands that the arts are a critical driver of healthy and strong local economies in cities and towns across the country” (per Kate Shindle, President of AEA).

Vice President-elect Harris is the co-sponsor of an act to establish Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino, and of the Confederate Monument Removal Act (the latter with Senator Cory Booker). She has served as a trustee on the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and was heavily involved in programs promoting grassroots leadership and diversity in the arts.

The Biden-Harris administration faces unprecedented challenges as they assume office on January 20. But it is clear from their past actions and public statements that they understand the critical role that the arts play not just in the enhancement, but in the very survival and well-being of all Americans.

The Economy

Gabriel Mathy, Assistant Professor of Economics

Biden will immediately provide a better response to the COVID pandemic than the Trump administration, and the pandemic is the main reason the economy is depressed at this time. However, cases are spiking, there is no appetite for lockdowns anymore, so there will be another, larger wave before the vaccine arrives. It’s not clear the President can do much about that.

Biden will have real trouble passing his agenda if the Senate remains in GOP hands, as appears likely. As for Biden’s plans for green investments, a transition away from fossil fuels, rolling back the Trump tax cuts for high income earners and corporations, a $15 minimum wage, a public option, etc. — don’t hold your breath. Congress has the power of the purse after all, and the Senate majority leader can block all these plans if they want to. Executive orders, related to immigration and international trade, will be ways Biden can act.

The likely end of Trump’s restrictions on student visas with Biden will also help with universities like American University, that benefit from foreign enrollment. Higher education is one of America’s most successful “export sectors” and so this will improve the fiscal position of universities and improve economies tied to universities.

Biden will have better economic relations with China as Trump did, and the trade war will ease. However, relations with China will remain frosty. Expect a tech Cold War with competing tech ecosystems tied to China and the United States respectively, with increasing restrictions on apps like TikTok that are based in China in some way.

If a stimulus bill doesn’t pass during the lame duck, then expect a much smaller repeat of the CARES Act, which will provide a boost to household incomes, faster employment growth, and a stronger economy than if no stimulus passes.

It’s possible Biden could pass an infrastructure package with the GOP, especially related to something like high-speed rail. However, expect the GOP to return to supporting austerity as they did during the Obama presidency after blowing up the budget deficit under the Trump administration.


Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience Terry Davidson

Joe Biden emphasized that his administration would “choose science over fiction.” Biden promised to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate agreement, to rely on the advice of scientists and public health experts to combat the global pandemic, to restore the reputations of the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, and to reverse restrictions that have made the United States a less attractive place for students and researchers from other countries. With his election, scientists throughout the world breathed a sigh of relief. The election has raised our hopes that the ideals of scientific integrity and commitment to fair, evidence-based policies will be embraced once again by the US Government. 

However, many of us were astounded that over 70 million voters supported a president who delivered almost daily hammer blows to the credibility of science and repeatedly mocked and rejected the advice of his own science advisers. Without action, the anti-science sentiments fueled by President Trump may well continue long after he leaves office. However, departing from past prohibitions against mixing science and politics, prestigious science-based organizations now argue that to reverse this trend, it is crucial for scientists to publicly stand for evidence-based knowledge and against misinformation. Scientists and scientific policy-makers share this view and recognize that combating anti-science ideologies is an important means to advance the public good. Accordingly, as part of a new initiative at AU’s Center for Neuroscience and Behavior, experts in science, public policy, and law will work together to increase public awareness of the benefits of science and to improve science-based policy-making.

Immigration Law and Enforcement

Ernesto Castañeda, Associate Professor of Sociology

As a candidate, Joe Biden promised to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) directive. President Obama signed DACA to help Dreamers obtain work permits and temporary relief from deportation. President Trump tried to end the program; however, the courts ruled against the way Trump’s administration tried to phase it out. Biden promised to reinstate DACA, which he has the power to do during his first days in office. Furthermore, Biden could expand it to include both a wider age range of asylum seekers, and also include the unaccompanied minors who were separated from family members after asking for asylum. Additionally, he can assign state resources and build enough political will to reunite these families in the United States as refugees. A first step in this direction would be to terminate the “Remain in Mexico” (Migration Protection Protocols, or MPP) program and allow immigrants to present their asylum cases in the United States.

President-elect Biden and Democratic Congresspeople should immediately start drafting a comprehensive immigration reform bill, although obtaining Republican support will be challenge despite widespread support for immigration reform among citizens. However, the executive branch sets the number of refugees allowed into the country annually. Biden can increase the numbers to make up for the reduction in the acceptance of refugees during the last four years and the many displaced people displaced because of wars and violence. He can immediately end the Muslim ban via executive order. Trump ran on the premise of building a wall with Mexico; Biden should stop all ongoing projects to expand the border fencing. These resources can be better allocated to address the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, and climate change. 

The Environment

Stephen MacAvoy, Professor of Environmental Science

Expect to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. Biden sees human induced climate change as a national security risk, a health risk, an environmental justice issues, and also a chance to invest in more sustainable infrastructure. Biden's stated goal is a net zero CO2 emission and 100% clean energy economy by 2050.

There will likely be a shift in government subsidies from those that incentivize petroleum exploration in favor of some to support clean energy infrastructure. In its purchasing and building, government will likely require increases in efficiency and sustainability.

The United States as a whole is already producing far less CO2 from electrical energy generation than it did in the early 2000's (even with a huge growth in the economy and population). That was largely driven at first by a new focus on natural gas production from the G.W. Bush administration. Now wind energy is cheaper than natural gas, so the trends for renewables should continue for electricity production. Joe Biden has specifically mentioned offshore wind as an area he is keen to see developed. The Biden administration also intends to concentrate more directly on transportation related CO2 (a very tough task) by encouraging the adoption of electrified light and medium vehicles. This would likely take the form of increased infrastructure for electric vehicles as well incentives to consumers.


Distinguished Professor of History Alan Kraut

COVID-19 and possible Republican dominance in the Senate make the prospect of swift and comprehensive immigration reform dim, indeed. However, through administrative changes Joe Biden can do much to ameliorate the suffering of immigrants and refugees seeking admission to the United States.   

First, he can discontinue all policies that separate children from their parents at our border as a tactic of border enforcement and commit all necessary resources to reunite 545 children now in American custody with deported parents and guardians. Second, he can reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and re-open the program’s application process, bringing hope to young people who were brought to the United States in an unauthorized manner through no fault of their own. Third, Biden can reverse Trump administration plans to dramatically reduce the number of refugees admitted to the United States annually. The Trump administration had slashed the number of refugees admitted by 18% over four years. Fourth, the Biden administration can reverse the public charge rule which allows immigration officials to make an individual’s eligibility for a visa or permanent residency contingent on their not using economic assistance such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits or Medicaid as well as their household income. Fifth, Biden can cease using the current pandemic and public health concerns as a rationale for delaying or denying hearings on asylum claims. Sixth, he can end Trump’s stratagem of demonizing immigrants, especially Muslims and Mexicans, and rescind the order referred to as the “Muslim bans,” excluding immigrants from largely Muslim nations Seventh, the new administration can end Trump’s equating Chinese identity with responsibility for the spread of COVID-19 across the world and discontinue administrative use of expressions such as “Wu Han Virus” or “Kung Fu Flu.” Eighth, the new president can order a review of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for vulnerable populations who are in flight from violence or disaster in their home countries which the previous administration rescinded for hundreds of thousands of refugees without regard for their country’s condition. Ninth, the president can review enforcement strategies at the border and insist that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel adhere to the highest professional standards. Finally, the Biden administration can encourage naturalization and streamline the process whereby legal immigrants can achieve citizenship.

The Arab World

Martyn Oliver, Director of AU’s Arab World Studies Program

The transition to the Biden/Harris administration offers a chance to reset US relations with Arab nations. The question, however, is whether a simple “reset” is of value? Certainly, executive orders eliminating the so-called “Muslim ban” and re-opening of our borders to refugees is immensely important. So too, a posture that shifts from coddling dictators and autocracies towards supporting democracy and freedom is eagerly welcome. At the same time, the current administration has put the lie to certain geopolitical relationships that have emphasized “allies” over principles. 

Leaving aside the perennial question of Israel/Palestine or the nearly decade-long tragedy of Syria, what has been and should be the American position towards, say, Egypt and Saudi Arabia? President-elect Biden is a veteran of foreign relations, but the world and its challenges have changed over the last decade, often in ways that have confounded long-term policy positions. If the Biden administration is stymied domestically, I’d encourage a radical and critical rethinking of what it means to support the dignity, agency, and self-determination of the diverse peoples and cultures across North Africa and throughout the Middle East. We perhaps have an opportunity to upend patronizing colonial attitudes or self-serving stratagems and instead support human agency.

Military Policy

David Vine, Professor of Anthropology

Unless concerned citizens demand change, it’s likely no policy area will show greater continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations than foreign/military/war policy. Biden will probably make substantive but relatively small initial changes: ending the ban on transgender military personnel and the Muslim travel ban, accepting larger numbers of refugees, re-joining the Iran nuclear agreement, re-investing in the State Department, and rebuilding relationships with allies by publicly recommitting to NATO and global agreements, such as the Paris Agreement on global warming.

While these would be significant shifts, Biden risks perpetuating 75-year-old post-World War II foreign policy defined by offensive wars and maintaining global military dominance with thousands of overseas military bases and the largest budgets for the production of violence in history. Biden’s military transition team is dominated by the Military Industrial Complex: analysts from hawkish (imperialist) military-contractor-funded think tanks, ex-military officers, and Obama administration officials who perpetuated “endless wars” begun under George W. Bush. The frontrunner to lead the Pentagon supports continued military threats to “contain” China and Russia, which has encouraged both to build up their own militaries and escalated the threat of cataclysmic wars.

The status quo will continue unless concerned citizens and social movements demand a foreign policy focused not on military force but on diplomatic engagement, ending endless wars, preventing new wars, and moving hundreds of billions in military spending into public health and other civilian needs.