Ivan Allen College Faculty Provide Insight on What to Expect from the Biden Administration

Posted January 28, 2021

As President Joe Biden settles into office, major questions remain about how his administration will approach various issues, from technology policy to energy and the environment, Iran, Russia, and more.

We asked Ivan Allen College faculty members to offer their perspectives on what to expect.

Fiscal Stimulus

Dennis Lockhart
Professor of the practice, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs

One frame to analyze the Biden administration's actions is in comparison to those of the Obama administration, during which Biden was Vice President. Lockhart, who was President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta from March 2007 until February 2017, already sees a significant difference in scale with the current administration.

"I think we already see some of the leanings of this administration in terms of this stimulus: more, rather than less, immediate rather than meted out incrementally," Lockhart said.

Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus package that includes $1,400 checks for many Americans. If passed in its present form, that package would be more than three times the size of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Lockhart noted that the current political reality is quite different from Obama's – the lack of an insurgent austerity-focused force like the Tea Party being one key change – but has observed that "psychological impediment" preventing a stimulus package from going over $1 trillion, which already happened with 2020's CARES Act.

On the personnel side of the administration, Lockhart said that the Biden administration has put a "competent team in place" that will work "feverishly" to address problems facing the country. He was also complimentary of the appointment of Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary: Lockhart said that he expects Yellen to address the issue of the federal deficit "in good time," but that her top priority will be to address the dual crises of a pandemic-induced recession and spiraling inequality facing the country.

Space policy

Mariel Borowitz
Associate professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs

Borowitz expects the Biden administration to renew the work of NASA’s Earth Science Division, a major source of data for climate change resources. She also expects the Space Force, the newest branch of the U.S. military, to continue to operate.

“A major focus of the Biden administration has been on climate change. Many people may not realize it, but NASA is one of the largest contributors to climate change data collection and research within the federal government through the work of its Earth Science Division. In the past administration, many climate-related Earth Science missions were targeted for cancellation. I would expect that this trend will be reversed, with Earth Science missions and research, particularly those related to climate change, getting additional support.

With respect to military space activity, the big question is about the future of the Space Force, which is only about a year old and is closely tied in many people’s minds to the previous administration. Some have speculated that the Biden administration will seek to dismantle the Space Force. However, given its bipartisan support in Congress and the growing recognition of the importance of space security, I think this is unlikely. The U.S. military and broader economy are highly reliant on space for communications, weather, positioning information, and a wide array of other applications. The Space Force ensures a high degree of attention to keeping these critical assets safe.”

Innovation and technology policy

Mark Zachary Taylor
Associate professor, School of Public Policy

Taylor noted the advanced qualifications of the appointments that Biden has made to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which cuts across a broad range of disciplines, and observed that the elevated status of the department could signal a stronger emphasis placed on its areas of expertise.

“Biden’s new OSTP team is highly qualified. Eric Lander is president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, whose mission has been to improve human health using genomics to advance our understanding of the biology and treatment of human disease. Frances Arnold is a chemical engineer and Nobel Laureate whose research has made major contributions to clean energy. Maria Zuber is an astronomer and geophysicist who is also Vice President for Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kei Koizumi is science policy and budgets experts at the AAAS who served in Obama’s OSTP. Narda Jones has served as the Senior Technology Policy Advisor and Counsel for the U.S. Senate and spent over a decade at the FCC.

Biden has elevated his OSTP to the cabinet-level, which means that expert science advisors will provide regular contributions to White House decision-making at the highest levels. I suspect they have been chosen to aid Biden in making disease, health, and climate change top priority issues for his administration. I’d also look for action on energy, equity, and they might play a role in anti-trust.”

Energy and climate policy

Marilyn Brown
Acting Chair, Regents Professor, and Brook Byers Professor of Sustainable Systems, School of Public Policy

The administration is already setting a rapid pace of change with executive orders. It has tasked agencies with considering changes that Brown said will benefit consumers and the environment.

“Agencies have been asked to review the energy efficiency standards for appliances and commercial/industrial equipment and the fuel economy standards for passenger cars and light trucks that were relaxed by the last administration. Reinvigorating these standards will make a difference to consumers in Georgia. Standards have been shown to bring down the cost of technologies through innovation and economies of scale. So efficient water heaters, air conditioners, heat pumps, and electric cars will become more affordable over time as a result of this order.”

U.S.-China relations

Fei-Ling Wang
Professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs

Wang does not expect to see a significant divergence in the Biden administration’s approach towards China, including on issues concerning human rights, such as the situation with the Uyghur ethnic group in the Xinjiang autonomous region.

“Judging by President Joe Biden’s public speeches and record, especially by his senior appointees, and how they have published and testified on Sino-American relations, there seem to be a clear continuity of strategy towards China with the naturally expected changes of tactics such as more multilateral efforts, a sharper focus on human rights, more attention to issues like climate change, and fewer fiery tweets.

The Biden administration, so far, has no cabinet appointment of Wall Street bigwig to lead China-related offices, something different for the first time in over a quarter-century. On Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang, for example, a remarkable continuity is already transpiring: Candidate Biden openly called the Chinese Communist Party policy towards the Uyghurs “genocide” back in August 2020; Trump’s Secretary of State Michael Pompeo officialized that labeling on January 19, 2021. And a few hours later, on the same day, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, reaffirmed that characterization during his confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate. The bipartisan consensus on China is even more apparent in the notoriously divided U.S. Congress, where several PRC-related matters have passed in recent years with unanimous or near-unanimous votes. Proclaiming to be the president for all Americans, President Biden is unlikely to depart drastically from the current U.S. policy towards China.”

U.S.–Europe relations

Alasdair Young
Professor and Neal Family Chair, Sam Nunn School of International affairs
Co-Director, Center for European and Transatlantic Studies and  Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy

Biden’s approach to Europe will translate to a less tense trans-Atlantic relationship, but one with plenty of challenges, according to Young.

“President Biden has made clear that he sees alliances, and particularly alliances with democracies, as crucial to realizing American interests in the world.  The Biden administration’s policy preferences -- such as on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal -- also align with those of the Europeans. This does not mean that there will not be serious transatlantic disagreements -- such as how to resolve the trade disputes inherited from the Trump administration, how best to deal with China, and whether and how to govern large technology companies. Still, these disagreements will occur within guardrails established by a valued relationship. That said, the hostility of the Trump administration has caused European governments to worry that in the future, they might again not be able to count on the U.S.  These concerns have encouraged the European Union to seek to become more capable of acting independently, to enhance its “strategic autonomy.”  The U.S. remains the key partner for Europe, but, in the wake of the Trump administration, is no longer the sole reference point.

Nuclear weapons proliferation

Adam Stulbgerg, Chair
Margaret E. Kosal, Associate professor
Rachel Whitlark, Assistant professor
Sam Nunn School of International Affairs

The new president wants to extend the START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia. Still, those efforts must be contextualized within the overall U.S.-Russia relationship, according to Stulberg.

“In short, can efforts to arrest mutual existential dangers and to promote risk reduction be compartmentalized from the state of the broader U.S.-Russian relationship?  Can they be pursued while sustaining sanctions on the Russian leadership and vociferously condemning human rights abuses in Russia and unprecedented cyber-attacks on Western institutions, just as the Kremlin is doubling down on accusing the U.S. and the West of stirring up protests and meddling in Russian elections as part of a grand strategy for weakening Russia? Our capacity to thread the needle on these issues its seems, will rest largely on how the new administration devises an overarching framework — predicated on concerted reflection on our national priorities and dispassionate analysis — for constructive re-engagement while containing fundamental differences in our strategic dialogue with Russia.”

Kosal said renewing the treaty is important.

“As the only remaining major bilateral arms control treaty with Russia, the New START Treaty has become more important because not for some normative prestige of treaties but for lots of practical reasons, most importantly, non-technical means (NTM) of verification. This is the last treaty that sets the standards. They help reduce uncertainty, confusion, and misjudgment globally and in new domains, like space. “

On Iran’s nuclear program, Whitlark notes that incoming Biden Administration officials signaled their willingness to return to significant negotiations with Iran, but in a more comprehensive manner than the Obama administration.

“Biden’s new National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan suggested that if Iran were interested to return to compliance with some of the technical requirements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action (JCPOA), then the United States would similarly seek to return to its earlier obligations. Somewhat different from both the Trump and Obama Administrations. However, the Biden team seems to be suggesting an interest in negotiating over Iran’s missile capabilities, support for terrorism, and human rights record, issues which the Obama team deliberately severed from the nuclear negotiations and in which the Trump administration did not demonstrate much interest. Doing so will be no small feat, however, as Biden faces both internal and external pressures with which to contend.”

This article was written by Ian Frazer and Michael Pearson in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts

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Michael Pearson