Previewing the New Administration’s Policy Agenda: What Will and Won’t Get Done in the Next Four Years?

Authored By 
Jack Greenberg
Blog contributor 
Graduate Student
February 10, 2021

On Tuesday, February 9, ISPS hosted a webinar attended by about 180 people on “New Administration in the White House: What’s Next?.” With the impeachment trial of Former President Donald Trump newly underway, a pandemic still left to control and many key vacancies outstanding, the Biden Administration has nevertheless begun laying the foundations of an ambitious, progressive policy agenda that offers the potential to cast the 46th president as an unanticipated “reconstructive” leader.

At the same time, Biden has only narrow congressional majorities with which to work and must contend with left-leaning “intense policy-demanders” who turned out their constituencies for Biden in November but remain somewhat skeptical of his intentions. Thus, many questions endure as to where the president and his team will direct their energies, what particular changes they will ultimately seek and what effect those reforms may have – and all the greater need for expert insight into these matters.

The event featured three panelists: Phillip Atiba Goff, Professor of African-American Studies and Psychology; Jacob Hacker, Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science; and Fiona Scott Morton, Theodore Nierenberg Professor of Economics at the Yale School of Management. Alan Gerber, the Charles C. & Dorothy S. Dilley Professor of Political Science, Director of ISPS, and the Dean of the FAS Social Science Division at Yale, moderated the discussion.

Each participant offered insight on our current political moment through the lens of their particular area of policy expertise – race and policing for Goff, healthcare for Hacker, and antitrust for Scott Morton.

Discussion flowed from Gerber’s charge to consider what policy change could look like during the Biden presidency and what, from these experts’ perspectives, it should entail. As such, some of the panel’s contributions highlighted how Biden, though an unlikely agent for radical political and social change, could oversee reforms that would nevertheless be responsive to immediate needs.

Goff highlighted some of the proposals embedded within the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, introduced in and passed by the House of Representatives this past summer following Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police and resulting global protests against police brutality and violence towards Black lives. The bill, which did not get a vote in the Senate during the last Congress, would restrict the qualified immunity that insulates police officers from civil suits against them for actions committed on the job and open up officers to criminal prosecution for misconduct committed “knowingly or with reckless disregard.” More generally, Goff illuminated how the nation’s “reckoning” with race, state violence and hierarchy that opened up over the summer has brought attention to fundamental questions about the American social contract and those the nation has failed to incorporate into it. Goff believes there are opportunities that lie ahead for marshalling the energy of this reckoning towards structural change having to do with public safety, particularly as it relates to marginalized populations.

Hacker argued that the November elections (along with the January runoffs in Georgia, which secured a Democratic majority in the Senate) meant that “people who want to act boldly [on health care] are in a stronger position” than they originally anticipated they would have been. He noted that there are politically viable adjustments in the short-term that could have a meaningful difference on peoples’ lives, including increasing subsidies provided through the Afford Care Act for people to purchase health insurance and expanding key aspects of Medicare. Hacker postulated that policy can build power – by developing constituencies (including through grassroots efforts), enabling trust and generating positive results, the Biden administration can inspire support for more ambitious reforms further down the road that work towards universal coverage and cost-curbing.

Scott Morton, focusing on antitrust, conveyed how recent headlines about litigation against giant companies like Facebook and Google may obscure recent progress the U.S. has made on restricting anticompetitive firm behavior. The first hearings for these cases will not occur for another couple of years and the judicial process will be quite lengthy thereafter. Nevertheless, Scott Morton suggested that there is an “appetite for regulation” in the more immediate term that could tackle issues like uses for data that companies collect, auto-renewal of contracts, and the unwieldly sets of terms and conditions to which consumers are often expected to agree. Scott Morton raised the prospect of a new agency tasked with specifically regulating digital platforms. These changes are credible political possibilities, per Scott Morton, given that they have the potential to draw large coalitions in their favor per Democrats’ interest in consumer protection and Republicans’ appeals to small business.

Panelists offered some credence to the idea that there are clear ways that the Biden administration can make considerable headway on progressive policy priorities. In thinking about the long-term horizons of what reform entails (the “what should happen” component of Gerber’s charge), each panelist noted distinct obstacles in their respective policy areas of expertise towards more sweeping changes.

For Scott Morton, the problems of antitrust are deeply structural. A handful of firms have achieved incredible market share in their respective domains (and, with it, considerable political power). Monopolies produce downstream consequences in areas of industry ranging from technology to agriculture. Prior court rulings have protected such monopolies and allowed corporate power to grow more broadly – decisions that, per Scott Morton – will have to be repudiated. As such, far-reaching and sophisticated reforms (e.g., tackling issues like interoperability across platforms) will require a continuous, multitiered effort.

Hacker likewise sees political challenges ahead for reforming America’s healthcare landscape beyond the Affordable Care Act but focused in particular on the constraints imposed by the institutional features of the legislative process. Though “the core elements of what needs to get done have been articulated,” the Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the Senate and moderate members make assembling 50 votes in favor of any proposal no small feat. Even more crucial, though, is that the Party appears unable to generate enough support for doing away with the filibuster, thus requiring 60 votes to advance any legislation outside of the reconciliation process (which itself can officially generate no more than three bills that pass each year and practically no more than two). Though these reconciliation bills only require a simple majority to pass, the degree to which Democrats will dedicate energy and resources to advancing healthcare reforms in either of them against other political priorities (e.g. infrastructure and climate change) remains up in the air.

For Hacker and Scott Morton both, progress is nevertheless instrumentally valuable. Making the most of political opportunities in the shorter-term lays the groundwork for longer-run ambitious agendas.

Goff pointed out, though, that in the realm of race and policing any kind of reform is jeopardized by the prospect of retrenchment in “old orthodoxies.” Goff anticipates that political actors will develop strategies that attempt to “humiliate and embarrass people who have called for something more ambitious” and promote “reinvest[ing] in the policing we have had up to this point.” Accordingly, Goff emphasized that the real foundations for change do not emerge from a traditional short- versus long-term calculus explaining that, in policing, the substitution of “small things” for more ambitious endeavors “has been the way that movements and requests for progress die.” Instead, the key tasks are developing “a shared understanding of where we are going” and emphasizing immediate political objectives that are “not in the way” of broader priorities. In this sense, the urgent work is the long-term work.

Beyond these core themes, the panel received questions from the audience (and each other) that invited them each to speak more on specific policy matters within their area of expertise, which featured (among other compelling points) Goff encouraging a “healthy public appetite for experimentation” with regard to where funding directed to the police should go instead to promote social welfare; Scott Morton noting the perils of industry “self-regulation”; and Hacker overviewing different cost-control measures in health care.

As is customary in the ISPS Democracy series, Gerber invited the panelists to offer reading recommendations for those interested in digging into the substance of the discussion in more detail:

A recording of this event will be made available soon.