Politics of Poverty

100 days later: Where is the Biden presidency heading?

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Since taking office in January 2021, President Biden has taken several bold steps to reverse some of the previous administration’s most harmful measures, including signing Executive Orders in the first few days. Photo: archna nautiyal

As President Biden prepares for a speech on April 28, we step back to take stock of his administration thus far. We find a lot to celebrate, and a lot of room for progress.

It’s been 100 days since President Biden moved into the White House, and took on the challenge of guiding a country rocked by an unprecedented pandemic, a deep recession, and a battered sense of unity and hope. At Oxfam we are closely following his progress toward fulfilling his campaign promises to repair the damage of the previous four years. This work faces a long road ahead, and major obstacles winning transformative changes in Congress.

On Wednesday, President Biden will mark the 100 days with a speech to a joint session of Congress (essentially, his first State of the Union address). Which prompts us to ask: is he on track to deliver an agenda that pursues dignity for every person?

The short answer is “mostly.” There have been a lot of good developments, a few mixed, and a couple ugly. Our hope remains intact, but so does our commitment to hold this administration accountable and fix what’s going poorly.

The Good

The Biden administration started with a flurry of activity across a range of issues, seeking to quickly undo some of the most harmful actions of the Trump administration--while kickstarting longer-term work to “Build Back Better.”

Among the positive actions taken by the administration in its early days:

The signature legislative accomplishment to date was the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, which delivers badly needed relief to struggling people and families, invests in the global fight against COVID-19, and offers vital funds to shore up the care industry.

Next up is the American Jobs Plan, a bold proposal to help rebuild the economy and address the interlocking crises of climate change, racial injustice, and erosion of the care industry. In a significant step toward tackling escalating inequality, the plan is paid for by ensuring the rich and large companies pay their fair share of taxes.

The Mixed

At the same time, it is apparent that it will be challenging to win on other fronts (especially those requiring 60 votes in the Senate).

Workers

Biden and most congressional Democrats support two major pieces of legislation that could deliver transformative change: the Raise the Wage Act (which would boost the federal minimum wage for the first time in 11 years); and the PRO Act (which would protect rights to organize). Both have passed the House; neither is on track to pass the Senate without reforms to filibuster rules or a breakthrough bi-partisan compromise.

But not all blame lies with Congress. Since March 2020, when COVID-19 started super-spreading through workplaces and claiming the lives of thousands of workers, people have been demanding help from OSHA in the form of an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) that would ensure safe working environments during the pandemic. The President issued an Executive Order in January for OSHA to consider an ETS by March 15, 2021--but the deadline passed without a word; Oxfam is working with a broad coalition to demand answers, and action from the administration.

Vaccines

On the plus side, President Biden has worked to spur greater investment in vaccine manufacturing and distribution, getting millions of shots into US arms, with some important first steps toward global vaccine equity. This includes rejoining the WHO, funding COVAX, and using the power of the federal government to expand vaccine manufacturing in the US and India.

The Biden administration is considering backing a WTO initiative to temporarily suspend intellectual property rights on COVID vaccines and therapeutics, to enable the worldwide production of more and cheaper vaccines.

But we are nowhere near vaccine equity. 83% of doses have been administered in a handful of rich countries, with only .2% in low-income countries. In spite of significant pressure from Americans and global leaders, the administration hasn’t yet shown whether it’s a champion or a blocker of a People’s Vaccine.

Climate Change

President Biden hosted a summit of world leaders and issued a new US climate target to demonstrate renewed commitment to cooperation and leadership on global climate action. He pledged to double the annual funding the US gives to fight climate change globally by 2024, and triple financial support to help vulnerable communities adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Yet, as the world’s largest emitter, the US still doesn’t live up to our responsibility to address climate change, and we’re not in line with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 C. In short, we’re not doing enough to address the fundamental threat to humanity, especially the most vulnerable.

Yemen

President Biden moved swiftly to shift the US’s policy, tone, and approach to Yemen, a country enduring its seventh year of brutal war and the world’s largest humanitarian emergency. In his first foreign policy address, he set two clear Yemen policy goals – resolving the conflict and relieving suffering – and elevated them as administration priorities.

He quickly reversed some of the Trump administration’s most harmful policies. He removed the terrorist designation of the Houthi rebels, which would have deepened the crisis and failed to curb the group’s abuses. He reversed the unprincipled suspension of humanitarian assistance to northern Yemen, adopting a more appropriate risk-based approach to the delivery of aid across the entire country. He put muscle behind those goals by appointing a Special Envoy for Yemen, career diplomat Tim Lenderking. And he gave the effort credibility by announcing an end to support for the Saudi-led coalition's military operations in the country, including relevant arms sales.

Compared to past administrations, which viewed Yemen principally through the lens of US relationships with more powerful Gulf neighbors and the threat of Iran, this appeared to represent a sea change. Unfortunately, the administration has been unwilling to confront Saudi Arabia and the internationally recognized government of Yemen when called for, which may hamper Lenderking's efforts to achieve peace and relieve suffering.

Moreover, the administration’s decision to move forward with a massive new arms sale to the United Arab Emirates – which has misused and diverted US-manufactured arms in Yemen and elsewhere – is impossible to square with earlier commitments.

The Ugly

Finally, unfortunately, we harbor grave concerns about inadequate plans and actions for some of the most vulnerable people across the world, and at home.

Asylum seekers

Despite steps to fulfil promises for more just and humane policies at the border (including admitting people sent back to Mexico by the Trump administration), the Biden administration continues to implement the illegal and immoral Title 42 Order, which prevents families and adults from seeking asylum in the US.

Although the President is allowing unaccompanied minors to seek asylum, continued expulsions have led hundreds of asylum seekers to be attacked and kidnapped in Mexico. Oxfam has joined the ACLU and other partners in a lawsuit seeking to require the administration to follow the law and respect the rights of people fleeing persecution and violence to get a fair hearing for their asylum claims.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will continue to rely on the same bogus arguments put forth by the Trump administration. To date, there has been far too much continuity between Presidents Trump and Biden on this issue.

Refugees

At first, President Biden looked ready to make good on his campaign pledge to restore the US role as a beacon of hope for refugees seeking safety. He committed to increase the cap of those resettled -- from President Trump’s historically low of 15,000 for fiscal year 2021, to 62,500, and 125,000 for Fiscal Year 2022.

For more than two months, the Executive Order enacting this commitment went unsigned; on April 16, the President abruptly changed direction and signed a new order maintaining Trump’s 15,000-person cap.

After massive backlash --from Members of Congress and refugee advocates-- White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement laying out the President’s plans to issue a new cap by May 15; it will be higher than 15,000 but lower than 62,500.

Subsequent communications suggest that the administration continues to use flimsy justifications for its failure to fulfil its promises out of concern over the political optics

The true test of this administration will be whether it can sustain momentum and close the deal on some of President Biden’s campaign promises-- or succumb to the pressure for status quo. Those of us pushing from the outside need to keep the pedal to the metal.

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