This article originally appeared on The Nation.
After a tumultuous four years under the Trump administration, it is hard to pinpoint just one pressing issue the Biden administration needs to tackle. As a Black woman, I’d been aware of the racial divide within our country from a young age. I still remember the reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death exploding across the country.
Fast-forward a few years, and it almost seems as though we’ve been held at a standstill. Black and brown people have continually been targeted, and President Trump’s rhetoric fueled the flame. For our country to feel confident in where we’re headed, we need to make active steps toward defunding the police. The untimely deaths of so many Black women and men led to an uprising of protesters across the world united by a truth that is so frequently unacknowledged: that Black lives matter. In response, police officers attacked and harassed people simply fighting for our right to stay alive.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris can no longer hide behind palatability. Biden says that in order to “make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as enemies.” Their push for “A Presidency for All Americans” is only skin-deep if there is no real work done to address white supremacy in this country and within our law enforcement.
There is a double standard in this country. We cannot move forward “united” when there is a clear mistreatment of Black and brown lives. Black people are murdered for simply existing, but white Trump supporters are escorted out after raiding the Capitol. Black people aren’t afforded words. We’re sentenced death.
As Tye Winters said, “We’re not asking for you to shoot them like you shoot us. We’re asking you to not shoot us like you don’t shoot them.” The Biden administration must condemn the behavior of white supremacists and armed officers. We need less investment in our police department and more investment in the communities being drastically harmed by racial profiling and police brutality. There needs to be real consideration for the minority voices in this country, who nevertheless stand at the front lines and fight for a better world.
Biden often claims that African Americans have his back, and that in return he will “always have theirs.” He says, again and again, that his goal in running for president of the United States was to “restore the soul of America.”
On the contrary, America’s soul doesn’t need restoring. America’s soul needs reconstruction.
—AIYANA ISHMAEL, Florida A&M University
Black women are dying at a higher rate from childbirth complications in Washington, D.C.—where I go to school—than anywhere else in the country. If white women were dying at the same rate, resources or policies would have been focused on doing something about it. The Biden White House needs to raise our collective consciousness around racism that is deeply ingrained in our society’s institutions.
When those in power maintain racist ideologies to divide the public, everyone is in danger of losing their humanity. But we can break this cycle with transparency. The addition of diversity and inclusion training throughout the education system is one form of this. We can best work against institutional racism when the White House does not stereotype communities of people or attribute to them corrupt motives—like Trump did with Mexican immigrants, yes, but also like Hilary Clinton did by painting a picture of “super predators.”
It is up to the Biden White House to acknowledge and dismantle the role racism plays in positions of power. Hopefully one day Black mothers and their infants will be afforded the same chance to live that white women and children currently have—without having to fight to survive under the ingrained racism that works against them.
—ALEXANDRA SHARAT, American University
There’s no vaccine for scorching temperatures, diminishing crop yields, or climate disasters. There’s only the urgent need to rethink our energy and economic systems in fundamental ways.
If Biden is really committed to choosing truth and realizing the electoral mandate given to him by over 81 million Americans—especially the young people and people of color who helped propel him into office—then he needs to act on climate from day one in the White House.
If Biden doesn’t devote his time and political capital toward a just and sustainable future during his first 100 days, he risks becoming yet another elected rhetorician condemning young Americans and people worldwide to climate catastrophe and geopolitical conflict on an unprecedented scale. With climate change already estimated to cause more than 150,000 deaths annually—a number projected to grow in the coming decades—its ultimate body count will likely well exceed any known in our recorded history, including the record-setting result of World War II. Biden has a unique chance to impact that count’s trajectory, to save and improve countless lives by deploying presidential powers; nothing matters more than whether he’ll seize it.
—ILANA COHEN, Harvard University
I remember when my kindergarten teacher handed me a pencil for the first time. It was spring semester, and after months of only being trusted to color with crayons and supervision, that mechanical pencil seemed almost magical. Now, I think about all the kindergarteners who won’t have that moment.
Most articles about Biden’s first 100 days center on his promises about the pandemic. This is extremely important, but even in the midst of mass vaccinations and mask mandates, the Biden White House needs to prioritize bridging gaps in educational equity. Safely reopening schools is a start, but in a country where 50 percent of teachers surveyed have considered leaving the profession altogether because of poor pay and working conditions, simply moving classes offline is not enough.
Education inequality is not a pandemic-era phenomenon. Covid-19 has only brought these issues to the forefront by exacerbating existing disparities. And in the aftermath of the pandemic, our children’s education will only continue to suffer. The impacts of distance learning are not equally distributed. According to research by McKinsey, the negative educational effects of learning loss and dropping out will disproportionately impact low-income and minority students. More than 22 percent of students in the United States speak no English at home, and others have parents who are essential workers or are otherwise unable to assist with online learning.
When we allow these inequalities to persist, we are undermining not only these students’ individual futures but also our country’s future economic, social, and political success.
Around the time Biden will be sworn in, the kindergarteners at my old elementary school will celebrate their first 100 days of school. I hope the president will do something worth celebrating.
—SERENA PUANG, Yale University
Fraudulent conspiracy theories grounded in discrimination divide a dangerously polarized nation. A gridlocked legislature cannot agree on anything. Masses of people struggle to make ends meet, while a select few hoard wealth that never seems to stop growing. A cultural fissure forms between rural and urban areas. Support for democracy slips. Nazis storm government buildings.
I am, of course, describing Weimar Germany. Although the same could apply to the United States in 2021. While there are a variety of profound differences between Weimar Germany and the current United States, we cannot ignore the frightening parallels, especially in the aftermath of the January 6 storming of what President-elect Biden called “the citadel of liberty, the Capitol.”
As someone whose family was in Germany during the rise of totalitarianism and immigrated to the United States after the war, that Wednesday afternoon shook me. I believe that after an action that has stunning historical parallels to Germany shortly before the Nazis took power, Biden’s top priority must be to strengthen American democracy to prevent the development of a Weimar America.
What January 6 represented was the culmination of four years of right-wing politicians around the country coddling Trump’s authoritarian impulses and white supremacy. Taking office in the aftermath, Biden must aggressively work to counter the digital dispersal of misinformation and right-wing conspiracy theories by regulating Big Tech. He must enact radical reform to an American criminal justice system in which police officers shoot Black Americans when they protest but take selfies with white terrorists when they invade the Capitol. He must pass new laws to protect us against domestic terrorism. He must work to restore faith in democracy in a country where 45 percent of Republicans just supported a coup attempy. Biden’s top priority must be to protect our democratic system, because it is under assault.
—ANDREW LORENZEN, Cornell University
The state of economic inequality in the United States is dire. The groups that spearheaded President Biden’s win—namely people of color, young people, single women, and low-income people—need policies that put economic justice at the forefront. For decades, people of color have been more likely than white people to be paid wages that leave them below the federal poverty level. In the United States, this level is set at about $12.60 per hour, full-time, for a family of four.
The federal minimum wage, however, is only $7.25 per hour. In 2019, about 1.6 million Americans earned wages at or below that minimum, with students and young people representing two-fifths of that number—despite being only one-fifth of the hourly paid workforce. Women, too, are three times more likely to be paid at or below the federal minimum than men are. In both cases, these are demographics that voted largely for Biden.
In his first 100 days, in addition to enacting swift climate action and a robust coronavirus-relief plan, President Biden must immediately raise the federal minimum wage to at least $15 per hour. This is the bare minimum; a living wage in the United States is $16.54 the hour. Alongside this, Biden must also raise the federal poverty level, taking into account the different needs of Americans based on race and ethnicity as the country undergoes an economic crisis.
To write off such a policy as too progressive is to ignore the demands of voters. Even in Florida, a state that voted red in 2020, a ballot initiative to move toward a $15 minimum wage passed with a 61 percent vote. It is time the Democratic establishment met Americans where they are.
—SOFIA ANDRADE, Harvard University
Trump’s mishandling of Covid-19 alone was terribly detrimental to the disability community. However, his attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and increase regulation of Social Security Disability Insurance were viewed as an outright attack.
For the disabled, Biden has a plan for the full participation of and equality for people with disabilities in America. It’s a plan that reinforces the Affordable Care Act and addresses the intersections of disability and mass incarceration, disability and immigration, disability and domestic abuse, and more. Significantly, the plan promises to work with the disability community in developing new policies and also promises to appoint a director of disability policy.
Instituting this plan should be a top priority for the Biden administration. As the largest minority group in America, it is critical that people with disabilities are brought to the forefront of American politics.
Americans with disabilities will be watching out for who he selects to be the director of disability policy, and even how he interacts with other leaders within the disability community. By prioritizing the disability community and fulfilling his commitment to them, Biden will be able to do what our last president did not: treat all Americans with the dignity they deserve.
—EMMI DECKARD, University of California, Los Angeles
The US Postal Service offers an opportunity for the administration to garner support across America. Biden has frequently emphasized his commitment to uniting the country—what better way than by strengthening a beloved and crucial American institution?
Even more than that, reorienting the decline of the Postal Service can help reframe a larger discussion around issues in need of widespread reform. With thousands of locations, and as an institution already cemented in people’s minds as a place to go to conduct your personal affairs with the federal government, like applying for a passport, why can’t we expand the role of the USPS?
Could post offices become vaccine distribution sites? Pantry or donation centers in food deserts? Or, as Kirsten Gillibrand proposed in 2018, banking services to those with limited financial resources?
Improvements like electrifying the postal fleet would save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Further, it would require improving charging infrastructure at each USPS location and nationwide, creating greater availability for everyday Americans and normalizing a switch that would make a major impact on people in need.
These reforms would lead to the creation of quality jobs and in every single community, rural to urban. And, of course, an improved, cheaper, more reliable post office is crucial for future elections, where voting by mail will likely be common even after the pandemic.
The locations all exist. It is up to President Biden to decide whether to add services and create efficiencies, or to allow the system to continue to wane, beloved or not.
—KYLE ROSENTHAL, Boston College
Ispent nearly all of December 12, 2015, sobbing along the streets of Paris. I was part of a youth delegation to the COP21 United Nations climate negotiations, and that was the day the Paris Agreement on climate change was born. But young people were not celebrating. We were mourning the loss of an opportunity to save our generation from crisis. We were grieving an agreement that was hardly enough to avert some of the most egregious pain and suffering. The Paris Agreement still sets the world on a warming path of 3 or 4 degrees Celsius, and we need to be at 1.5 degrees to keep coastal and vulnerable communities alive.
President Joe Biden plans to rejoin the Paris Agreement in his first 100 days in office (in fact, on his very first day). But the Paris Agreement was inadequate to begin with. Simply returning to the pre-Trump era will not be enough.
We need a Green New Deal. And we need it now. We need a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a just transition to renewable energy, and policies that center indigenous rights. We need President Biden to commit to the deep, systemic changes that the climate crisis demands. We need bold action. The United States’ Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement, the Clean Power Plan, was not enough in 2015. And it most certainly won’t be enough in 2021.
President Biden needs to commit to ambitious climate action on the first, hundredth, and, frankly, every day of his administration to give my generation a fighting chance.
—LEEHI YONA, PhD student in climate science at Stanford University
Covid-19 has had an undoubtedly devastating impact on our nation’s educational system. But the pandemic only further weakened an already struggling school system. Students in the United States perform at lower levels than their peers in other countries, experience massive achievement gaps and de facto segregation, and often lack access to the technology and resources integral to an adequate education. These deficiencies exacerbate racial inequity, deprive thousands of children of their chance at a successful future, and preclude national progress altogether.
The Trump administration, unsurprisingly, failed to fix any of this. Under the supposed leadership of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the department rolled back protections for marginalized students and backed for-profit colleges rather than supporting debt-ridden students. Even during national outcries over systemic racism—including in our education system, where schools often have more police officers than counselors and Black students are disciplined at disproportionate rates—DeVos did little to respond to students’ and families’ demands for action.
This means it’s up to the Biden White House to radically transform the education system. Incoming Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and his department need to invest in universal meals and early childhood education, prioritize equitable school funding, and advocate a national, decolonized curriculum. Better yet, they can work to institutionalize authentic student voices in internal processes by prioritizing students as stakeholders and including them in roundtable discussions, working groups, and other decision-making bodies.
Students are the direct recipients of most education policy and the most aware of what needs to change. Encouraging students to contribute their opinions and lived experience to the policy-making process is guaranteed to improve equity and outcomes.
—SADIE BOGRAD, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, Lexington, Ky.
The latest coronavirus relief bill, the effects of which will take shape during the first months of Joe Biden’s presidency, is going to provide some direct assistance to Americans in dire straits. But a gap in the bill’s provisions still urgently needs addressing.
Congressional Democrats and Republicans compromised to exclude a proposed $160 billion in direct state aid, posing a potential crisis to struggling states. President Biden has pledged to address budget shortfalls in state and local governments, but Republican intransigence may complicate these efforts. Meanwhile, the vast economic disparities between states and cities—present before the pandemic, but exacerbated by the effects of Covid-era closures, especially in regions reliant on income from tourism—will continue to grow.
President Biden’s first priority should be to ensure that such obvious deficiencies in the relief bill do not go unacknowledged, and that congressional dithering over direct payments and government spending does not continue unchecked.
Hope may indeed be on the way, in the form of mass vaccinations. But economic devastation in the country’s poorest states—and for scores of Americans on the brink of homelessness and hunger—is far from over. As the incoming administration looks to improve and amplify pandemic response measures, it should consider one of America’s most enduring problems: inequities among states and localities, which have shored up deep political divisions.
The United States has never been a united, unfragmented country, as this crisis has made all too clear. President Biden must act quickly, and dexterously, to move us toward the parity and stability we need to survive.
—SARA KROLEWSKI, New York University
“We the people” is a phrase lauded by our country’s Constitution and leaders, past and present. We the American people: standing united and strong against the enemies of democracy and equality. We the American people, roaming on appropriated land. The United States of America, a country built by shackled hands and people deemed three-fifths human.
President Biden’s administration already stands for several historical milestones: the first female, Black, and Asian American vice president and the first Native American cabinet secretary. They embody the full scope of our country.
The tumult of the last year has served to teach us that “We the American people” means virtually nothing. We’ve witnessed American people gunned down, choked, and chained while peacefully demonstrating their inalienable right to free speech. These are the American people who are expendable.
This new administration has an intrinsic stake in reconciling the biases and prejudices built into the stone and dirt of this nation. We as a people can never be an American people without a reckoning. A national upheaval is already underway, as communities of color continue to speak and act loudly and clearly to demand equality and safety, but the Biden administration must continue harnessing the strength of a people who have had enough.
We need to divert government spending from the military and the police, and direct it instead toward the institutions that nurture our county, like education, health care, welfare, and debt forgiveness. The most vulnerable have been under attack for decades—the pandemic only exacerbated the precariousness these communities are forced to contend with daily.
We can’t expect the Biden White House to solve a country’s worth of systemic racism and poverty—but that’s not what we’re demanding. We’re asking for the administration to take real, measurable strides in the right direction. We have hope already; we now need to act.
—NAJWA JAMAL, Bard College
The Biden-Harris administration needs to be held accountable for their promises to students in historically black colleges and universities. America’s estimated 107 HBCUs account for 3 percent of the country’s colleges and institutions. HBCUs, which tend to enroll students of color who are first-generation or from lower-income backgrounds, receive a paltry amount of financial support.
President Biden promises to invest $70 billion into HBCUs—including $20 billion toward revamping labs and $10 billion on research incubators for underrepresented talent. His plan also states that it will double Pell Grant amounts, refine the income-based repayment percentage to 5 percent of income, and provide free tuition to students at community colleges. Not only are these benefits projected to help HBCU students, but they will also help other minority-zerving institutions.
Young people of color—specifically college students of color—have played a key role in his election, and they deserve recognition. Biden’s plan claims to “recognize the critical role low-endowment private colleges and universities play in providing educational opportunities and jobs in many rural communities.” If that’s true, then make it a priority. Taking on Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University, as vice president is not enough. Prioritize the education of the young, Black constituents that got you into power.
—NOELLA WILLIAMS, Florida A&M University
Though many in the halls of power in Washington are insulated from it, millions of Americans are in desperate economic straits.
The country is currently in the middle of a shoplifting “epidemic”—with numbers spiking most dramatically in areas where unemployment is high. This should not come as a surprise. With more than one in eight Americans reporting that they didn’t have enough to eat in November, it’s remarkable that this isn’t happening even more. People are stealing to survive.
At the same time, violent crime has exploded in cities across the country, with mass shootings nationwide up 50 percent over last year. Experts suggest this has nothing to do with movements reimagining public safety and everything to do with the economic crisis triggered by Covid-19. Homelessness is increasing steadily and will only skyrocket when eviction moratoriums that are currently protecting millions of renters across the country expire.
These trends are, of course, disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous, and other POC communities—further widening and hardening racial wealth gaps in a year when so many people have risen up against systemic racism and racial violence.
From the lowest moments of his campaign to the most triumphant, Joe Biden ran on a promise to restore the soul of America. Beating Donald Trump was a start. But surely that promise cannot be anywhere near fulfilled if tens of millions of Americans are without basic necessities like food and shelter.
Biden has the congressional majorities he needs to act swiftly and decisively to protect Americans for the duration of the pandemic. If he does not, it will only show that his administration, like the one that preceded him, neither understands nor cares about the realities of life in this country for those who have been disregarded and left behind.
—ABE ASHER, Macalester College
Afew days ago, I couldn’t have narrowed down the myriad issues facing our nation and identified just one as the most critical. Between the pandemic, persistent racial injustice, the dire need for immigration, education, and health care reform, and so many other wide-reaching concerns, it seemed daunting to nominate one as the most pressing.
However, after the events that unfolded on January 6, I feel confident asserting that Biden’s success in addressing any of the aforementioned issues will be impeded by the division, hatred, and conspiracies fueled by Donald Trump.
While it is unprecedented, discouraging, and frankly embarrassing for an incoming administration to have to focus its efforts on undoing the damage of the previous administration, our country has been fractured to the point where—until the misinformation is unequivocally rebuked and the source of the hatred on both sides is appropriately addressed—the risk of violence and threat to democracy will thwart any efforts the Biden administration makes elsewhere.
This is not to say that we should all come together and hold hands, pretending that the president’s actions over the last four years—from putting a rapist on the Supreme Court, pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, locking children in cages, starting a trade war with China, and turning a blind eye to (and in many cases, championing) white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, collusion with Russia, tax fraud and the proliferation of a fatal virus, not to mention the attack on the Capitol—did not happen. They did, and they were fervently defended by his supporters. Rather, this is to say that to move toward a more equitable, just, and progressive nation, the Biden administration must focus on healing these divisions and rebuilding trust in the so-called greatest democracy in the world.
—KITRI SUNDARAM, Brown University
The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is a little-known corner of the executive branch tasked with coordinating regulations across federal agencies. However, in practice, the office regularly delays and kills vital regulations, impeding everything from environmental protections to labor laws to consumer product requirements.
One example is a rule requiring all new vehicles to have a rearview camera, created by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and sent to OIRA for approval in 2010. That began a years-long process of OIRA delaying the measure, asking for unnecessary added testing and extra public comment periods where industry groups could air their grievances, all while over 200 people died annually from backover accidents.
The office also uses a cost-benefit analysis, which is often unable to account for the public value of regulation. In one meeting regarding the cameras, Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s first OIRA director (and long-term friend from law school), inquired into whether they could quantify, in dollars, the amount of grief parents have after backing over their own child, according to Jim Simons, a former DOT official.
For these reasons, the office has long been despised by progressives. Kalen Pruss of the American Economic Liberties Project argues that between OIRA’s cost-benefit analysis and its openness to the demands of industry, the office must be dismantled immediately. Others, such as scholars at the Roosevelt Institute, contend that by modifying the office’s procedures—like adding an internal department dedicated to finding unregulated areas and overhauling their cost-benefit methods—OIRA can facilitate bigger, more ambitious regulatory projects in the future.
What’s certain is that if Biden is really committed to using the government to fix systemic issues, he needs to fix the office at the heart of the regulatory state, and he needs to do it fast.
—JAMES SMATHERS, George Washington University