The new White House is moving to implement the Democratic party’s current agenda. As with any political platform, that agenda is not entirely consistent. Its internal conflicts and tensions will be evident in the actual work of governance. President Biden’s executive orders in week one give us a first glimpse of the true priorities of the Democratic party in 2021.
The administration has emphasized serving the common good, using that formulation on a number of occasions. The question remains: Do these orders actually promote the common good? Put more pointedly: Will the first week’s flurry of activity advance the desires of the wealthy and well-connected? Or will it serve the interests of struggling wage-earners who will never draw income from the Rockefeller Foundation?
We should not expect to be able to answer these questions with a simple “yes” or “no.” But we can identify an overall tendency, which as yet seems to favor the interests of the rich, not those of the average working American.
The new administration has deemed climate change important enough to merit a “whole-of-government” response. The foreign climate portfolio, run by John Kerry, seeks to use American power to pressure other countries to meet carbon reduction goals and organize international pressure toward the same end domestically.
The administration has generated a remarkably detailed list of Trump policies to discard, many of which were crafted to lighten regulatory burdens on energy-intensive industries. Biden’s team has ordered federal agencies to procure only “green” products and structure their programs to maximize climate resilience. By executive order, federal infrastructure investments must now be used to reduce climate pollution and accelerate clean energy and transmission projects.
All of this comes at the expense of oil, gas, and coal. On his first day in office, Biden revoked the Keystone XL pipeline’s construction permit. This week, he announced a moratorium on oil and gas leases on federal lands. And he kicked off a plan to “promot[e] the flow of capital toward climate-aligned investments and away from high-carbon investments [read: oil, gas, and coal].”
The administration recognizes that this massive shift against carbon-intensive energy is likely to devastate communities that depend upon jobs extracting oil, gas, and coal and upon industries that use this kind of energy. To address this, the new administration announced (toward the bottom of this week’s massive climate executive order) a working group to identify revitalization strategies.
Assuming this working group ends up proposing new policies, keep an eye on its priorities. Will communities dependent on carbon-intensive energy become clients of government, or will the Biden administration identify pathways toward economic renewal? From the Rust Belt crises of the end of the last century, through the decline of the coal industry, no government program has succeeded in reversing economic and social decline in de-industrialized regions. Expect the same going forward. The most likely outcome of Biden’s “whole-of-government” response to climate change will be the expansion of America’s post-industrial underclass.
In its first week, the administration also announced the Justice40 initiative. It sets an “environmental justice” goal for many federal grants and contracts: 40 percent of their overall benefits should flow to “disadvantaged communities.”
But who counts as “disadvantaged”? Another “whole-of-government” initiative announced on Day One indicates the answer. This “Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government” embeds “equity principles” in every government program, with a special emphasis on race. The equity EO indicates the administration's priorities with a list of identity characteristics: seven different ethnic groupings, followed by (minority) religion, then sexuality, then disability, then rural residence. Only at the end does the list directly acknowledge social class, in “persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.”
With this list, the administration signals that “identity,” and not unemployment, poverty, or other indications of economic disadvantage, will be the primary means of determining whether a population is “underserved.” Michael Lind has argued that this kind of approach often leads to resource allocation among elites on the basis of race, gender, and other protected characteristics, rather than on the basis of class. California’s diversity requirements for corporate boards offer a vivid example.
The equity EO rescinded President Trump’s instruction that federal agencies end programs that ascribe merit or fault to individuals on the basis of race or sex. Biden’s order also abolished Trump’s 1776 Commission, which opposed “[v]iewing America as an irredeemably and systemically racist country” and asserted that “[f]ailing to identify, challenge, and correct this distorted perspective could fray and ultimately erase the bonds that knit our country and culture together.” And the Biden administration made it a Day One priority to call for government-wide protections for gender identity and sexual orientation, specifically including “access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports.”
There were many other first-wave executive actions, including orders on COVID response, immigration policy, and oversight of the administrative state. But actions on climate policy and “equity” illuminate the priorities of the Biden administration—and by extension, the Democratic establishment. The new administration has been prompt in promoting elite interests.
At this juncture, the Biden team is responding to the one percent. Beyond rhetoric about the common good, what will the administration offer the common man?
Jonathan Berry is partner at Boyden Gray & Associates, a law and strategy firm in Washington, D.C.
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