With Inauguration Day just more than a month away, all eyes are on the initial moves of the incoming Biden administration. What will the new President do first—and how will he tackle it?
In an attempt to answer those questions, Fortune on Thursday convened a group of women who held key roles in previous administrations. The virtual gathering, which was attended by members of Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women community, covered a variety issues, ranging from the fight against COVID-19 to the need to address systemic racism to the plight of America’s small businesses.
Below, four likely Biden priorities, according to veterans of the Barack Obama and George W. Bush presidencies:
COVID-19 vaccine distribution
The challenge most often raised during the hour-long conversation was that of distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. The incoming Biden administration will need to determine, “where it needs to go… who’s going to get get it, making sure they getting not just a first dose, but also the proper second dose…. and really reaching out to everyone about this vaccine and why it matters, reassuring that it has been developed in a science-driven way without corners being cut,” said Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Hamburg, former Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration during the Obama years.
Another essential aspect of the distribution plan is making sure that lower- income communities and communities of color aren’t left out in the cold.
“This crisis has unveiled the systemic inequities baked into our system,” said Dr. Laurie Zephyrin, VP of Health Care Delivery System Reform at the Commonwealth Fund, who served in the Department of Veterans Affairs from 2009 to 2018. COVID-19 has killed Black people and other people of color at much higher rates than whites, the result not of genetic differences, but of unequal access to care, lower quality of care, disproportionately high representation in “essential” jobs, and other systemic failures.
“The vaccine distribution is a chance…to really start centering equity,” said Zephyrin. It’s essential that the Biden administration ensure that it doesn’t roll out the vaccine in a way that reinforces existing inequities—or creates new ones, she said.
Confronting vaccine skepticism
While doubts about the safety of the vaccine aren’t limited to communities of color, it’s vital that the administration be sensitive to the concerns of Black communities and others with a history that gives them “reason to be skeptical” of medical authorities, said Hamburg. Some steps toward increasing confidence: bringing Black scientists into communities to talk about the safety of the vaccine, working with community leaders to share information, and partnering with groups like Black Coalition Against COVID-19.
Providing aid to small business and American workers
If the current Congress fails to pass a stimulus package, Biden must “right away” pass a package addressing people who have lost their unemployment benefits, extending the moratorium on evictions, helping small businesses and schools, and providing paid leave, said Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Obama and a senior distinguished Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. She added: “And that’s just to stabilize, that’s not even to grow the economy—which I know he intends to do, so there will be a need for a second, more robust package.”
Echoing the need for small business support, Maria Contreras-Sweet, former head of the U.S. Small Business Administration and currently of Rockway Equity Partners and Contreras-Sweet Enterprises, told attendees: “Main Street is being annihilated.” Small boutiques, restaurants and other retailers are necessary to “create economic vitality and tourism,” she said.
Repairing ties with the rest of the world
Looking beyond domestic priorities, the panelists suggested that the Biden administration will move quickly to try to reinforce some of the bonds between the U.S. and other nations that have frayed during the Trump era.
Expect President-elect Biden’s first foreign visit to be to Europe, said Frances Townsend, vice chairman, general Counsel and chief administration officer at MacAndrews & Forbes—and former assistant to President George W. Bush for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. He is likely to prioritize the mending of ties NATO allies, after President Trump declined to affirm that the U.S. would come to the aid of the other NATO members, should they be attacked, she said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of repair work to do,” said Townsend.
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