Paul Holmes 16 Nov 2020 // 6:52AM GMT
The election of Democrat Joe Biden to serve as the 46th President of the United States marks a return to normalcy—as far as such a thing is possible in the midst of a pandemic—for corporate America.
It is likely that the Biden administration will expect more from business than its predecessor, which pledged from day one that it would strip away labor, consumer and environmental protections and give business a free rein.
But it is also likely that the incoming president will restore basic competence and predictability to a system in which frequent anti-corporate rage tweets took the place of a stable regulatory regime.
Especially if Republicans are able to maintain their hold on the Senate—winning two runoff elections in Georgia early in the New Year—divided government is likely to impede several of the new administration’s most ambitious plans, in areas such as fiscal stimulus, higher corporate taxes, and expanded healthcare.
Nevertheless, there are areas in which executive actions can still drive meaningful change: the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the environment and climate change, and trade policy. Companies will need to take those new priorities into account and also be aware of a national climate in which partisan differences have been exacerbated by specious claims of election fraud.
“The US election highlighted that America remains a deeply divided country, compounding the challenges of an escalating pandemic, protests over systemic racism and growing climate worries,” says Edelman global president Matt Harrington. “The role of a Biden administration will be to build bridges and reopen dialogue – across party lines and within communities. For business, this will likely mean greater accountability to more stakeholders, including employees and local communities.
“Biden has openly addressed his focus on climate change, for example, which is an important signal for business. The connection between a business and what it stands for in terms of values and how it acts on those values will be more important than ever. And, I believe that a Biden administration will hold business to this standard as it seeks to restore trust.”
We asked a variety of experts from across the country to address some of the specific changes they see for business in the four years ahead.
Phil Singer, founder and managing director, Marathon Strategies: “Regardless of who controls the Senate when Biden takes office, the tight(er) margins in both chambers of Congress combined with the relative closeness of the last presidential campaign suggest a few things.
“First, Biden will have to balance keeping his campaign promises to the left with the need to compromise with the right if anything is going to get done in Congress. Barring some major change in DC political dynamics, this political reality suggests that Biden will have to pare back his agenda to score victories in Congress. But while Biden’s agenda in its current form is likely to have a hard time moving legislatively, presidents still retain extraordinary executive powers and Biden will almost certainly use them.
“Second, with some exception, the party in control of the White House has historically lost seats in midterm elections. That means Democrats will be eager to notch a few victories heading into 2022. Conversely, Republicans in Congress will have every incentive in the world to block anything from being enacted that could give Democrats an advantage. The variables will be the pandemic and the economy—if 2021 looks anything like 2020, there theoretically should be pressure on both parties to come together and get things done.
“And third, shifting electoral dynamics also suggest that both parties could ramp up their efforts to go after big business. 2020 did little to resolve the competition for working class voters. Trump might have lost but his coalition helped stave off ballot losses for Republicans. They will continue to advance issues that speak to these voters as will Democrats. In addition, Biden is already under pressure from progressive Democrats to limit corporate influence in his administration.
“The bottom line is that the public affairs fights that will happen in DC over the next year will be bloodier than the Battle of the Somme."
Ryan Kuresman, group SVP, public affairs & health policy, GCI Health: “The intersection of policy and healthcare has never been more relevant or resonant as we move into 2021.
“We can expect the Biden administration will focus on three key priorities in its first 100 days: regaining control of the pandemic and weighing the choice of another shutdown to rein in infections and deaths; readying the country for a once-in-a-generation mass immunization program; and building a path forward to help more Americans afford their medicines.
“The first two will be a critical test of the new administration and may set the agenda for how it approaches and partners with the healthcare industry and an increasingly weary public. In terms of drug prices, it will be interesting to see whether this administration seeks to address policy challenges by choosing to partner with pharma, insurers and PBMs, or attempts to advance policy reforms that give government more control over treatment competition and choice.
“It’s safe to assume that all things healthcare—from the pandemic, drug pricing, coverage reform, health equity, sustainability and industry behavior—will be put under a microscope politically in 2021.”
Michael Kempner, founder & chief executive officer, MWWPR: “We expect President-elect Biden to use his executive authority to advance many of his healthcare priorities early on. The most immediate issue is the federal government’s response to Covid-19. President-elect Biden has already formed a coronavirus advisory board composed of medical professionals and scientists. He has announced that the United States will re-enter the World Health Organization as soon as he takes office. He has also laid out a national plan to address the virus.
“In addition to ensuring that vaccines are safe and effective, he plans to invest $25 billion in a vaccine manufacturing and distribution plan to ensure that vaccines are distributed to all Americans at no cost. He is working closely with scientists to develop strategies to curb the increasing rates of infection and plans to increase testing, contract tracing and PPE production. President-elect Biden also plans to encourage all states to establish a mask mandate and to establish a renewable federal fund for state and local governments.
"President-elect Biden could use his authority to reopen the ACA’s insurance marketplaces to the uninsured, restore funds for enrollment outreach, and temporarily fund more subsidies. While he would need Congressional approval for some of his more progressive proposals like a public option and lowering Medicare eligibility from 65 to 60, he could get rid of Medicaid waivers and explore policies to encourage Governors to expand Medicaid in states that haven’t yet done so.
“President-elect Biden also plans to dramatically shift the White House’s focus to address racial justice and health equity, protect immigrant families, safeguard reproductive freedom, and work with Congress to address surprise billing issues and the rising cost of prescription drugs.”
Lucia Lodato, senior vice president, Powell Tate: “We expect to see a large shift in the national response to a number of healthcare challenges with the incoming Biden administration. The Biden administration will prioritize its focus on the federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with an eye toward a more coordinated response that is driven by science. There will be a renewed emphasis on public health and support for public institutions and the nation’s leading scientists.
“Despite a divided Congress, President-elect Biden will aim to expand the Affordable Care Act, adding a new public insurance option and lowering Medicare eligibility age requirements. These efforts will underscore the need for more equitable access to healthcare in our country. There will be a strong focus on addressing the rising cost of healthcare, which has support from both sides of the aisle. While proposals vary, it may be an opportunity to align on a bipartisan path forward.
“As part of his commitment to protect and build on the ACA, the President-elect will place new energy on improving the mental health system. Biden was an advocate for implementing the federal mental health parity law and improving access to mental health care during his Vice Presidency. As President, Biden plans to uphold this commitment and provide additional mental health funding and improved access to services.”
Kirsty Graham, chair of Edelman Health and CEO of Edelman Public Affairs: “Under a Biden administration we expect a more deliberate policy process. The immediate priority will be on Covid, and we’ll see a more systematic Federal approach through the taskforce with scientists and medical experts in the lead. Science will be elevated and there will be a focus on restoring confidence in institutions and issues (like vaccine confidence).
“The Biden team will press the links between the health of the population, and the health of the economy. The sector will be expected to continue to collaborate as it has in 2020 to help solve the immediate challenges exposed during the pandemic as well as take actions to address the very visible inequities around access and affordability issues. The parameters will be broader as Covid has shown that the social determinates of health are also about where people live and work.
“Prevention and wellness will also be part of that work. Finally, the Biden Administration will reprioritize US leadership in global health, both in terms of R&D developments as well as in policy and coordination, and the latter effort is likely to begin with rejoining the WHO.”
Lou Hoffman, president and CEO, The Hoffman Agency: “The tech sector has plenty to celebrate when a Biden administration takes over on January 20. Sure, all indications are that Team Biden will continue to take a tough stand on privacy issues like the ones that dog Facebook and Team Biden will continue to take a tough stand on areas of anti-trust like the legal action brought against Google.
“But core technologies, infrastructure (for both consumer + business) and B2B products constitute most of the tech sector. Many of these areas suffered under Trump’s aversion to science. We can expect policies from the Biden administration to absolutely support the overall tech sector. Biden’s “Buy America” economic agenda pledges to plough $300 billion into new technologies ranging from electronic vehicles to 5G. Under Biden, we’re also going to see big dollars directed to the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies to support foundational technologies like AI, quantum computing and 5G.
"The one area I will begrudgingly acknowledge the Trump White House for advancing technology is the “CHIPS for America” legislation, now part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which delivers capital and incentives for chip R&D and manufacturing. This still needs to be voted by Congress, but there’s every reason to expect Biden to put his weight behind it.
"Turning attention to the geopolitical tech tango between the US and China, I keep reading that Biden is going to be just as tough on China as Trump. But having a president who will be rational and strategic in dealing with China sounds like a net gain for the tech sector to me. While I don’t see a Biden administration rescinding moves like the knee-capping of Huawei, I do think his dealings with China will actually help the tech sector over the long haul.”
Phil Singer, founder and managing director, Marathon Strategies: “As animosity toward Big Tech grows more intense by the day so do the odds of Washington pursuing a national privacy bill and other measures to check the sector. If something like the EU’s GDPR gets introduced, that will impact every sector of the economy. Companies should start mapping out the policies they can live with and the ones they need to oppose and then they need to start informing the conversation in the Beltway.”
Zach Silber, chief innovation officer and managing director, Kivvit: “While President-Elect Biden did not campaign on a Big Tech platform, there has been bipartisan momentum in Congress to discuss issues related to data privacy and balancing the regulation of social media content with free speech. We expect the new Administration will have to quickly determine whether and how to expand federal oversight of big tech, including whether to pursue more antitrust litigation.
“There’s a big question about whether or not President-Elect Biden wants to reopen the Net Neutrality policy debate. There are major industry players on all sides so that would be a big one. Regardless of how the Administration proceeds, there will be implications for the PR and communications industry in terms of how we manage digital and social media work for clients, so we are watching this closely.”
Energy and Sustainability
Zach Silber, chief innovation officer and managing director, Kivvit: “The Trump administration has been very aggressive in reversing Obama-era environmental policies, touting this deregulation as a boon for economic growth. But despite President Trump’s actions over the last four years, the reality is the oil and gas industry has largely operated with a view that it is imperative to move away from carbon, so we can expect this trend to continue and for President-Elect Biden to accelerate this activity.
“The President-Elect is also going to have to figure out how to advance energy policy in a way that satisfies the expectation of progressive Members of Congress and the activist community that he will pursue a Green New Deal, while he navigates the reality of what will most likely be a GOP-controlled Senate. This balancing act might favor incremental policy change, which means we will not see anything resembling a full-fledged Green New Deal in the near future.”
Paul Massey, president, Powell Tate & global lead, social impact, Weber Shandwick: “Throughout the presidential campaign, Joe Biden made clear that US corporations have a critical role in addressing climate, racial equity and other social issues. He’s championed stakeholder capitalism—advocating that companies should elevate the interests of employees, customers, suppliers, the environment and local communities alongside shareholders.
“It’s likely a Biden Administration will be a catalyst for accelerated purpose leadership in the private sector.
“Expect climate change to be high on the agenda. The President-elect has proposed a bold $2 trillion action plan to escalate the U.S. transition to clean energy and reduce carbon emissions, and said the U.S. will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord on Jan 20, 2021. Biden will expect more companies to step up with carbon-neutrality commitments, disclose climate business risks, and ramp up sustainability efforts. Biden will be eager for early results that the U.S. can showcase globally.
“Diversity and anti-racism will be at the forefront of Biden’s ‘build back better’ agenda. Vice President-elect Harris’ win is a major shattering of a glass ceiling—and Biden’s pledge to have the most diverse Cabinet is a powerful indication that diversity, equity and inclusion will be a strategic focus. Companies will face increasing pressure from regulators, investors, consumers and employees to lead on racial equity.
“There will be a change in presidential tone on corporate ethics, climate, social policy, worker rights, stakeholder relations and ESG. The Biden administration may strengthen ESG disclosures for public-traded companies, advancing federal policies with an environmental, health and social emphasis.”
Chandler Goodman, director, thought leadership & client delivery, Gagen MacDonald: “Many of us live in political and ideological bubbles. Our companies don’t. By and large, leading companies’ employees and customers span geographies, cultures, religions, socioeconomic statuses, and political affiliation. They’re liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional, populist and elitist, nationalist and globalist. In a political climate marked by rancor and vitriol, corporate executives and their communication teams have spent the last four years treading lightly.
“Part of President-elect Biden’s appeal to the nation was his pledge to turn down the temperature of our political battles and cool the rhetoric that has us so deeply divided. The prospect of more conciliatory national politics—with fewer bouts of employee activism, as well as reduced customer boycotts and pressure campaigns—is a welcome relief to leaders and communicators who are tired from skating on thin ice.
“But while the new administration is surely going to convey a gentler tone and possess less instinct to drum up and fan the flames of controversy, I’m skeptical that companies will get to retreat from communicating to employees about political topics. President Trump is likely to still cast a large (and noisy) shadow from the sidelines, his supporters will remain determined to advance his agenda, and activists on the political left have tasted success and are better organized each day. A bell can’t be un-rung.
“In this era, political communications are inevitable. Employees, customers, supply chain partners and other stakeholders want to know where large companies stand on key issues. In this sense, what was true under Trump will be true under Biden (even if more muted in tone). In my view, rather than viewing communications to employees about politics as an inherently no-upside, limitless downside endeavor, done correctly, companies can use politics as a unifier.”