January 27, 2021

Welcome, President Biden

What is the Biden Administration’s agenda and how will our industry fare? Here’s a short and unsatisfying answer: We’ll all find out together.

Often, an incoming President’s priorities are discerned from the campaign. Presidential candidates can create a governing mandate by defining their candidacy around a clear and unambiguous policy agenda.

While the Biden campaign issued a raft of policy papers, it may be assuming too much to consider them a cohesive governing agenda, much less an electoral mandate. Voters saw and heard very little about policy issues.

Ronald Reagan presented a clear agenda in 1980 (build back the military to win the Cold War, reduce taxes to jump-start the economy). Having campaigned on these themes, he legitimately claimed a mandate upon defeating Jimmy Carter. Donald Trump defined expectations for his supporters in 2016 (Build the Wall, fix our broken trade deals, bring our troops home from “endless wars,” appoint federal judges who won’t act as super-legislators) and acted on those promises as President.

The Biden campaign’s energy was directed toward making the contest a referendum on Donald Trump. Beyond this, the candidate offered little by way of a defined agenda beyond broad assurances on handling the COVID-19 pandemic better, focusing on climate change, restoring relationships with U.S. allies, and generally returning normalcy to our politics.

What, then, does this suggest for Biden Administration policies on agriculture generally, and the fresh produce industry specifically? Several factors will weigh heavily:

•  Appointees matter: Biden’s appointees will matter more than in prior administrations. Without a clear and defined agenda sweeping their boss into office, Biden’s appointees will play a large role in creating policy. President Reagan’s appointees had very clear objectives the moment they were sworn in; Biden’s team will have greater latitude to craft proposals and sell them to the White House.

•  All elections matter: While presidents can do a lot administratively, the big stuff requires Congress. Heading toward Election Day, Democrats eyed a clean sweep: Win the White House, take the Senate, and increase their House majority. They got the big prize and were able to gain an edge in the Senate following a sweep in the Georgia runoff elections. However, even with Vice President Kamala Harris set to act as tie-breaker, factor in several moderate Democratic Senators and it’s clear that progressives will face tough sledding in the Senate. On top of that, the Democrats’ loss of 10 House seats means similar obstacles for progressives in that chamber as the majority’s margin dwindled to single digits.

•  Just who is President Biden? Having done little to create an electoral mandate around issues (as opposed to personalities), the new President has leeway to chart an ideological course. Will the President resort to his Senate persona? There, Joe Biden styled himself a moderate Democrat who valued bipartisan collegiality and legislative collaboration. Or will he be moved left by vocal progressives feeling stung and determined after their setbacks in 2020?

These interrelated factors, and others, will shape policy expectations for the nation, and of course for our industry.

Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism is found in the most surprising area: immigration. If Biden opts for a relatively moderate course and wants to recharge bipartisanship in Congress, he would do well to lean in on an immigration package that includes a “DACA fix” (securing legal status for those brought to the U.S. as children without authorization) and agricultural labor reforms similar to those passed with bipartisan support by the House in 2019: the “Farm Workforce Modernization Act.”

Regulatory areas affecting agriculture may be tougher, starting with Trump Administration water policies. The most consequential provided regulatory flexibility in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The Newsom Administration filed lawsuits to block these changes. Environmental activists will push the Biden Administration to reverse the federal government’s position, perhaps by “settling” on terms that resume Obama-era constrictions and uncertainty for much of California’s water supply. That would be a mistake for an administration seeking moderation.

Other key policy areas include infrastructure (water supply and quality, rural broadband), trade and crop protection. Infrastructure lends itself to bipartisan agreement, and we may see fast action here. Trade policy may be loosely guided by Biden’s “Buy American” platform, though whether and how he chooses to alter Trump policies, especially with China, are unclear.

Most new administrations launch an ambitious agenda for “The First 100 Days.” Biden has done a bit of that, but with a closely divided Congress and country, we need to focus on the long game. Upon leaving the White House, few presidents point to their first 100 days as their greatest period of achievement.

As the Biden Administration begins its journey, the entire Western Growers team is already hard at work to advocate for sound policy. Buckle up!