President Joseph Biden took power in Washington promising to bring the nation back together — to battle the coronavirus, take on the old ill of systemic racism and “make America once again the leading force for good in the world.”
“This is America’s Day,” Biden said on the steps of the Capitol, where just two weeks ago a mob riled up by former President Donald Trump tried to stop the peaceful transfer of power.
Where Trump made the presidency a cult of personality, Biden in his inaugural address took a much more traditional approach, sounding notes of unity and perseverance in the face of the overlapping crises facing the country — from the pandemic and attendant recession to the threat of white supremacy and the need for social justice. Biden promised to have the most diverse cabinet in history and has already made history with Vice President Kamala Harris, the first female, Black and Asian American in the number-two spot.
“America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge,” Biden said. “Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy….The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us. We the people who seek a more perfect union. This is a great nation. We’re a good people and over the centuries through storm and strife, though peace and through war, we’ve come so far, but we still have far to go.
“Let’s start afresh, all of us,” he said “Let’s begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another. Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everyone in its path.”
The soaring rhetoric around unity — which stood in stark contrast with Trump’s “America First” inaugural address four years ago — is expected to be accompanied by a much more stable and routine policy making process in Washington.
Biden came to Washington planning to hit the ground running with a series of executive orders intended to combat COVID-19, help households hit hard by the turmoil of the pandemic, address climate change and roll back parts of Trump’s Washington.
On almost every front — whether it be policy, politics or presidential decorum — Biden represents a return to the norm after four years of disruption, when Trump’s Twitter account held the world in thrall as he created policy on the fly and reversed course easily and often.
And while retail and fashion companies did get something out of the Trump years, with many applauding the tax overhaul that cut the corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent, the industry is looking forward to a calmer decision-making process with hope and relief.
“For retail, stability and certainty in policy making is a good thing,” said David French, senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation. “For the economy, stability and certainty is a good thing. What we value most is an economy and society that is strong, stable and growing.
“There is no question that our country is politically divided and that our country has been challenged in the past year by some extraordinary events that have played out in the pandemic, in a series of protests and calls for social justice,” French said. “Those are all important and I think we are hopeful that during the Biden era we will see less disruption, we will put some of those challenges behind us and come together as a country.”
The NRF is supportive of Biden’s approach to trade, immigration and masks — all areas where Biden is bringing in a much different approach than Trump.
“The Trump trade agenda was deeply protectionist and disruptive and costly for retail businesses in the form of higher tariffs and ultimately costly for American consumers,” French said.
On immigration, he said, “The Trump administration was trying to…make even legal immigration less common and we work in an economy that does depend on some flow of not just capital, but also labor and so stability and certainty in [immigration] programs is good for our businesses,” French said.
And when there are issues where the NRF differs from Biden — such as the potential return to overtime for management level employees — French said, “We’ll engage in the rulemaking process.”
Retailers and fashion firms are also looking forward to clearer rules around wearing masks to fight COVID-19.
Stephen Lamar, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said he expects Biden “will urge Americans to commit to wearing masks, and will soon issue an executive order to require face masks when on federal property and during travel from state-to-state. We are strongly in favor of this approach, and of state governments setting forth mask mandates, as we seek to get the health and economic crises from COVID-19 in check.”
And the industry will be watching closely as Biden pushes to vaccinate 100 million people in the first 100 days of his presidency.
“The sooner the country can get vaccinated, the sooner all the restrictions on the economy can be lifted, and people will be able to go to the mall,” said Staci Jennifer Riordan, partner at Nixon Peabody LLP. “Even movie theaters, or amusement parks and things like that … there’s retail around all of those attractions.”
“Increased foot-traffic, because people aren’t hesitant to go outside and mix and mingle, is good for retail,” she said.
On Wednesday, Biden’s transition team outlined a series of executive actions the administration would prioritize, including an executive order to appoint a COVID-19 response coordinator who would oversee the national response on the availability and distributions of tests, vaccines and medical supplies.
The agenda included:
• Actions to contain the spread of COVID-19, which so far has killed some 401,800 people in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins University tally. The U.S. will work with the World Health Organization again, reversing course from the Trump administration’s move to pull away from the United Nations’ public health agency during an uncontrolled pandemic that has killed more than two million people globally.
• Mandates for federal employees and contractors to wear masks, another reversal from the Trump administration, whose own White House suffered a widespread outbreak in September that infected Trump and the former first lady.
• Extending foreclosure moratoriums until the end of March.
• Preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which former President Barack Obama signed into action in 2012. The program, meant to exempt from deportation some 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought into the U.S. as children, has withstood challenges at the Supreme Court by the Trump administration.
• Ending the so-called “Muslim Ban,” marking a shift from Trump administration policies to restrict travelers from certain countries. The Biden plan includes a directive for “the State Department to restart visa processing for affected countries and to swiftly develop a proposal to restore fairness and remedy the harms caused by the bans, especially for individuals stuck in the waiver process and those who had immigrant visas denied.”
• Requiring federal agencies to assess inequalities within their offices and to work with communities that have historically been “harmed by federal policies.”
• Bolstering federal employment protections for LGBTQ workers with an order directing federal agencies “to take all lawful steps to make sure federal anti-discrimination statutes covering sex discrimination prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Beyond executive actions, Biden also has big legislative plans, including a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, which would include $1,400 stimulus checks to Americans, and expanded unemployment benefits.
While the direct payments are expected to pass quickly, other components of the package, including raising the federal minimum wage to $15 — the current federal minimum wage has stayed stagnant at $7.25 for more than a decade — are expected to face more challenges.
And agency leadership changes are also afoot. The expected departure of the chair of the Federal Trade Commission will reorient the party makeup of its commissioners. Of particular significance to retailers and apparel companies, the FTC scrutinizes claims about products marketed as “Made in the USA.”
“Once there’s a Democratic majority at the FTC, we can expect more aggressive use of their organic authority to prevent unfair and deceptive practices,” said Kathleen Benway, partner at Alston & Bird LLP, and a former chief of staff at the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
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