In this episode of Policy Outsider, Rockefeller Institute researchers and fellows share remarks on the important policy issues facing the winner of the presidential election. Researchers in economic development, education, climate, gun policy, and healthcare present some of the key questions, concerns, and policy challenges that lie before the nation and consider the approach the next presidential administration may take to address them.


Laura Schultz, Executive Director of Research, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Brian Backstrom, Director of Education Policy Studies, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Laura Rabinow, Deputy Director of Research, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Joseph Popcun, Director of Policy and Practice, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Michael Gusmano, Fellow, Rockefeller Institute of Government

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 0:05

    Welcome to Policy Outsider, I’m your host Alex Morse. On today’s episode, we invited Rockefeller Institute researchers and fellows to share remarks on the important policy issues facing the winner of the presidential election. Researchers in economic development, education, climate, gun policy, and health care present some of the key questions, concerns, and policy challenges that lie before the nation and speculate on the approach the next presidential administration may take to address them. Coming up next.

    Alexander Morse 1:03

    First up, we have Laura Schultz, executive director of research at the Rockefeller Institute to discuss what the impact the presidential election could have on economic recovery efforts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Laura Schultz 1:17

    The public health crisis and economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and it will be the most immediate challenge faced by the next Congress and president in 2021. The approaches used to address the economic recovery will depend on the outcome of the election. The economic recovery cannot be fully addressed until the public health crisis has subsided. Students will not be able to fully return to school and in turn their parents back to work. According to a recent Siena Research Institute poll, a majority of New Yorkers are uncomfortable dining indoors at a restaurant, going to the movies, or working out at the gym until COVID is under control. The arts, entertainment, hospitality, and tourism industries’ will not be able to begin recovering until a vaccine is distributed. A timeline which remains uncertain. The top economic recovery priority of the next presidential administration will be a plan for effective distribution of a vaccine as soon as it becomes available. Until then, Congress and the White House will need to address the needs of those still negatively impacted by the pandemic. In March, Congress and the White House passed multiple relief bills that were effective in mitigating the severity of the COVID shutdowns. Provisions included stimulus checks for households, paycheck protection loans for businesses to keep employees on payrolls, additional $600 a week in unemployment insurance, and expanded access for gig workers. And funding to help state and local governments address the costs of the public health crisis. While these measures were effective in the dampening the immediate economic lows of the shutdown, the measures were short-term and limited. They have since expired and as the crisis continues, it is clear additional relief is necessary. The scale and scope of that relief is very much up for debate. The House, Senate, and White House has spent recent weeks debating a variety of proposals for additional relief that could potentially be passed before November 3. There are support by all three for another round of stimulus for individuals, extended unemployment benefits, new funds for the PPP, and funding for schools to address the cost of reopening. But there are differences on how much relief should be distributed. The Democratic controlled House is pushing for a $2.2 trillion bill. In the Republican controlled Senate, it is advocating for $1 trillion in additional spending. Failure to act soon could result in a double-dip recession. While the US economy has recovered approximately half of the 22 million jobs lost in the immediate onset of the pandemic, the rate of the recovery has slowed. In September, only 661,000 of those jobs were added compared to 8 million in the previous three months; 345,000 workers reported that their temporary job furloughs have become permanent. These impacts are not being felt equally by all workers. Younger workers, who dominate the leisure and hospitality labor force, are facing double digit unemployment rate. The pandemic is having a larger impact on women than men. Women account for 54 percent of the jobs lost, but only 43 percent of the jobs regained last month. In September, 165,000 women stopped looking for employment and left the labor force. Much of this is likely involuntary as they stay home to help children with online schooling. There are signals of an impending second wave of job losses. In recent weeks, major airlines, amusement parks, and movie theaters announced layoffs and possible closures. We are seeing declining employment in state and local governments, which had 216,000 jobs in September. Earlier in October, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell addressed the status of the recovery at a meeting of the National Association of Business Economists. He warned that inadequate federal support would result in slowing the recovery and exacerbate the disparities in our economy. He made the case for additional stimulus over austerity, saying, even if policy actions ultimately proved to be greater than needed, they will not go to waste. The outcome of November 3 will decide what future rounds of COVID relief in subsequent recovery packages will apply. The Republican Senate leadership is leaning towards austerity concerned that the high price tags are increasing the national debt. They are limiting relief to businesses through the extension of the Paycheck Protection Program. The current Republican proposals support bonus payments for workers returning to the labor force rather than extended unemployment benefits for those still out of work. If Republicans retain control of the Senate and the White House, a new relief package may arrive before January, but it will likely be smaller and more targeted to support private employers.


    If Democrats take control of the Senate and the White House, we will likely see a significantly larger relief effort, but it may not occur until early 2021. In addition to the Paycheck Protection Program extension, it would likely extend unemployment benefits for a longer period. Democratic control will also most certainly mean relief for state and local governments, a provision Republicans have opposed to date. State and local leaders across the US are unified in their call for federal assistance. These governments have faced increased costs and lower revenues, resulting in a significant fiscal crisis. The fiscal fallout of the pandemic will likely last years and states and municipalities do not have the flexibility to borrow for spending. Without relief, these governments will be forced to cut spending and services, and there will likely be continued layoffs in this large sector of our economy. Such cuts would hamper the recovery and increase the risk of a double dip. Governors and mayors from both parties are closely watching the election to see the impact it will have on their fiscal future.

    Alexander Morse 7:32

    That segment on economic recovery was written and read by Laura Schultz, executive director of research at the Rockefeller Institute. Brian Backstrom, director of education policy studies at the Rockefeller Institute is up next to highlight potential education challenges the next administration faces.

    Brian Backstrom 7:57

    The Coronavirus pandemic massively disrupted the education landscape and forever changed it too. New approaches to teaching and learning that were thrust upon students, parents, teachers, school districts, and colleges in the spring, now are being evaluated and tested across the country. Everyone is still learning as they go, but it’s becoming clear that education policy needs to catch up pretty quickly. The outcome of November’s national election will play an important part in setting the course for this newest round of policy, both for K-12 schools and for higher education. In K-12, the need to rely like never before on remote learning shined a light on troubling inequities in the education system and in society. Suburban and higher-income districts tended to adapt to virtual instruction more quickly and completely. While many urban and low-income school districts found that literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of students were unable to connect to school because of a lack of proper equipment, limited or no internet access, a lack of an adequate home learning environment, or some combination of all these factors. Remote instruction will never succeed for all children, if these inequities are not addressed. Greater access for all students to learning environments that work, universal internet connectivity, and other similar issues are all places that federal policy can and will need to play a role. Issues more directly tied to K-12 teaching and learning will be impacted by federal policy in this new environment too. If the government requires academic accountability, how exactly should student progress now be measured? How will districts and school administrators be expected to supervise, coach, and evaluate instruction in an online world? These are not insignificant issues and federal, state, and local cooperation and collaboration is needed to adequately address them. Higher education policy is sure to be impacted by the upcoming elections as well. The presidential primary campaigns and even congressional negotiations on COVID relief packages included a focus on student loan forgiveness. As we dive deeper into the real student debt data, we’re finding important equity issues here too. Student borrowers who are enrolled in income-based repayment plans are many times more likely to pay off their student loans in full and on time. So why is it so complicated and complex for borrowers to enroll in these programs? Should automatic effort-free enrollment in these plans be made part of the federal student loan program? Also, the highest default rates come from those student borrowers owing the least—$10,000 or less. They may not have finished college or work in lower paying jobs. Federal student loan forgiveness policy could be designed to target these borrowers first or federal policy could tie its loan relief to actually completing college, the goal of the student loan program in the first place. Finally, there are important issues that overlap K-12 and higher education that are likely to be impacted by the election. Should ed schools be required to overhaul their teacher training programs to include a focus on more effective virtual instruction methods? Should practical and student teaching requirements include online instruction? What should the role of college admission tests like the ACT and SAT be when the test taking and preparation environment has been so disrupted? Whatever the outcome of November’s election, the new administration certainly will have its hands full with education policy considerations. And of course, there always is the overarching issue of how the election will affect federal funding for both K-12 and higher education. But we’ll leave that big discussion for another day.

    Alexander Morse 12:05

    That piece on education was written and read by Brian Backstrom, director of education policy studies at the Rockefeller Institute. Let’s transition from education to climate and environmental policy and listen to Laura Rabinow, deputy director of research at the Rockefeller Institute.

    Laura Rabinow 12:33

    Public health concerns related to COVID-19 have taken center stage this year. Public concern for environmental issues in general and climate change in particular has remained steadfast and with good reason. This year is on schedule to be one of the hottest years on record, with the 10 hottest years on record all occurring in the last 15 years. This year is also on track to be one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record. The ongoing wildfires on the west coast have reached the rare level of gigafire, a fire that burns more than a million acres of land, with their far reaching impacts even being visible right here in New York. And as we learn more about COVID-19, researchers and public health practitioners are observing links between air quality and the disparate health outcomes for black, brown, and indigenous communities and low-income communities. Whoever is elected president, and whoever controls the majority of each house in Congress come January, will be faced with these environmental health and climate issues. Perhaps central among those policy and administrative decisions facing officials will be three interwoven sets of questions. First, will officials continue to rollback or reinstate a number of key federal environmental regulations? The Trump Administration has eliminated or significantly altered roughly 100 environmental rules. These include those regulations related to automobile fuel efficiency; methane emissions; carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants; hydrofluorocarbon emissions; offshore oil and gas drilling; and water regulations with respect to fracking, wetlands and streams. The current administration also revised and lowered the value of the social cost of carbon that considers long-term environmental and public health impacts of carbon emissions within the cost benefit analyses of new rulemaking. Alongside the rollback, or reinstatement of such regulations, is the question of whether federal agencies will have the necessary knowledge and resources to make and enforce existing rules. Federal employee turnover and loss in key agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of the Interior, for example, has strained institutional capacity and memory. Second, will the United States as a country take steps to address climate change, acknowledge the human role in climate change, and outline a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avert at least the most severe impacts projected by climate scientists? The regulations that I just noted are highly entangled with this question. As many of the current rollbacks move us away from being able to reach such goals, several states have already enacted their own goals and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and some have joined together on a regional basis. The US has been party to the Paris Climate Accord, which took effect on Earth Day in 2016. But that is scheduled to end under the current administration’s policy as the US formally withdraws from the agreement this November 4, the day after the election. Signatories to the Accord have agreed to limit emissions in an effort to prevent global temperatures from rising over 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels, which experts warn still may not be enough. A recent 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is necessary to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. And third, the intersection of COVID-19, the increasingly frequent and devastating weather events Americans are witnessing, and the work of both environmental public health researchers and social justice movements has recently highlighted underlying environmental health disparities. Environmental justice policies have been in place in most if not all states, and at the federal level since the early 1990s. Yet deep disparities continue to be documented. A critical question is how the federal government over the next four years might further or reimagine what environmental justice policy looks like. Particularly, as we consider a number of green proposals for rebuilding our economy and infrastructure in ways that might address those underlying disparities.

    Alexander Morse 17:25

    That’s segment on climate and environmental policy was written and read by Laura Rabinow, deputy director of research at the Rockefeller Institute. Next, we have Joe Popcun, director of policy and practice at the Rockefeller Institute to share the latest in gun policy and politics and how it might play out pending the outcome of the presidential election.

    Joseph Popcun 17:51

    Guns and ballots, what’s at stake for the 2020 presidential election? I think it’s important to talk about where were we before the COVID-19 pandemic? Where are we now during the recovery? And where are we going? So where we were before, mass shootings became focusing events for gun policy and politics in the United States, really following the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. After that, there was the Pulse nightclub shooting, which killed 50 people in Florida. There was the shooting at the music festival in Las Vegas, which is the deadliest shooting in American history in October 2017. And the most recent in the public consciousness was the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17. But those mass shootings remain a relatively small portion of total gun violence. Across the United States, gun violence devastates families and communities, injuring more than 80,000 each year and claiming the lives of nearly 40,000 people each year. In 2018, firearm involved deaths remained at near record high levels for the second consecutive year since reporting began by the CDC in 1968. In fact, now more people die from firearms then motor vehicle crashes. Gun violence has increased dramatically over the past decade from 2009 to 2018. Annual gun deaths are up 27 percent. Homicides are up 21 percent. Suicides are up 30 percent. But these changes have been different across different racial and ethnic lines, disproportionately impacting far more black and Hispanic Americans. Across the last decade, gun deaths increased for black Americans, 34 percent; Hispanic Americans, 25 percent; and white Americans, 24 percent. Where are we now in terms of gun policy and politics during the recovery from COVID-19? Really, we’re facing three crises, COVID-19, civil unrest, and an economic recession. Since March, the COVID-19 public health emergency has completely and suddenly upended the lives and livelihoods of many Americans, which has increased fear, anxiety, and uncertainty across the country. In the midst of that crisis, you have the police involved death of George Floyd, which ignited civil unrest and hundreds of protests calling for police reform and social justice. Both of those crises has been exacerbated by a lagging economic recovery. Specifically, millions of people have lost jobs, significant unemployment persists, and trailing consumer confidence, all of which impacts tax revenues. And that’s important because the cost to government to respond to these situations and lack of robust federal assistance presents a complicated situation where there are fewer resources for governments that are expected to do more. Over the last seven or eight months, there’s been three trends or new developments in firearm activity, there’s been a record increase in gun sales, there’s been increases in shootings and firearm violent deaths that have been reported across the country, and there’s been the use and symbolic use of guns in protests and counterprotests to the government’s pandemic response, as well as to the public protesting for police reforms. Each of those presents complex challenges for government and specifically with regard to rising shootings and deaths. There’s been a number of causes and consequences that have been debated by public officials so far, citing increased trafficking of illegal firearms, associations with riots and other crime, decreased available resources to de-escalate community disputes, really being on the ground and resolving disputes before they become violent, and correlations with increased economic hardship as more and more Americans potentially fall into poverty. There’s anecdotal and emerging evidence that the increase of violence this year is also being driven in different ways than in years past, really increases in domestic violence, interpersonal disputes, and suicides, which highlights a need for tailored strategies that reduce conflict and address mental health and potentially substance abuse issues. So where are we going? And what does all this mean? Gun policy and politics right now is in the eye of this perfect storm of societal and governmental disruption. To meaningfully reduce gun violence, we know that governments need to leverage resources from a variety of disciplines, not just criminal justice and public safety, but also public health, to set forth initiatives, interventions, and investments that make a difference and matter to people. So what does this mean for the 2020 presidential election that is presenting two very different paths for voters? On one hand, a second term for President Donald Trump is likely to continue the trends from his first term. We have seen that there’s been a systemic deregulation and divestment in firearm policy and resources throughout federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. There’s been staunch opposition to new legislation to expand gun control laws, including background checks. And there’s been the appointment of judges that are open to changing the status quo that has existed since the Heller ruling in 2008, which stated that the right to bear arms is not unlimited, and that guns and gun ownership would continue to be regulated. On the other hand, former Vice President Joe Biden has set forth a vastly different alternative for gun control and policy. And really, his agenda looks a lot like the types of policies that have become debated since 2012 with the Sandy Hook shooting. Things like banning the sale and manufacture of assault weapons and high capacity magazines, closing the loopholes that have existed over the past four years from the Trump Administration, incentivizing state action on extreme risk protection orders, which would keep guns out of the hands of people who present a danger to themselves or others, and encouraging more targeted interventions for persistent problems such as domestic violence, the new growth of ghost guns, guns that are manufactured and not traceable, and promoting evidence-based community violence interventions in cities across the country. The 2020 presidential campaign, from both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden presents two paths for voters and the stakes couldn’t be higher this year in terms of gun policy and politics.

    Alexander Morse 24:15

    That last segment on gun policy and politics was written and read by Joe Popcun, director of policy and practice at the Rockefeller Institute. Finally, we close with Michael Gusmano, a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, to share what to look for in the area of health care.

    Michael Gusmano 24:38

    Presidential elections always have a profound influence on health policy, but the 2020 election is likely to be one of the most consequential in decades. First, the response of the next administration to the current global pandemic will profoundly influence how quickly the country is able to control the virus, the rates of death and long-term illness from COVID-19, the effects on the healthcare system, as well as both the short- and long-term economic consequences of the pandemic. The president’s initial response, which has continued with few interruptions, has been to deny the seriousness of the outbreak and to call for economic activity to continue as if the threat was not significant. Initially, the president refused to wear a mask and even now makes fun of Vice President Biden and others who do so regularly. Under questioning, he has said that he has no problem with masks, but he opposes state efforts and local efforts to require their use and continues to hold large rallies in which his supporters are often close together without wearing masks. The event at which the president announced the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Ginsburg is now widely viewed as a super-spreader event. It infected the president, the first lady, and several Republicans who were in attendance. But beyond the direct effect of these actions on people surrounding the president, his words and deeds have suggested to his supporters that the basic public health measures called on by experts are unnecessary. This messaging has politicized things like mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing, and other simple public health measures in ways that have made it difficult to change behavior as much as necessary. In addition, the decision by many state governors to reopen their economies when infection rates were still climbing has helped prevent the US from containing community spread as effectively as most other countries. Along with the president’s messaging about public health interventions, the administration was slow to act on the Defense Production Act to manufacture badly needed personal protective equipment, like N95 masks, gloves, and gowns. There is still a concern among health professionals that they may be ill-equipped to handle a new spike in cases during the fall and winter as people move indoors and infection rates likely climb. Similarly, experts believe the US is still failing to test as frequently as it should. This not only limits the ability of public health officials to track the spread of the virus, it significantly limits efforts to use contact tracing to encourage appropriate quarantining and isolation among those who have been exposed to an infected person. If the president wins reelection in November, it seems highly unlikely that he will reverse course on his approach to the virus. This would mean that states like New York would be left largely to engage in their own efforts to contain the virus without adequate federal support. In contrast, if Vice President Biden is elected, there would be some immediate change in both policy and approach. I would expect a completely different tone from the White House. Biden would certainly not downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, and would encourage people and states to adopt public health measures. Even with this new tone, I would expect to see continued resistance among Republicans who now view these actions as inconsistent with their ideology and party loyalty. Perhaps if Biden is able to convince Republican congressional leaders to join him in a bipartisan effort that may make a difference. Regardless of public messaging, I would expect the Biden Administration to offer much greater federal support to state testing and contact tracing efforts. And I would also expect it to use the Defense Production Act more aggressively to resupply the healthcare and nursing home sectors. In the longer-term, I would also expect the Biden Administration to try to reinvigorate agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This would happen not only with an increase in its budget but with a restoration of faith in its scientific leadership. Now, in addition to the global pandemic, the other major health policy issue that is certainly on the ballot this year, is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The Republican Party has waged a continual assault on the ACA since its adoption in 2010. President Trump has continued this effort but really with limited success. His administration’s executive actions have reduced the insurance protections offered by the law. And the 2017 tax laws elimination of the financial penalty for failure to comply with the individual mandate may yet lead to a Supreme Court to strike it down as unconstitutional. If President Trump is able to replace Justice Ginsburg on the Supreme Court before the election, it may be more likely that the court will rule the laws unconstitutional. The future of the law, however, is likely to be settled with the 2020 election. In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats used the Trump’s threats to the ACA as a rallying cry for their base and as a bridge to independence. If it helps secure a majority In the House of Representatives and a Biden victory in 2020, especially if the Democrats enjoy control of both congressional chambers, it would reverse the effort to undermine the ACA and lead to a series of initiatives designed to stabilize and expand the laws reach. The Biden’s rejection of a Medicare-for-all approach probably means that the US would continue to rely on a patchwork public-private system with inadequate mechanisms for controlling healthcare spending. In contrast, the reelection of President Trump is likely to result either in a further erosion of the ACA or, depending on the next decision by the court, it’s complete elimination.

    Alexander Morse 30:51

    That last segment on health care was written and read by Michael Gusmano, a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute. I just want to say thank you to all of our guests for taking the time to prepare some remarks and sharing what to look for in different policy areas for the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Election Day is Tuesday, November 3. If you haven’t already, please make a plan to vote. You can visit your local Board of Elections online for information and updates such as where your polling places are and how long the polls are open. Special thanks to all of our guests again, Laura Schultz, Brian Backstrom, Laura Rabinow, Joe Popcun, and Michael Gusmano, for appearing on today’s episode to highlight the important policy questions and challenges each of which Donald Trump or Joe Biden could approaching much differently. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse 32:12

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at or by following RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question or comment or idea? Email us at [email protected].

Policy Outsider

Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

Listen to a full episode archive on Anchor, or subscribe on your preferred podcast platform.