In a dialogue with delegates to the 2020 AFT national convention, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Americans are on the threshold of historic change and opportunity.
While acknowledging that the nation is confronting three major crises simultaneously—the COVID-19 pandemic, severe economic recession and unemployment, and the fight to end systemic racism—Biden said it is in times like these that the United States has made its most progressive choices.
“Often it’s in the wake of the darkest moments in America’s history that push forward some of the most remarkable eras of progress,” the former vice president said, appearing via live video during the AFT’s virtual convention. “I believe we’re on the brink of one of those opportunities.”
Biden’s appearance and participation in a panel discussion on July 30 came just a day after convention delegates voted overwhelmingly to endorse him for president.
“We will do everything we can to get you elected,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in introducing Biden. “You are caring. You are effective. You are honest, and you are decent,” she added. “This is not just about defeating Donald Trump. What you bring at this time is what our nation needs in terms of the empathy, the understanding, the caring about people and the listening to people.”
In brief opening remarks, Biden addressed the challenges presented by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 4 million Americans and killed nearly 150,000 people in the United States. “Look at the damage that has been done just since March by this president not dealing with this pandemic,” Biden said, referring to President Trump. “If you look at the projections now, what’s going to happen between now and January 2021 is catastrophic.”
The federal government’s response has been inadequate from the beginning, Biden added. “When the pandemic struck, Trump dropped the ball again,” he said. “Donald Trump failed in taking the action on testing and tracing and everything else we need to get this under control.”
In a conversation that included three AFT members, Biden answered questions on a range of subjects.
The first came from Priscilla Castro, a United Federation of Teachers District 75 borough advocate and a special needs teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y. Noting that many school districts, and local and state governments, are facing severe revenue shortages during the economic downturn, she asked: “What would the Biden administration do to help save the many jobs that are in jeopardy or have been lost, and to help save our communities and our children?”
“We have to keep the nation going,” Biden said. “Trump and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell have to stop playing political games.” He said the Senate needs to follow the House of Representatives and pass billions of dollars in emergency aid for state and local governments. That money will keep teachers, first responders and others on the job, Biden explained, adding that when you lay off people, you not only hurt workers, you slow the economy and stop the recovery.
He noted that McConnell’s first reaction to the emergency assistance in the HEROES Act was to suggest state governments could declare bankruptcy. “Let the states go bankrupt?” Biden queried. “How does that help anyone?”
Rick Lucas, a registered nurse at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus and president of the Ohio State University Nurses Organization local of the Ohio Nurses Association, outlined some of the missteps throughout Trump’s response to the pandemic—shortages of personal protective equipment, conflicting standards from public health agencies, a lack of work-site safety enforcement and inadequate testing. “Many of us go home at night after our shifts without adequate PPE, unable to sleep because we’re not sure whether we are bringing COVID-19 home to our kids, our significant others or our aging parents,” he said. Lucas asked Biden what he will do to prevent this from happening again.
The Trump administration “ignored the warnings and failed to prepare,” Biden said, outlining many elements of a proper response that would have saved lives. Looking ahead to the post-pandemic reality, Biden said he would restore the global health crisis office within the White House, which Trump abolished. “Walls don’t stop diseases,” he said, but careful planning can.
There must be an informed plan in place for the production and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, he said, adding that he expects a safe and effective one to be available within several months. Any vaccination program must rely on the independent recommendations of scientists and public health experts, and be fully transparent and open for review by the public.
The final question was from Marguerite Ruff, a classroom assistant for special education students, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers member, and vice president for paraprofessionals/school-related personnel for AFT Pennsylvania. Addressing the reckoning with systemic racism that has moved the nation since George Floyd’s murder—and courageously sharing that her son too was murdered—Ruff reminded us that “we took to the streets not only for George, but for all who preceded him—documented and undocumented.” Ruff asked Biden to explain how he would help fix the systemic racial injustice that continues to plague American society.
Biden, moved by Ruff’s experience and deeply empathetic since he has lost two children, said the nation must recognize the “systemic racism in every single aspect of our society.” Americans have a chance to do that now because of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police and the overwhelming response calling for progress on racial equity. “The country has had the blinders taken off,” Biden said of the increased awareness of racial inequality and willingness to address it.
Racial equity is a central part of the Build Back Better plan Biden has put forward, and he explained that it must be combined with economic opportunity and a healthy environment. “The things that can build back the country are the very things that can have a phenomenal impact on diminishing racism and making sure there are good-paying jobs,” he added, saying that he would address the racial income gap.
“Once we get ahead of this pandemic,” he said, “we can’t just go back to the way we were.” Sharing with Ruff that he has endured his personal tragedies by having a purpose, Biden closed with his signature caring and decency: “I’m going to do my best not to let you down, I promise.”