With less than a week in office under his belt, President Joe Biden on Monday vowed to renew the effort to replace the image of former President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with that of iconic abolitionist Harriet Tubman — a process that began in the waning months of the Obama administration, only to lapse during Donald Trump's presidency.
"It's important that our notes, our money, reflect the history and diversity of our country," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced during a press briefing, when asked whether there were specific plans to restart the process begun two administrations ago, and which was supposed to have concluded this past year.
"Harriet Tubman's image gracing the new $20 note would certainly reflect that." Psaki continued.
Shortly after the plan was introduced, then-candidate Trump immediately pushed back on the idea, saying in 2016, "I think Harriet Tubman is fantastic. I would love to leave Andrew Jackson and see if we can maybe come up with another denomination. Maybe we do the $2 bill or we do another bill. I don't like seeing it. I think it's pure political correctness."
Trump had long been a public admirer of Jackson, going so far as to hang a portrait of the man who made possible the genocidal Trail of Tears on the walls of the Oval Office. When plans to replace Jackson with Tubman failed to materialize years into the Trump administration, then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer prompted an internal investigation within the Treasury Department to determine whether the policy had been deliberately hampered for political reasons. Ultimately, the department's inspector general concluded the delay had been procedural, rather than politically motivated.
Nevertheless, it's easy to imagine the Obama-era directive could have been carried out had Trump made a point of pushing for the change — much like how the Biden administration claims it's doing now. If anything, the president's own statements in support of Jackson, and against Tubman's presence on the $20 bill, only serve to highlight what could have happened with a more-willing successor to former President Barack Obama.
Commemorating Tubman's contributions to American history by placing her on the $20 bill, while simultaneously revoking that same honor for a man who is directly responsible for the forced relocation and deaths of tens of thousands of Indigenous people, is unambiguously a good thing. It should happen. It's long, long overdue. Still, given the enormity and severity of the many intersecting crises facing the country today, is fast-tracking a cosmetic currency change a worthwhile priority just one week into the new administration? Before changing what our money looks like, perhaps Biden should focus more on making sure more people have enough of it to survive this pandemic winter in the first place.