The Top 10 issues facing the next president

by Léa Legraien and David Child

The 45th president of the USA face a range of issues, both domestic and foreign. His/her agenda will be shaped by these issues just as much as they will seek to shape them.

“It’s the Economy, stupid”: Unemployment, National debt and tax reform

Unemployment dropped to 4.9 per cent in October, the lowest level since February 2008. More than 160,000 new jobs were created during the month according to the Labor Department report released on 4 November, the final economic snapshot before Election Day. Despite this improvement in employment figures, overall economic growth remains modest with many Americans retaining concerns about job security and potential for career advancement.

The National Debt is also an area of concern, with levels anticipated to rise to $20 trillion in 2017, according to Washington think-tank The Bipartisan Policy Center. This marks a substantial increase from the $10.6 trillion worth of debt inherited by President Obama in January 2009. However, throughout his administration budget deficit levels have consistently fallen.

Tax reforms will also be a consideration for any new administration with both candidates vowing to generate economic growth using different approaches. Clinton supports the expansion of the seven income brackets of personal tax to incorporate a new 43.6 per cent tax on earnings more than $5 million per year. Trump, on the other hand, favours the reduction of the income tax brackets from seven categories to three and has vowed to reduce business rate tax from 35 per cent to 15 per cent.

Gallup’s monthly poll for October revealed that 17 per cent of respondents still view the economy in general as the most important problem facing America today. Alongside myriad other financial considerations, employment, the national debt and tax reforms will shape heavily the new president’s economic agenda.


Balancing the bench

This election is being held at a critical juncture for the US Supreme Court. In February this year Antonin Scalia, one of the conservative justices, died. As a result, the composition of the Supreme Court was reduced to eight serving members and is now balanced four-to-four between liberal leaning and conservative leaning judges. Once appointed, Supreme Court justices serve until they decide to retire or die.

President Barack Obama has nominated a replacement, moderate Judge Merrick Garland, but the Republican-controlled Senate has refused to ratify his appointment. Senate Republicans insist that the next appointed justice should be chosen by the new president.

In addition to the vacancy left by Scalia, it is possible that the next presidential term will see one or more Supreme Court retirements. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 83, Anthony Kennedy, 80, and Stephen Breyer, 78, may all consider leaving the bench before the next election.

The next president may therefore have the opportunity to shape the ideological balance of the Supreme Court for the next four years and beyond.

In September, Trump released a list of 21 potential justices. By contrast, Clinton has refused to detail any such list. Should she win the election and successfully make an appointment to the Supreme Court, it will be the first time since 1969 that five justices are Democratic appointees.

Safety at home

Issues of national security will be of paramount importance to any new presidential administration.

Gun policy has been heavily debated throughout the election, with policy discussions amplified by the killing of 49 people in Orlando, Florida by firearm in June this year. Policy making in this area will be closely linked to the composition of the Supreme Court. As interpreters of the constitution, the position adopted by the Court on the second amendment, the right to bear arms, will be crucial to the new president in this policy area. Stricter or lighter regulation will likely be contingent on the balance of the bench following any appointment by the new president. Clinton is a strong advocate for tighter laws while Trump favours upholding the second amendment in full.

Cyber-security and surveillance are increasingly important aspects of any president’s national security strategy. Policy adoption in this area will be intrinsically linked to the foreign policy stance taken by the US towards cyber-threats from foreign state and non-state actors. There are issues to consider at home too, namely the balance between domestic surveillance and individual privacy. In the wake of Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, the state’s approach to monitoring its own citizens is under intense scrutiny.

Guantanamo Bay may also be an issue of significance in the next four years. President Obama pledged to shut the detention camp within the first 100 days of his tenure. Despite significant reductions in the number of individuals imprisoned at the site, it remains open. Guantanamo Bay is a symbol of a strand of policy that President Obama was keen to distance himself from. Where the next president positions themselves on the camp’s future will be of symbolic importance to their administration.

Beyond the borders

US presidents are defined as much by their actions beyond America’s borders as they are by domestic policy.  The 45th President will have to face up to an uncertain international system, with threats and opportunities for co-operation throughout.

Russia will pose a challenge to the new Commander-in-chief. Vladimir Putin’s role in the conflict in Syria in support of President Bashar Al Assad, the war in Ukraine and his stance regarding old Soviet Union borders will ensure this relationship demands urgent attention from a new administration.

Linked to this will be considerations regarding which policy approaches to adopt when dealing with the threat of the Islamic State. A new president will be required to navigate the complex situation posed by the conflict in Syria and consider the extent to which the USA will actively seek to combat both the Islamic State and the Assad Syrian regime. Also worth considering is the extent of future commitment to the NATO as Europe gazes uneasily at its eastern borders with Russia.

With regards to diplomacy, a new administration will need to consider the approach it will take with regards to the likes of Cuba and Iran. These are states which the US has historically had strained relations with but under President Obama, relationships were cultivated. The 45th president will need to determine the extent to which further co-operation is pursued, if at all.

On this note, the relationship with Israel will also be a point of consideration. The Obama presidency positioned the US as a somewhat more tepid ally of the state than has previously been the case, as he sought to somewhat redefine America’s relationship with the international community. The new president should carefully consider the future nature of this relationship with America’s long-standing ally.

Foreign policy with regards to trade will also be of paramount importance to a new president’s agenda and will impact on economic performance domestically. In a post-Brexit Europe and elsewhere, the US administration will seek to define the extent to which they trade with the outside world and on which terms.

On these and other foreign policy issues the new president may come to be defined as much by what he/she opts not to do as that which he/she does. The international system today lacks the simplicity of the old cold war bipolar system of power but the US remains the world’s predominant superpower. America’s foreign policy will continue to have significant ramifications for many, if not all, far beyond its own shores.

Let them in? – Shut them out?

Immigration has been a prominent issue throughout this election cycle. This is partly because of the Syrian refugee crisis, but also due to Trump’s statements regarding America’s border with Mexico. The new stance on immigration will have wide reaching implications that may touch on other policy areas such as the economy, national security and the environment.

Linked to immigration policy, and of particular importance to any new president, will be addressing the issue of home-grown terrorism. With radicalisation both overseas and at home – a very real threat for modern day America – the new president will have to chart immigration policy against a serious concern for domestic stability and safety. Policy formulation in this area may resemble foreign policy dialogue regarding the use of soft and hard power, namely whether to pursue harder and tighter immigration rules and checks or focus more on better integrating migrants into American society.

The candidates are radically opposed on this issue, with Trump outwardly calling for the construction of a wall on the US/Mexican border and Clinton favouring a much softer approach centred on the humane enforcement of immigration laws. Trump has also controversially called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.

Following the money: Campaign finance reform

Money in American politics will be an issue of considerable significance for the new president. There is public appetite for a reform of the system to end the influence of special interests and unaccountable money. Both candidates have expressed concern regarding the issue. Clinton has pledged to enact federal legislation to require outside groups to publicly disclose significant political spending. Trump has also criticised the role of big donors, stating that he was open to the possibility of pursuing campaign finance reform. He suggested candidates may become beholden to their big-money donors, reducing their ability to act in the public interest.

More than 40 fund-raising committees and organisations are associated with Clinton and Trump in this electoral cycle. This includes a number of super political actions committees (PACs). Super PACs are able to raise unlimited amounts of money for the candidates, sourced from business, labour unions and individual donors.

Gallup’s monthly poll for October revealed that 7 per cent of respondents view electoral reform as the most important problem facing America today. According to the polling data, this makes electoral reform the fifth most important issue facing the US according to American citizens.

Red or blue, but what about green?

UN talks aimed at the implementation of the recently agreed Paris climate pact began on Monday. Environmental issues have been somewhat overshadowed by other topics during the election campaign but the environment will be a significant policy area for a new presidential administration.

The extent to which a new president will look to decarbonise the American economy and encourage the development of renewable energy production will be watched closely by the international community. Whatever energy strategy is pursued will need to incorporate economic and foreign policy considerations. A new president must consider the line to tread between new job creation via renewable energy investment and the threats this may pose to existing forms of employment in addition to the extent to which the US may be energy dependent on other states.

The role of oil, and in particular managing the US’s domestic fracking industry, will be issues of primary importance in this policy area. Recent developments have resulted in an improved outlook for the US fracking industry following financial difficulties caused by the flooding of the market with an oversupply of crude oil. Critics of fracking contend that the practice is environmentally damaging and dangerous, in contrast to those who support the industry as safe and a vital means of securing a self-dependent energy supply for America.

The candidates are significantly divided on the issue of the environment. Clinton said: “Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.” But Trump has pledged to cancel billions of dollars’ worth of America’s international climate change spending in order to cut federal expenditure on the environment and re-invest the money domestically.

Healthcare: A nation’s sickness

Dealing with the legacy of The Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, will be the primary healthcare issue greeting the new administration.

The Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, was signed into law to reform the health care industry by President Barack Obama in 2010. Its goal was to give more Americans access to affordable, quality health insurance and to reduce the growth in US health care spending. Yet, it is controversial.

Its individual mandate requires that most Americans obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty if they don’t have one. In 2016 the fee was $695 per adult and $347.50 per child (up to $2,085 for a family), or 2.5 per cent of their household income. As of March 2015, the Affordable Care Act cost was projected to be $1.207 trillion over the 2016 – 2025 period.

Positioning on abortion will also be a key policy area. Though legal in all US states, the practice is extremely divisive. A 2016 Pew Research Survey found that 59 per cent of Republicans believe abortion should be illegal and 70 per cent of Democrats think it shouldn’t.

Another issue to consider will be the federal government’s approach to the legalisation of marijuana. Marijuana is currently allowed for medical use in 26 states and for recreational use in four states. Voters in nine states will decide whether to legalize recreational or medical uses of marijuana on Election Day. In March 2016, an Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research poll found that 61 per cent of Americans supported marijuana legalization. The majority of those people surveyed leaned more in favour of legalising marijuana for medical use as opposed to recreational use.

The minorities report

The issue of race and gender politics has risen to the forefront of American political life with the Black Lives Matter movement this year. Grappling with issues of equality and unrest among various sections of American society will be a definitive issue for the new president.

Police brutality has been a major talking point in 2016 particularly in relation to the African-American community. So far in 2016, there have been 708 documented deaths in police shootings, 173 of which have resulted in the deaths of African-Americans. Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.

Educational inequality is also an issue. Of individuals aged 16 to 24 completing high school or earning GED certificates in the last year, 56 per cent of black students went on to enrol in a two or four-year college course compared with 66 per cent of white students. Among individuals aged 25 and above, 23 per cent African-Americans and 15 per cent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree or higher educational award, compared with 36 per cent of Caucasians and 53 per cent of Asians.

Gender and the politics of sexuality will also be important issues for a new administration to consider. Despite the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2015 in all 50 states, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people still experience more discrimination, harassment, bullying, intimidation and violence than straight people. In 36 states, there are no laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT students in schools. Recent surveys show that eight out of 10 LGBT students report experiencing harassment at their school within the past year.

Across the country, 52 per cent of LGBT individuals still live in states where they can be fired by their employer based on their sexual orientation or gender expression. Non-discrimination laws are not pervasive throughout the US. LGBT individuals have also reported difficulty accessing care and obtaining health insurance, which leads to higher rates of disease, chronic illness, drug use, mental illness and obesity.

The cost of an education

A pressing issue for the new administration will be the provision and cost of higher education in America.

With tuition fees now exceeding more than $40,000 a year, American higher education is among the least affordable in the world. As a result, roughly 43 million American’s hold approximately $1.3 billion in student loan debt, the second-highest level of consumer debt behind mortgages. On average, an individual from a family with a household income of above $75,000 per year has an 86 per cent chance of reaching college by the age of 18 to 24. In comparison, an individual supported by a family income of less than $10,000 per year has only a 38 per cent chance of reaching college by the same age.

The US Department of Education spends billions of dollars a year on subsidies for higher education. Federal Pell Grants total more than $30 billion a year, federal student loans amount to $100 billion a year and grants to colleges and universities are currently set at around $2.5 billion a year. Yet the gap between affordability for many Americans and the price of education continues to grow.


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